Visits to Shrine Aggravate China-Japan Tensions

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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The Yasukuni Shrine sits in a quiet neighborhood in central Tokyo, but this week it became one of Asia’s most controversial sites. Among the 2.5 million names enshrined in the Shinto temple, of the Japanese who died in service to the emperor from 1867 through World War II, are 14 Class A war criminals as judged by post-World War II tribunals. These include the notorious Hideki Tojo, prime minister of Japan from 1941 to 1944, under whom Japan committed some of its worst wartime atrocities.

Nonetheless, almost every year Japanese politicians -- from members of parliament to prime ministers -- visit the shrine to pay respects during the temple’s Spring Festival. Such visits have long offended China and other Asian countries that suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war. Until recently, no country had the stature or inclination to do much about it.

China’s emergence as a political and economic power has changed that equation and turned official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine into politically tense incidents that inspire suspicion and require diplomacy. The Chinese, like the South Koreans, view the pilgrimages as evidence that Japan feels no genuine contrition for its imperial past, nor any sincere desire to behave differently.

Over the past year, that perception has played a role in the escalating tensions between Japan and China over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyus and Japan calls the Senkakus. Since the end of the summer, disagreements over sovereignty and Chinese doubts about Japanese intentions have inspired violent anti-Japanese riots in Chinese cities, as well as several very dangerous naval encounters between civilian and military ships near the islands.

Nevertheless, since Saturday, members of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s right-leaning government, including at least three cabinet members and, on Tuesday morning, a delegation of 168 lawmakers, have made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Abe himself didn’t go (though he did visit before his election), but he did send a ritual piece of wood on which his name and title were written in his place. And while the earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan province mere hours before the first official went to Yasukuni drew much news media away from the shrine, the Yasukuni visits didn’t go unnoticed, by microbloggers or the Chinese government.

Netizens were particularly angry about the (entirely coincidental) timing. “We are in the midst of earthquake relief efforts,” wrote a microblogger on Tuesday morning. “They go to the Yasukuni Shrine, flouting the dignity of life.” On Sunday night, Wang Zheng, director of the Policy Simulation Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also tweeted about the politically unfortunate simultaneity of the two events but concluded with a more threatening moral: “We should not forget the humiliation.”

Meanwhile, cruder sentiments are proliferating across Chinese social media. In mid-April, for example, when many Chinese were anticipating another round of Yasukuni visits, a restaurateur in Anhui province posted a “Yasakuni Shrine” sign over the entrance to his restaurant’s toilets. Since then, others have seemingly followed his lead and called for the renaming of Chinese toilets after the shrine.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry announced its immediate response: It had taken the formal step of lodging “solemn representations” -- in effect, a dressing down, either verbal or written -- with Japan over the visits. This was no surprise: The stability-minded Chinese Foreign Ministry tends to lodge solemn representations whenever China clashes with its neighbors, and especially with Japan.

But diplomatic niceties, especially with regard to Japan, have never been popular with the hawkish users of Chinese social media. On Tuesday morning, a self-identified screenwriter in Chongqing tweeted: “I resent Japan because it never recognizes history and is unrepentant. I’m also disgusted with our government, which every year makes solemn representations. In the event that negotiations don’t succeed, shouldn’t we interfere?” (The tweet has since been deleted, as have some others critical of the solemn representations and China’s lack of a more muscular response to Japan’s perceived provocations.)

Precisely what that interference would look like isn’t clear, but among those voices willing to microblog their opinions, there is a consensus that China must do more than just lodge solemn representations. The editorial boards at two of China’s most prominent newspapers seem to share such impatience. The nationalist, Communist Party-owned Global Times is the most populist in its outlook; on Monday, it opined in favor of “fighting back” while noting the (supposedly) growing influence of Chinese public opinion:

“China definitely would like to develop a friendship with Japan, but in recent years we haven’t been able to achieve one based on the principles of equality and mutual respect. Nonetheless, Japan plays a key role in China’s global strategic outlook. Conflict between the two is inevitable unless China exhibits restraint with a strategic outlook that balances and suppresses Japan.

“But this won’t work in an era when public opinion increasingly influences national policy. No matter how lofty the government’s intentions, the Chinese people won’t agree to friendship with a Japan that treated China badly in the past and is being aggressive with it now.”

Meanwhile Global Times recommends preparing for a time at which China must meet “tough with tough.” It’s an outlook that its owner, People’s Daily, the more moderate, self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Communist Party, would ordinarily find objectionable. But if the paper’s Monday editorial is to be believed, patience is wearing thin.

“‘What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflection from the future on the past.’ Victor Hugo’s famous remark highlights the inner connection between history and the future. Japan can’t break completely with its militaristic history of invasion, which probably influences its concept of development and views of Asia. What will be Japan’s next step? Asian people must be highly alert to that.” One paragraph later, the piece concludes, ominously: “Only if we correctly regard the past can we explore the future. If the Japanese continue down the wrong road, then Japan has no future at all.”

It’s difficult to know for sure whether the piece was issuing a threat or merely making an observation. But from the Chinese perspective, the Japanese visits to Yasukuni aren’t isolated offenses so much as early indicators of darker intentions. Thus, it likely came as no surprise to Chinese officials when, about the time that the 168 Japanese lawmakers showed up at Yasukuni on Tuesday morning, 80 Japanese nationalists were approaching the contested Diaoyu Islands by boat, intending to land on the uninhabited rocks. They were driven off, by eight Chinese marine surveillance vessels, much to the delight of Chinese microbloggers who’ve grown impatient awaiting a more aggressive Chinese military.

One of them, a self-identified freelance military journalist, placed the event in historic terms via a Tuesday tweet to Sina Weibo: “This is of great significance, as it’s the first time China’s law enforcement forces expelled Japanese rightists from the Diaoyu Islands. It’s roughly equivalent to a bearish stock market standing in the black for the first time in fifty years.”

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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