Commentary Magazine


Japan’s Bad Memories

“Japan caused great damage and pain to people in many countries, especially in Asia,” Shinzo Abe said yesterday. “With a strong sense of regret, I express my sympathy to these victims on behalf of the people of Japan.” On the 62nd anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender in World War II, Japan’s Prime Minister paid his respects at a secular memorial. Yet he did not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war dead.

Some criticized him for not doing so. About ten sound trucks showed up in front of the prime minister’s residence blasting nationalist slogans and labeling Abe “a traitor to the Japanese people.” Abe stayed away from Yasukuni in an effort to avoid triggering protests in Asia, and to keep relations with the region on track. Beijing and Seoul, in particular, have been upset by the regular visits to Yasukuni by Junichiro Koizumi, Abe’s immediate predecessor. (Koizumi, incidentally, visited the controversial Shinto shrine yesterday, greeted with shouts of “Banzai!” from his supporters.)

Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo. Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan. Even Abe, who has devoted much of his short tenure to soothing relations with neighbors, has worked to institute patriotic education and strengthen Japan’s military. He has also triggered controversy this year by making comments absolving the Japanese government and military for sexual slavery during the war. China, for its part, has authorized a new round of commemorations of the Nanjing Massacre, in which, beginning in December 1937, tens of thousands of Chinese civilians (if not more) were slaughtered by Japanese troops. If Koizumi replaces the unpopular Abe, as some Liberal Democratic Party stalwarts want, we will undoubtedly see a new round of Yasukuni visits—and protests around Asia.

Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.