The Yasukuni Shrine houses spirits of fallen Japanese soldiers from the Meiji Restoration to World War II. Yet, it also enshrines 14 World War II war criminals convicted by the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, including the wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. Yasukuni is a reminder of Asia’s unhealable wounds from World War II, housing ghosts of the a 70-year-old war that still haunt Asia today.
But Yasukuni is not the only occasion in Japan of historical ghost-summoning. On September 19, Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party passed a set of security bills that allows its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to help warring allies, whereas Japan’s pacifist constitution expressly denies “the right of belligerency of the state.”
The day before the bills’ passage was the 84th anniversary of the Mukden Incident. On September 18th, 1931, imperial Japanese forces attacked and occupied Shenyang, China under false pretenses. Chinese historians commonly view the act, known in China as the September 18 Incident, as the start of Japanese aggression in World War II. Abe’s security bills, passed merely one day after the infamous date, have conjured up ghosts of Asia’s warring past.
The security bills were a first step in Abe’s program to “recover the true independence of Japan,” a desire for Japan to return to the status of a normal state, a state with a regular military force capable of waging war. His goal was echoed in an August 15 address commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. In the speech, after acknowledging the apologies made by past cabinets, Abe moved on to argue, “we must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” while emphasizing “pass[ing] [the past] onto the future” more than “squarely fac[ing] the history.” To Abe, Japanese militarism in World War II is a memory of the past, and its atrocities cannot be undone. Yet, Japan can and should take leadership for the “peace and prosperity of Asia.”
Shinzo Abe is right. Japan, as the world’s third-largest economy and one of Asia’s most prosperous liberal democracies, certainly deserves a commensurate role in the international community despite its militarist past. However, the security bills are neither a productive nor an appropriate way for Japan to regain its true independence. Abe, by forcing an unpopular legislative bundle through the Diet, pays the high price of losing his own popularity, outraging Japan’s neighbors and close partners, and conjuring up, instead of dispelling, Asia’s World War II ghosts.
“War is Over! (If You Want It)”
Lennon and Yoko’s catchphrase became the rallying cry of the vocal opposition against the security bill, which is comprised of an unlikely coalition of elderly leftists who still remember the war and students. The protestors’ ranks are swelled by the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, whose technologically savvy protests and trendy clothing, remarks The Economist, have infused youthful energy into the anti-Abe movement. The student activism inspired groups of pacifist academics and religious leaders to criticize Abe’s legislative move as well, calling the security bills “war legislation.”
Yet Abe’s government should worry about more than just students weary of a potential military draft. The bills also face a significant constitutional challenge. Abe’s government claims that the bills exercise a so-called “right to collective self-defense” that legitimately interprets, instead of contradicts, Japan’s constitution. Yet many scholars have deemed this explanation inadequate. Yuki Tatsumi reported in the Diplomat that on June 4th, “three well-respected constitutional scholars…unanimously responded that the government-proposed legislation is ‘unconstitutional’” when testifying in front of the lower chamber of the Japanese Diet, an event that sparked a major slip in Abe’s popularity. Tatsumi later commented that Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party dismissed the legal scholars’ objections, fueling a perception that “the Abe government is not interested in listening to the concerns.” Former justice of the Supreme Court, Kunio Hamada, also spoke out against the bills on September 16th, calling Abe’s notion of collective self-defense “sophistry.” The bills are expected to face more direct legal opposition, too. The president of Japan’s bar association, Susumu Murakoshi, lambasted the bills and swore to overturn them.
Although some scholars do believe that the bills are constitutional and doubt that the court will undermine them, the vocal opposition coming both from the populace and from scholars pinpoints a growing dissatisfaction with Abe, now that his trademark Abenomics is losing its charm and Japan sits on the verge of a recession. By forcing the unpopular and constitutionally questionable bills through the Diet, Abe shot himself in the foot by distracting his legislature from economic policy, his personal forte. This popular anger will only be compounded if the economy slumps further
The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Xinhua, calls the security legislation a “dark stain for Japan,” continuing to paint an anti-Japan narrative in a histrionic style typical of Chinese propagandists. Yet China’s exaggerated theatrics over the issue do highlight the obstacles that the security bills have imposed on relationships between Japan and its neighbors.
