Japan from the inside out

Yasukuni: A change is gonna come

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, February 24, 2007

Criticisms of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and by extension, visits to the shrine by Japanese prime ministers, focus on two topics: first, the enshrinement of the spirits of those referred to as Class A war criminals, and second, the affiliated Yushukan museum’s self-serving and counterfeit justifications for the Pacific War, including the claim that President Roosevelt goaded Japan into conflict to bring the US out of the Depression.

Now, Hisahiko Okazaki, the former Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Thailand, has taken up the task of modifying the museum exhibits, as he describes in this article in the Japan Times (registration required). Give the man credit—this is as thankless a task as you could imagine. He has to satisfy those people at home who think Japan’s biggest mistake was not picking on someone its own size, and try not to offend those people in East Asia who’ll use any excuse to bash Japan.

Here’s Okazaki describing his work:

My primary objective in modifying the exhibits is to protect the intellectual integrity of Yasukuni Shrine.
The principal yardstick for alterations is to remove inappropriate expressions that may be viewed as intellectually dishonest or far-fetched. Given the ever-changing international situation, I did not think it would be proper to take into consideration the opinions of certain other countries.

This does not mean, however, that people in “certain other countries” would approve of the changes.

For example, Okazaki has removed the charge that FDR started the war as a way out of the Depression. In its place, he has added an excerpt from the diary of former US Secretary of War Henry Stimson regarding the Hull Note, which demanded that Japan withdraw completely from China. Okazaki says:

The Hull Note of 1941 was, however, meant to close negotiations, so I did not raise any objection to a new quotation from the Stimson Diary, which said that all that was left after the issuance of the note would be to wait for Japan to attack.
It is a historical fact that Roosevelt induced Japan to carry out a first strike. The indication of this fact does not cast aspersions on Yasukuni Shrine’s intellectual integrity.
In his book “Diplomacy,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote, “Roosevelt must have been aware that there was no possibility that Japan would accept (the Hull Note). America’s participation in the war was the great achievement made through the extraordinary efforts of a great and courageous leader.”

What Okazaki fails to mention is that the Hull Note was issued on November 26, 1941, fewer than two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese strike force had already set sail the day before (American time, but also the 26th Japanese time). They could have been recalled, but the Hull Note made it certain that they wouldn’t be. (Okazaki’s comment that he didn’t “raise any objection” to the mention of the Hull Note gives us a hint of some of the difficulties he may have faced with the people at the museum.)

Okazaki also has added a quote from Roosevelt’s Quarantine Speech to further his argument that the President induced Japan to make a first strike. (Try this page for a quick overview of US-Japan relations at the time.) Indeed, former President Herbert Hoover wrote a letter to a friend immediately after Pearl Harbor, saying, in effect, you and I know that all this sticking pins in the heads of rattlesnakes is what got this country in trouble. He thought that formulating aggressive policies “short of war” would lead to war in the end.

An examination of these issues is beyond the scope of a website post (or even a scholarly article; it would take a book), but I think Okazaki is being disingenuous here. It’s true that Roosevelt’s policy, derived philosophically from Woodrow Wilson, can be considered from one perspective to be high-handed interference in matters in which the US had no direct national interest (other than access to Chinese markets). Indeed, it would be fascinating to hear arguments from certain US politicians, for example, why Roosevelt’s behavior in Asia was justifiable, while George Bush’s behavior in the Middle East is not.

But Okazaki flirts with intellectual dishonesty himself when he chooses to ignore the reasons Japan was in China to begin with, and they are not so readily defensible. China and Japan had already fought one war in the late 19th century over which side would pull the strings in Korea, and Japan won decisively. After their easy victory, the Japanese decided to bite off a bigger chunk on the continent, but it turned out to be a lot more than they could chew. A lot of people died before that one ended, and it doesn’t make any difference who’s doing the counting and who’s exaggerating.

The ambassador’s other changes at the museum have to do with Japanese operations in Northern China, and he again glosses over the reasons for Japan’s presence in that country. At times his arguments are confusing. Initially, he seems to be coming across as an apologist for Imperial Japan:

These events (the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Guanganmen Incident, and the Second Shanghai Incident) ruled out a peaceful solution and caused the local incident around Beijing to develop into an all-out war. It is a historical fact that all three incidents were the result of Chinese provocation. I will not yield on this point.

He even says that Japan’s responsibility was not questioned at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. But then two paragraphs later, he seems to take the opposite position:

I do not mean to blame China, however. As was the case with the U.S., China’s provocation of Japan was a response to prior actions by the Japanese Army.

