Accessibility links

Breaking News

Japan Shedding Pacifist Cloak Much to Dismay of Asian Neighbors

Many Asians recently have begun expressing alarm ab out Japan, their former colonial occupier. In China, anti-Japanese sentiment has turned violent. The reactions come amid signs of a resurgence of nationalism in Japan, which, after its defeat in World War II, renounced militarism and shrouded itself in a pacifist cloak. Despite the growing anti-Japanese sentiment, the prime minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, seems determined to take a more aggressive stance. One sign of this is Mr. Koizumi's willingness to continue annual visits to a shrine paying homage to the legacy of Japanese militarists.

A dance performed by maidens in a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, under whose reign Japan emerged onto the world stage. At that time, in the late 19th century, Shintoism, which has no particular creed or doctrine but stresses harmony with nature, was instituted as the state religion amid fears of Western influences, including Christianity.

Militarists eventually would reinterpret the ancient indigenous faith to rationalize their overseas conquests.

It is that history that explains why Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Jinja, where the spirits of some of those same military leaders are enshrined, can cause such a diplomatic uproar and be one of the factors prompting recent violence against Japan by other Asians.

The prime minister's special envoy, Taku Yamasaki, a senior conservative politician, was dispatched to Beijing to meet with China's vice premier, Huang Ju, to try to repair the frayed bilateral relationship after recent anti-Japanese protests turned violent in several Chinese cities.

Among the topics discussed was the contentious Tokyo shrine where prayers are offered for the souls of all the nation's fallen soldiers. Especially offensive to the Chinese and other Asians is that the religious site has enshrined the spirits of convicted war criminals

Japanese media report Mr. Yamasaki told the Chinese that Tokyo has no plans to create a new, separate secular war memorial or, as has also been suggested, to find a different shrine for the souls of the convicted Word War II criminals. Mr. Yamasaki, on his return to Japan, said the issue of the visits to the shrine is one China obviously is very concerned about and Prime Minister Koizumi will reflect on that.

Political commentators in Tokyo say that means the prime minister will not stop paying his respects at the shrine. Another top lawmaker of Mr. Koizumi's party says the prime minister will go to Yasukuni this year, but will carefully consider the timing to avoid any sensitive historical anniversaries. But Mr. Koizumi's effort at accommodation is unlikely to soothe Chinese and other Asians.

Member of Parliament Nobuhiko Suto agrees with those who are angry over the visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister. "He never visited Yasukuni Shrine when he was a private politician. When he was elected as a prime minister he then [decided] to go. One reason is that he has to get the support from a faction leader who is representing some conservative groups. From our point of view, it should not be accepted," he says.

Many Asians are also furious that Japan's education ministry has approved new textbooks that either play down or outright ignore Japanese atrocities in the region in the early 20th century when Tokyo occupied the Korean peninsula, the island of Taiwan and much of mainland China.

The conservative group that wrote the most controversial of the history and civics textbooks, Tsukuru-Kai [the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform], is aiming to place them in ten percent of all schools. The head of the group, Professor Hidetsugu Yagi, bristles when his organization is dismissed as nothing more than an ultra-right wing fringe group.

Mr. Yagi says his organization's supporters actually are from the Japanese establishment, desiring to bridge the gap between what parents want their children to be taught and educators sympathetic to Marxist ideology. Japan's two main teachers' unions, since the end of World War Two, have been closely allied with, respectively, the Socialist and Communist parties.

While Japan's teachers may still be very much left of center, there is no doubt the political mainstream here has shifted. For most of the post-war era the Socialist Party was the largest opposition force. Now that title belongs to the Democrats, many of whom are defectors from the Liberal Democratic Party, which despite its name is actually conservative.

Opposition politician Nobuhiko Suto, who calls himself a liberal, says the 9-11 terrorism attacks in the United States, China's massive increase in military spending, tension in the Taiwan Strait and North Korea's nuclear declarations - combined with a prolonged economic recession here - have made Japanese nervous, if not a bit hawkish. "As a result there is a growing (base) for the support of radical, right-wing or nationalist, chauvinistic assertion among Japanese society. So we are very are apprehensive [about] the future of the Japanese peoples' mind in that sense," he says.

Japan is also planning to revise its pacifist Constitution imposed by the American occupiers after World War II. In addition, Japan has dispatched non-combat to troops to Iraq and, at home, is bolstering military cooperation with U.S. forces stationed in the country. Both are steps encouraged by the United States in order to allow the two allies to share the burden of defending Japan more equitably.

Japan is also becoming more aggressive in asserting its rights to territory disputed with China, the Koreas or Russia.

Opposition politicians here say they hope to moderate Japan's course if they can take power after Mr. Koizumi steps aside, which he is expected to do next year. But conservatives assert they will maintain power because they represent a mainstream now more concerned about national security and no longer comfortable with the pacifist mantle they say Japan has outgrown.