In Japan, Dead Soldiers Never Fade Away

If Prime Minister Koizumi honors his nation's war dead, the inevitable fury will make a long-overdue apology for wartime atrocities even more unlikely

By Brian Bremner

Unless he loses his nerve, which I very much doubt, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is going to trigger an international uproar on Aug. 15. He will do so by walking into the Shinto Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to the spirits of Japan's war dead.

By even contemplating such a visit, Japan's charismatic Premier has already touched off a firestorm. Diplomats in Beijing and Seoul, who have long charged Japan with amnesia about its military rampage around the region in the 1930s, are in high dudgeon. Even Koziumi's top political advisors, including Liberal Democratic Party General Secretary Taku Yamasaki, think he would be nuts to go.

This is a thorny issue, because people on both sides of the controversy have a point. Conservative-minded souls in the LDP have long felt that Japan, regardless of its disastrous militarism, has the right to pay homage to its fallen soldiers. The only contemporary Japanese politicians who think the war was a brilliant move, though, sit to the far right of Genghis Khan.

Koizumi agrees with the majority when it comes to the war. But he points out that millions of Japanese men and women -- caught up in a conflict not of their making -- gave their lives. Japan owes it to them, their families, and their descendants to pay tribute on the anniversary of the end of World War II. It is the right thing to do, he argues.


  Should he proceed, Koizumi wouldn't be the first Prime Minister to demonstrate his feelings in such a public way. In 1985, Premier Yasushiro Nakasone made the walk to Yasukuni, which touched off demonstrations in Beijing and other Asian capitals.

The reason, you see, is that Yasukuni honors all of Japan's fallen soldiers, including Class A war criminals such as former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded most of Japan's forces in the Philippines. At the Tokyo Trials after the war he was found guilty of letting his men "commit brutal atrocities and other high crimes."

Social Democratic Party leader Takako Doi lashed out at Koizumi during a recent debate by likening his proposed visit to laying a wreath on Hitler's grave. She asked, "What would the countries that suffered under his hand feel?"

The other issue, this crowd points out, is that during Japan's wartime marriage of the Shinto religion and nationalism, Yasukuni came to symbolize the misguided ideology that gave rise to the military's brutal treatment of Asian civilians in South Korea, China, and Southeast Asia before and during the war. It still grates on these societies that Japan can appear so cavalier about these matters.


  Is there a way out of this? One idea being kicked around comes from Takenori Kanzaki, head of the New Komeito Party, a coalition partner in Koizumi's government. He thinks Japan needs the equivalent of an Arlington National Cemetery, some sort of national monument to remember those innocent souls caught in a brutal war.

Shorn from any trace of Shinto, ordinary Japanese could pay their respects to a tragic generation and feel not so guilty about what Tojo's troops did to the rest of the region and to Western prisoners of war. I say "not so" guilty because Japan will always be an easy target for outside critics of its wartime past. Enshrining the war dead at a different site isn't going to fix that.

To do so, of course, would require Koizumi or a future Premier to issue an official apology by the Japanese government to other Asian countries for its military aggression. That isn't going to happen anytime soon. Until such a day comes, it's hard to see Japan's fallen -- not the generals, but the kids who dutifully gave up their lives -- being remembered and mourned in any meaningful way.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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