When I read that, I realized that Okazaki’s diplomatic background was a key factor in his selection as the person to tidy up the Yushukan Museum. Many people in Japan and overseas are acutely interested in Yasukuni as a symbol, and his changes have to avoid angering several camps with sharply divergent views. All of them think they are in sole possession of the historical truth, and all of them can become outraged when they think their truth is being ignored.

Certain people in Japan would argue that the Japanese did nothing more than the European Great Powers (and the US) already were doing in Asia. (They have a point, though nobody wanted the Japanese as replacements.) They claim Japan was entirely justified in wanting to drive out the Western colonial powers, both for the sake of East Asia as a whole, and to prevent Japan itself from being colonized. (They have another point. The Japanese have even gotten some credit for this from some surprising sources. For example, India’s former Prime Minister Nehru publicly stated that the Japanese victory over the Russians in 1905 was an inspiration to him.)

The same in people in Japan also justify their annexation of Korea by saying that if Japan hadn’t done it, the Russians surely would have. (They have yet another point. Koreans are justifiably upset that the Japanese colonial authorities forbid the use of the Korean language for a decade or two, but they should remind themselves that had it not been for the annexation, they might still be speaking Russian today. And I doubt that the Koreans would have preferred the Russians as colonial masters.)

While these arguments may have some superficial merit, most of them ultimately rest on justifications similar to those used by children as an excuse for bad behavior (“Other kids are doing it too.”) or the reason they got into a fight (“He started it.”) But parents never buy these arguments, and there’s no reason why anyone else should, either.

Perhaps Okazaki’s most pertinent point is this:

The effectiveness of the partial modifications of Yushukan museum’s exhibits (is) limited. It would be better to completely rewrite everything, however, such a project would take a long time. At present, visitors should compare the modified explanations with the original ones.

And we all can agree with that—a step in the right direction is better than no step at all. It won’t satisfy the Japan bashers who want to have it all their way, right now, but parents never buy that demand, either.

Addendum: The impetus for some of the changes at Yushukan might have been inspired by American George Will in this column, as Okazaki explains in a previous article. If that is the case, it should not be lost on observers that the change was spurred by Will’s Japan-friendly, dispassionate presentation that eschews moralizing and blame. Some people fail to realize that the only thing finger-wagging harangues accomplish is to turn people off, but the scolds aren’t paying attention to their audience, anyway. Finger-wagging harangues are just the means to congratulate themselves on their moral superiority–one their primary enjoyments in life. They’re not delivered with the intent of actually persuading people.

One final note for Americans to consider: Confederate soldiers are buried in Arlington National Cemetary. The Confederacy fought to maintain the institution of slavery. If an American president places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, does that mean he approves of slavery?

17 Responses to “Yasukuni: A change is gonna come”

  1. […] Ampontan has posted analysis of Hisahiko Okazaki’s modifications of controversial museum exihibits at the Yasukuni Shrine. [Link] […]

  2. Infimum said

    “Koreans are justifiably upset that the Japanese colonial authorities forbid the use of the Korean language for a decade or two,”

    Are you sure that your conclusion here is not influenced by some propaganda? Here are some things to consider.

    A newspaper written in Korean in 1940.

    The oldest existent Korean dictionary edited in 1930.

    A Korean textbook published in 1924

    The Chousen Nippou reporting the finding of movies produced in Korean.

    Although Korean classes in school were terminated in 1941, there is still a big difference between not having classes of the language and banning it. What’s more, given the number of native Japanese speakers on the peninsula throughout the time, it would have been impossible to force everyone to use only Japanese.

    Now, it is easy to verify that until the
    annexation of Korea by Japan, all official documents in Korea were written in Chinese characters despite the fact that Hangul was created in 1446. This is because Hangul was deemed merely as an easy device of writing for the uneducated and was in general looked down on. So during the annexation, you can see various publications in Korean as seen above. And now Japan is accused for “banning” Korean? Can Japan have a break sometimes?

    “Certain people in Japan would argue that the Japanese did nothing more than the European Great Powers (and the US) already were doing in Asia.”

    The Netherlands, for example, went back to Indonesia after the war was over and demanded compensation for the infrastructure they left there. (I don’t know if they built schools and encouraged the use of the Indonesian language.) Compared to that, I would say Japan certainly did no worse.

