THE EYES OF EAST ASIA and many journalists around the world were focused on the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, to see whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would pay a visit. The scrutiny was inevitable now that so many have invested so much emotional energy in the boogeyman of resurgent right wing Japanese nationalism.
One wonders why they bothered. It had been almost a foregone conclusion that the prime minister wouldn’t appear. One of his first acts after taking office was to meet with the leaders of both China and South Korea and smooth the waters that former Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi roiled with his annual Yasukuni pilgrimages. Mr. Abe wasn’t about to squander the goodwill he created, particularly now that his political position is in severe jeopardy after the recent upper house elections. He also wasn’t about to court additional controversy, even though any controversy that would occur would largely occur outside of Japan.
What did happen at Yasukuni on the 15th? Nothing much–and that’s a lot more significant than a parade of some politicians arriving at the shrine in official vehicles wearing rented formal attire to show their faces.
Only one member of the Cabinet made an official visit. That was Sanae Takaichi (photo), minister in charge of gender equality and Okinawa-related issues. The shrine started receiving visitors at 6:00 a.m., but Ms. Takaichi waited until the afternoon to go (though she held a press conference to talk about it in the morning).
The disappointment of the professional rubberneckers was almost palpable. It must have been like hanging around the clubhouse doors at Boston’s Fenway Park to get an autograph from Daisuke Matsuzaka and having to settle for a glimpse of the third-string catcher instead.
Who else worthy of the media attention came? Former Prime Minister Koizumi put in his annual appearance, and he was cheered by a few hundred ultranationalists who came for the opportunity to perform their postmodern samurai sketch for the cameras, wearing costumes with wooden swords. That meshed with the story the media wanted to tell, so that’s the story the media told.
Most didn’t manage to find the space to talk about something just as important in today’s Japan–the 260 counter demonstrators who showed up to demand that Japan retain its pacifist principles and Constitution. That doesn’t mesh with the story the media wants to tell. As a result, the stories seen around the world strangely resemble paper dolls—a large sheet of paper with holes cut out in certain places to create the desired image.
It was even more difficult for the commentariat to make something out of nothing, but of course they tried. One example is Gordon Chang’s post in the blog Contentions presented by Commentary magazine. A China specialist who occasionally writes about Japan and other countries in East Asia, Mr. Chang inadvertently demonstrates that the wiser course for people who aren’t fully conversant with the issue would be to avoid it altogether.
His post is given the clumsy and insulting title, “Japan’s Bad Memories”. Such an inept double entendre: it suggests both that Japanese memories of the war are bad ones, and that the memory banks of the entire country shut down when the subject of their behavior in that war is raised. It’s the second clause that doesn’t belong—it is so incorrect that anyone who tries to make the claim has no business writing about Japan. But perhaps Mr. Chang did not choose the title himself.
The author’s floundering is evident throughout the post; it is difficult to conceal that one is writing about a non-event. He spends a paragraph on the ultranationalists and their greeting for former Prime Minister Koizumi. He does not mention the counter demonstration at all; likely he was unaware of it. He links to a Reuters article that uses even more space to shock/entertain us with the ultranationalists, and their article too fails to mention the counter demonstration. Unlike Mr. Chang, they were probably aware of it and chose not to mention it. It’s been a while since the name Reuters was synonymous with integrity in journalism.
Mr. Chang then starts one paragraph with this sentence:
Analysts will undoubtedly pore over yesterday’s events in Tokyo.
Undoubtedly they will. And their perusal will undoubtedly result in one or more of the following:
- They will fail to see key events that occurred right before their eyes.
- They will see that which does not exist.
- They will misinterpret what they see that does exist.
- And very few–if any–will manage to write something about “yesterday’s events in Tokyo” that is worth reading. How could they? They fail to grasp the importance of nothing important happening.
He continues with this sentence:
Many worry about rising nationalism in Japan.
Many also worry about alien abductions, but that doesn’t mean we have to spend any time taking them seriously.
Mr. Chang then proceeds with a litany of the by now predictable complaints. Mr. Abe is trying to instill patriotic education. Perhaps a contrived uno mundo education is more desirable? Mr. Abe is trying to strengthen the military. With China and North Korea in the same neighborhood, wouldn’t he be derelict in his duties not to?
