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?