    Now, I certainly don’t want to come across as a person who thinks that everything Japan did during the war was justifiable. I just wanted to point some things out that might have slipped unnoticed into your usually carefully written and researched articles. In fact, I think that your blog is one of the most, if not the most, balanced and objective blog about Japan written in English. So please keep up with your good work.

  3. ampontan said

    Infimum: Thanks for clearing that up about the Korean language. We can’t always know everything we would like to. I did know, however, that any ban came during the latter part of the occupation.

    For those who can’t read Japanese, BTW, the fourth link is to an article in a Japanese-language edition of a South Korean newspaper about the discovery of prints of four Korean-language movies made during the occupation.

  4. pawikirogi said

    ‘Infimum: Thanks for clearing that up about the Korean language. We can’t always know everything we would like to. I did know, however, that any ban came during the latter part of the occupation.’

    you mean when the japanese implemented it’s policy of erasing korean culture they knew it was late into the war and that they were going to lose not just the war but korea too? late into the war is only relative to when it ended. i get tired of hearing this excuse.

  5. ampontan said

    Pawkirogi: Maybe you should read closer. I said, “latter part of the occupation.” That means the second half, as in former and latter. The occupation was what, 35 years? Korean was taught unofficially in schools until 1937. That is the “latter half of the occupation”.

    No one said “late in the war” or “they knew they were going to lose”. 1937 is before the war with the US started.

    Nobody’s making excuses around here.

  6. […] Ampontan has a great posting on the hiring of a former Japanese diplomat, Hisahiko Okazaki, who’s job it will be to reinterpret the historical displays at the Yushukan museum.  Unfortunately it appears Mr. Okazaki is just reinterpreting the history in a different way that is equally as distorted as the prior historical displays.  Mr. Okazaki in his new interpretation of history has found a new way to blame the US for the Japanese involvement in World War II.  Instead of President Roosevelt provoking the war in order to escape the Great Depression, there is a new boogie man, the Hull Note: […]

  7. Durf said

    The best choice of all–better than rewriting the display captions, or showing old and edited versions side by side–would be to ignore the museum completely. It’s unfortunately located on the grounds of the shrine where politicians go to torpedo diplomatic efforts, but I don’t think it’s actually visited by any of those politicians when they go to pray.

    A private museum on the grounds of a nongovernmental religious institution shouldn’t be getting nearly as much attention when it comes to presenting unbalanced historical views as the Public Foundation for Peace and Consolation, which comes complete with a domain. But this latter entity hasn’t been in the spotlight much. (Ads for it are all over train cars, though, if you take a look during your commute.)

  8. GI Korea said

    I highly recommend everyone read some of the books out there about the occupation of Korea before we start declaring Japan as having some kind of enlightened occupation of Korea.

    The Korean schools were allowed to operate, but they were in the Confucian style of memorizing Chinese classics and were filled with the yangban class. They were also not considered public schools and recieved no public funding. The lower Korean classes could not attend these schools. Thus to get an education they had to go to the Japanese public schools. Which was good because this allowed a class of people to get an education which was denied to them before, but it created a system to where at a young age the Japanese could indoctrinate Korean children into Japanese language, culture, and customs.

    Additionally any yangban that attended these schools had to get their long hair cut, often in front of the other students. Those children that continued to attend the Confucian schools some of their parents were faced with intimidation by the Japanese police in order to get the children to attend the Japanese public schools. Though the Confucian schools were not banned the Japanese actively promoted and did everything they could to get Korean students in the modern Japanese schools.

    The modern schools of the time were all operated by the Japanese and the head positions were all Japanese with the teachers split between Koreans and Japanese. However, Koreans were not allowed to teach in Korean. Depending on the authorities where they taught, this highly determined the punishment for Korean teachers who were caught teaching in Korean or anything to do with Korean nationalism. One teacher was exiled to an island, others were sent to jail and tortured. If the Japanese’s main motive was to educate Koreans than why didn’t they allow the Korean teachers to teach in Korean? The bottomline is that education was secondary to asymilation.

    Something else I hear people often say is that the Japanese built modern infrastructure in Korea. Yes they did, but not for altruistic reasons to help Koreans. For example they built dams so rice production could increase because fields would not be washed out by floods. They then built paved roads so rice from the fields could be transported easier and faster. The farmers thought the improved infrastructure the Japanese built was incredible until they found out that they had to give up 70% of their rice per year to the Japanese to send back to Japan in exchange for the infrastucture. They ultimately were left with less rice which breeded contempt for the Japanese.