It’s almost as if the author is playing a hand of bridge. He starts with the lower cards in this particular suit and then continues up the ladder to the face cards—the comfort women and then the Nanjing Massacre. Unfortunately, he overplays his hand by speculating (Mr. Koizumi might return to replace Mr. Abe as prime minister) and then using that speculation as a basis to ratchet up the crisis-mongering even further. (This would cause a further deterioration in East Asian relations.)
Apparently Mr. Chang thinks some readers still take seriously sentences constructed in the following manner: If X happens, then Y will undoubtedly happen. So it might. But since X has to happen first–and in cases such as these, the possibility is usually far-fetched—it’s pointless to bring the subject up.
Oddly, Mr. Chang seems to have selected the wrong link for the passage about Mr. Koizumi’s possible return. The link takes us instead to an article in the People’s Daily—such an impeccable source—about the attitude of Japanese young people toward Yasukuni and the war, not about Mr. Koizumi. It contains this passage:
Actually, young Japanese know that the invasion war was an indecent history (sic)…Most of them think they are unrelated with the evil history, so it is not their responsibility to apologize.
Now isn’t that an irony? Mr. Chang attempts to play his final card and fashion serious punditry out of this sow’s ear. Instead, he slips up with the link and is hoist by his own petard, demonstrating that this is in fact a non-story. Of course young Japanese (if everyone under the age of 70 can be considered young) know that the war was “indecent”, they had nothing to do with it, and it is not their responsibility to apologize. After repeated apologies by political leaders and peace treaties with both China and South Korea that should have ended the matter, why should they think otherwise?
Mr. Chang then concludes:
Tokyo and Moscow have never formally signed a peace treaty with each other to end World War II. Even if they do so—not likely, due to ongoing disputes over islands that Soviet troops grabbed at the end of the conflict—it does not appear that the war in Asia will be over anytime soon.
Mr. Chang should have used a different preposition. The Soviets seized the islands after the end of the conflict, not at the end of the conflict. They refuse to give them back, so it’s no wonder a peace treaty hasn’t been signed.
And of course, the last clause “…it does not appear the war in Asia will be over anytime soon…” is prima facie evidence of the author’s superficial grasp of this particular issue, despite the attempt to appear profound.
Political visits to Yasukuni are not a burning issue in Japan. As the People’s Daily article linked to in error indicates, most people just don’t care. Those people who visit the shrine are more interested in it as a memorial for all the thousands of spirits enshrined there, rather than those of 14 Class A war criminals. The ultranationalists could only rustle up a group vaguely estimated to be in the “hundreds” from an immediate metropolitan area of more than 10 million people, and they were countered by a pacifist group also numbering in the “hundreds”.
By now it should be obvious even to those who seldom pay attention that the objective of those politicians who do visit the shrine every August is not to revive the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. They’ve said on many occasions that their intent is to reaffirm the desire for peace and to honor the service rendered to the country by their ancestors. (This is a Shinto institution, after all.) The implication that they’re lying and that Japan is anxious to reassert an aggressive military posture in East Asia is fatuous and reveals the vacuity of the observer.
What the politicians seldom say outside of Japan is that the visits are part of their wish to reestablish Japanese statehood (in the nation-state sense of the term). They think Japan lost this self-awareness with their defeat in the war. Of course other Japanese disagree, but no one in the country thinks this means the Yasukuni visitors want to colonize Mongolia, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula again.
It also should be equally obvious that elements in China and South Korea aren’t refighting the war either. They are aware that peace treaties were signed more than a generation ago. Their focus is on the future, not the past. Those countries have chosen to define themselves as modern states by incorporating anti-Japanese sentiment, and to use history as a blunt instrument both to mold public opinion at home and to wield in their bilateral relations with Japan.
Perhaps one of these days those countries will realize the Japanese know what’s coming, keep dodging the blows, and that swinging harder won’t make it easier to hit them.
Perhaps one of these days, other observers overseas will take the time to actually examine what is happening in this part of the world instead of viewing it through a superficial anti-Japanese lens of conventional
Their preconceived notions—or rather, unexamined prejudices precast in conceptual concrete—led them to write and broadcast about nothing happening in a way that suggests something actually happened at Yasukuni on August 15.
They should have just told the truth instead of sticking to the ragged, dog-eared script: Nothing important happened. That in itself is important enough.