Japan and China are hardly friends. Japan accuses China of hegemonic territory-grabbing in the East and South China Seas, while China questions Japan’s revisionism of history. Yet the two countries’ public squabbles do not conceal the fact that each is one of the largest trading partners of the other, an important economic tie that depends on good relations.
Moreover, a Sino-Japanese partnership is desirable in terms of political leadership in East Asia. The two countries have the potential to make progress on issues involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Indeed, a cooperative spirit was on display as Chinese influence recently facilitated reunions of families separated by the Korean War. Freezing a relationship that only started to warm up last winter, Abe’s ill-thought security bills have obstructed the prospects of mutual leadership, cooperation that may well result in growing Japanese involvement in international affairs. While the security bills do allow Japan to challenge China’s island-grabbing expansionism, it faces the price of forgoing economic and political partnership and the risk of escalating tensions even further.
More important geopolitically is Japan and Korea’s strained relationship, a big headache for America. The two American allies have barely been on speaking terms with each other for the past few years, as Seoul shares Beijing’s critical view of Japanese attitudes towards its militaristic past, and territorial disputes over the Dokdo and Takeshima islands have only strained the relationship further. Abe’s policies have driven South Korea’s Park Geun-hye towards China’s Xi Jinping, as she was present at China’s military show-of-force commemorating the end of “the War against Japanese Aggression” on September 3rd, an event that many democratic heads of states declined to attend. Indeed, the security bills have only worsened the Korean-Japanese rift and may accelerate Korea’s turn towards China. Although not directly denouncing the security bills as China has, South Korea cautiously accepted the bills, emphasizing that it must authorize all collective self-defense on the Korean peninsula and reminding Japan of wartime sexual slavery that it refuses to recognize. South Korea is a valuable ally for Japan and the United States as they seek to contain potential Chinese expansionism; alienating Seoul is certainly a bad move.
But aside from domestic dissent and international outrage, Abe’s security bills have torn open Asia’s wounds from World War II instead of healing them. China’s media, using Abe’s nationalistic stance and conjuring up memories of the war, is already painting a vast anti-Japan narrative to ramp up Chinese nationalism and to distract the Chinese people from domestic issues. Although divisive and vitriolic, much of Chinese polemic against Japan still occupies the moral high ground of history. Rather than fueling the narrative and exacerbating the divide, Abe should counter it with actions and rhetoric towards healing and reconciliation.
Furthermore, neither China nor South Korea is dogmatically against Japan’s return to normalcy, as both countries have enjoyed amicable relationships with Japan in the past. Yet neither feels that Japan has shown contrition for its wartime actions, often accusing Japan of denial of the Nanjing Massacre, revision of history textbooks, denial of wartime sexual slavery, and honoring of war criminals at Yasukuni. Both China and Korea believe that these issues have to be settled before they can let bygones be bygones and trust Japan as a war-waging normal state; furthermore, these issues, if unsettled, will continue to tarnish Japan’s international image even if it attained the position of a normal state. These scars from World War II are the essential obstacles to Japan’s resurgence as an international power, not Japan’s pacifist constitution, as Abe seems to think.
No one in Asia misses its war-torn past. Yet Asia is constantly reminded of the past: by propaganda, by governments, by politics, and not least by the ghosts resting in the Yasukuni Shrine. The ghosts of World War II haunt Asia restlessly and cause it to veer from “peace and prosperity” towards division and resentment and from important economic, political, and social issues towards bickering over history. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is right that the ghosts should not rule the living, but he is wrong to conjure them up. Instead, he should exorcise them once and for all.
Image Credit: Yoshikazu Takada/Flickr