    Not everyone from Japan that came to Korea during the occupation though was bad. Japanese teachers in the Japanese schools are highly remembered as having worked very hard and cared a lot about educating their students. There was even stories of some very kind police officers that helped some Koreans avoid authorities that were looking to arrest them. There was plenty of good Japanese people who came to Korea along with plenty of bad ones as well.

    Overall though making the arguement that the occupation was some how some kind of enlightened occupation that helped the Koreans is absurd. The Japanese occupied Korea in order to expand national power to compete against the western powers. The Korean peninsula as well served a strategic territory for the Japanese and was their gateway into the real mineral riches of Manchuria. There was a lot of reasons for the Japanese occupation of Korea and the welfare of the Korean people was not at the top of the list.

  9. ampontan said

    Durf: Thanks for the link. I added it to the sidebar on the left. I wasn’t aware of the place, since my commute as a freelance translator involves climbing the stairs from the first to the second floor. Also, in this small Kyushu town, I seldom have to use trains, and the ones I do are usually JR trains with no ads.

  10. Durf said

    Hey, sounds like a nice commute. 🙂 The train ads are how I keep in touch with what trashy weekly magazines are writing about, though. (Sure beats actually reading them!)

  11. Aceface said

    GI Korea and Pawi:

    We understand the basic fact that Japan was anything but a Santa Clause in the colony.At least that’s what we have learned in textbooks at school….

    Okazaki have a nickname陽気なタカ派 “a jolly hawk”.For he has pretty open personality unlike of many rightist(and Japanese man of his generation) in Japan.I’ve met him once.So I know.
    Most of the rightist in this country are ex-left wing and very twisted in their way of dealing other people.While Okazaki,his grand father was a famous politician,Okazaki Kunisuke,in late Meiji and Taisyo period and a cousin and former secretary of Mutsu Munemitsu,the founding father of the modern Japanese diplomacy.
    With these blue blooded family roots,Okazaki didn’t have to go through the usual twisted ideal turnaround to be a conservative figure.

    Good thing is Yasukuni chose man like Okazaki for advisory,instead of some real freaks of the right.
    Bad thing is Yasukuni can have these changes without any proper and open nationwide discussions.Just like When Cleric Matsudaira suddenly decided to enshrine class A war criminals without any national consensus.And as Durf said we’ve gotta demolish that creepy museum along with other Sasakawa donated statue and all.

  12. ampontan said

    “Most of the rightist in this country are ex-left wing and very twisted in their way of dealing other people.”

    This is very interesting. Can you tell us more?

  13. tomojiro said

    Well the famous 藤岡信勝 from the well known (notorious) 「新しい歴史教科書を作る会」(Association for the new history books) was a party member of the Japanese communist party until shortly before the gulf war.

    I once read that he was totaly shattered when the soviet union colapsed.

    Nishibe Susumu(西部邁)was also an radical activitist during the so called 安保闘争(anti movements against the mutual security treaty between Japan and USA).

    I once saw in a discussion show in which an attendant pointed out that he was once a marxist himself.

    He became quite angry and unpleasant mumbling that he joined the marxist movements with intention to “expose” their falsity.

    It was quite clear that this “unpleasant history” still remains for him a kind of trauma.

    There are a lot of others.

  14. Matt said

    Good post anpontan.

  15. Not an apologist said


    My point was that Will et. al. prefer to represent the problems at Yasukuni as politically inexpedient rather than as issues of restorative justice. They do not want to recognize that there are still individuals whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by Japanese actions and that these people make political demands. As a consequence, they do not talk about these individuals. This is what I have been saying consistently throughout this thread.

    Before casting aspersions on peoples’ ability to read carefully, you should bother to understand what they’re saying first.

    That said, Ampontan, again, what is your position on individuals who want to have their ancestors dis-enshrined?

  16. ampontan said

    I don’t have one. It’s none of my business, and none of yours, for that matter. And neither of my posts is even remotely about that. Including this one.

    It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with “restorative justice”. Those issues were settled long ago–treaties signed, reparations paid.

    Just because someone who wasn’t born then comes along 60 years later and decides to meddle and right all the wrongs in the world to feed their vanity and get 15 minutes on stage as the Grand Peacock of Universal Morality doesn’t change that.

    I have about 10 other things to do right now–including a translation with a deadline–so you’ll excuse me if I don’t feel like getting into some long discussion in the comments section of a website, about an issue I’ve never written about, with someone who insists that everyone talk about what he wants to talk about on his own terms.

  17. Not an apologist said

    Point made.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: