Japan Politics: Issues outstanding


Japan’s bitter regional relations

December, 2013. Monday’s paper hits the stands, and fresh headlines contribute to the narrative of unease between Japan and its two key neighbours, China and South Korea. The legacy of Japan’s World War II-era activities remains a central stumbling block in its regional affairs.


Minister Keiji Furuya has gone to the prominent Yasukuni Shrine one week ahead of the ceremony and celebrations held every spring at the historic site, citing previous engagements on the festival weekend. The shrine commemorates close to 2.5 million Japanese people who have died in the service of the country, mostly from World War II. Visits to the shrine by state leaders attract fierce criticism from China, South Korea and elsewhere, whose people fell victim to convicted war criminals enshrined amongst the war dead.

Furuya, a member of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, follows closely in the footsteps of Abe himself, who made his first visit as prime minister at the end of 2013. That visit ignited a wave of diplomatic attacks internationally, foremost and loudest from China, whose dignitaries went to great efforts to leverage sensitivities around the visit in the broader context of widely broadcast territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku (the Japanese name) or Diaoyu (the Chinese name) Islands. In a similar vein to his party leader, Furuya avoided engaging with the diplomatic debate, saying: “I believe that to honour those dead who have up their lives for our country is the right thing for a Japanese to do”.

Yasukuni Shrine

From WikiThe shrine “commemorates anyone who had died in service of the Empire of Japan, which existed from the Meiji Restoration of 1869. The shrine has since been expanded to include those who died in the wars spanning the Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods.

As Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner write in Foreign Affairs: “The visit might have helped him with some political constituencies at home, but the international costs were high: it raised questions in Washington, further soured Japan’s relations with South Korea, and made China more resolute in its unwillingness to deal directly with Japan as long as Abe is in power”.

The shrine, it should be noted, goes somewhat farther back than the activities of the Second World War, and is accordingly more broadly involved in social history than the current controversy might suggest. Yasukuni, translating literally to “Pacifying the Nation”, was a name given by Emperor Meiji in 1879 to a site that had been established a decade earlier for the enshrinement of individuals who died for the emperor in the Boshin War. Subsequently the Satsuma Rebellion and the two Sino-Japanese Wars both added many thousands to those enshrined.

The identities of the war criminals were added to the shrine somewhat after the Second World War, beginning with “Class B” and “C” individuals from 1959 to 1967. These classes are individuals convicted in the Tokyo Trials of 1946 of conventional war crimes and crimes against humanity. The shrine’s fourteen “Class A” individuals – the top civil and military leaders charged with orchestrating the war – were enshrined in a secret ceremony was conducted in 1978, much to the displeasure of the emperor.

In 2007, Abe’s entire cabinet proclaimed they had no intention of visiting the site. Now has become all too apparent to commentators in the Asia region and elsewhere how such a statement is by no means a promise.


Also this week another aspect of Japan’s activities in World War II returns to fan the same diplomatic fires – that of the Korean comfort women, a matter which happens to fall under the portfolio of minister Keiji Furuya. The article describes the resumption of diplomatic meetings between the two nations

“Comfort women” is the common translation of the Japanese word ianfu, a euphemism for prostitute. These particular women (and girls) were sex slaves, incarcerated in Japanese military brothels in occupied China and Korea. Extensive testimony, documentation, along with admissions of the military itself, describe recruitment of these people by forceful abduction or on promises of non-related jobs. The International Commission of Jurists quotes between 100,000 and 300,000 of these women were recruited for the brothels, three quarters of whom died from the trauma of their toil.

China appears to have gone without notable reparation for the suffering of its people in this episode. As for Korea, Japan made a package of grants and soft loans in 1965 to the sum of US $800 million according to the Asia Times, or assistance “worth $500 million” according to the JT article. Given that Korea’s original claim was only $364 million – and that the provided amount far exceeded the entire government budget at the time – the package would, at first glance, seem to qualify as minimally adequate. Also among the various apologies and admissions from Japanese officials over time, a complete formal apology was made to Korea in 1993, which would seem to go as far as a country might go to make amends.

However, as it was revealed in 2005, the Korean leadership of the time provided only a minority of this to the families directly affected by the brothel system, contributing most to the general infrastructural projects committed to the rebuilding of Korea, to which end the US had provided another approximately $1 billion. At that time, South Korean leader Park Chung-hee declared that his nation had thereby relinquished their right to demand further reparations from Japan.

Furthermore, recent discourse from public figures in Japan have deviated somewhat from the sentiment of the formal apology and various admissions, and even contracted them entirely. Shinzo Abe himself said, in 2007, that “The fact is, there is no evidence to prove there was coercion”, although he announced in March this year that he “did not intend to alter” the standing apology (more careful wording, perhaps). To add to this, the newly appointed head of public broadcaster NHK, Katsuto Momii, openly justified the practices of the military brothel system as “common in any country at war”, and was puzzled at the anger from overseas commentators.

During the meeting last Wednesday, the South Koreans stated that Japan still owed an apology to the comfort women who are still alive, and that without doing so, its responsibility was yet to be met. The Korean position seems to waver regularly between acquiescence with the 1993 apology and dissatisfaction. The complications of ascribing and accounting for inherited guilt become ever clearer for the two parties.

The Senkaku, Diaoyu or Tiaoyu Islands

From Wiki: “The islands are disputed between China and Japan and between Japan and Taiwan. Japan regards the islands as a part of the city of Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture, and acknowledges the claims of neither China nor Taiwan but has not allowed the Ishigaki administration to develop the islands.

For consideration

The nationalist/conservative leadership of Japan is unlikely to take swift action in cooling the political stand-offs around Yasukuni and the comfort women. The crucial element that emerges from this snapshot of Japan’s regional affairs is the spectre of vast guilt – which present stirrings of re-militarization do nothing to ameliorate – and an extant cry for restitution. For future consideration are the following questions, in whose answer might be found the forward path of community in the Asian and Asia-Pacific regions.

  • What is the culpability to be unaccounted for on the part of Japan, with respect to its past military activities in China, Korea and elsewhere?
  • How much of the efforts by China to broadcast their outrage is a manoeuvre in the strategy to gain territorial control over the resource potential of Senkaku/Diaoyu?
  • What are the reasons by which public figures in Japan maintain attitudes which overtly reject any outstanding guilt, or otherwise avoid treating with self-described victims?
  • What sort of gesture or reparation – that has not already been made – would act to meet the perceived responsibility of the Japanese nation?
  • What parallels can be drawn between this situation and the “national shames” of other countries? Compare experiences of indigenous Australians and the territorial conflict in the Gaza Strip.

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