American Eyes On Abe's Yasukuni Shrine Visit

American eyes on Abe's Yasukuni Shrine visitAfter Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, Washington expressed its “disappointment,” and criticism of Abe swept through the U.S. media. American reactions to the visit have been overwhelmingly negative: some people are baffled, some are exasperated and some are downright angry.
These reactions stem from the symbolism of Yasukuni, and from the belief that Japan has not done enough to confront its wartime past. And Americans are concerned that Abe’s visit will make East Asian crises more likely and cooperation more elusive.


Americans, like many in East Asia, are dismayed when Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni because of its specific attributes. Of course, Americans respect the Japanese people’s desire to honor the people who gave their lives for their country. But the fact that 14 war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni means that paying respects there is equivalent to honoring Japan’s wartime atrocities and invasions. Americans believe these should be condemned, not honored, so are shocked and worried when they see Japanese leaders pay tribute. They worry that this suggests that Japan has not confronted or repudiated the violent policies that these men designed.

Furthermore, Americans familiar with the shrine are also very troubled by its Yushukan museum. American visitors are shocked by its exhibits, which focus only on Japanese victimhood and heroism, and do not acknowledge the suffering Japan caused others as a result of its World War II invasions and occupations.

Because of these specific attributes of Yasukuni Shrine, most Americans oppose official visits to it. They support proposals to create in Tokyo a new place of memory to honor the nation’s war dead, or urge Japanese leaders to pay their respects to the war dead at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery.


Official visits to Yasukuni also trouble Americans because they (along with Koreans and Chinese), perceive that Japan in general has not sent a clear signal that it recognizes and repudiates its wartime violence.

To be sure, in response to such criticism Japanese people protest that Japan has apologized many times and has paid reparations. But there are important reasons why outside observers dismiss this argument and remain confused about whether Japan truly rejects its past actions.

The first reason is that Japanese apologies are associated with individual prime ministers rather than seen as expressions of national sentiment. The Diet has never offered a gesture that people perceive as a national acceptance and repudiation of past violence. The 1995 Diet Resolution reflected a country deeply divided--many legislators boycotted the vote, and the resolution was approved by fewer than half the members of the Diet. Similarly, the 1993 Kono Statement about comfort women was a very important gesture, but many people in Japan (Abe included) clearly reject it and would like to see it repudiated (a development to which both East Asians and Americans would respond with outrage).

Japanese apologies also have not impressed observers because they are often contradicted. Japanese people often argue that Tokyo has offered many apologies to, for example, the survivors of the wartime comfort women program. This is true, and it is a shame, that Koreans and others rarely recognize this. But at the same time, as some Japanese leaders apologize, others decry the apology and even deny the historical facts of this atrocity.

Many critics also dispute that Japan has paid reparations to its wartime victims. Tokyo did pay significant compensation to Seoul in 1965, but did not acknowledge Korean suffering or explain why the funds were being offered. Indeed, Tokyo even refused to refer to the funds as “reparations.” Today, it’s difficult for Japanese leaders to claim that they paid reparations, when 50 years ago they refused to call it that.

Japanese people also note that they created the Asian Women’s Fund for the comfort women survivors. This was indeed a commendable gesture, but it was a private gesture by public citizens, and thus not equivalent to national reparations. Furthermore, before people will believe that Japan is truly committed to remembering and repudiating this atrocity, they want to see the victims and their suffering remembered in other ways, such as in textbook coverage and museum exhibitions. Without this, people are unconvinced that this atrocity forms an important part of Japanese memory.


U.S. disapproval of visits to Yasukuni also relates to national security strategy. The United States strongly desires to prevent crises between Japan and China and to encourage cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Visits to Yasukuni undermine both of these goals.

Americans worry about stability in Sino-Japanese relations. These relations have significantly worsened in recent years, particularly over the disputed Senkaku Islands. Increasingly, Chinese ships in disputed waters have locked their radar on Japanese ships and have otherwise harassed U.S. and Japanese vessels. These kinds of incidents could easily lead to the use of force, bringing dangerous risks of crisis escalation.

As Japan’s ally committed to defending it if attacked, the United States wants to avoid a conflict (with a nuclear-armed opponent, no less!) at all costs. Washington thus condemns actions, in either Beijing or Tokyo, that it views as destabilizing their relations. Visits to Yasukuni fall into this category.

The situation with South Korea is different: in Washington’s view, Japan and South Korea should be allies. Unlike Japan and China (which have many diverging interests), South Korea and Japan have many natural shared interests--among them, liberal democracy, a shared ally and concerns about a rising regional superpower. As a longstanding security partner of both of these countries, Washington wants to nurture cooperation between its two allies.

It is inaccurate to say Washington is creating a balancing coalition against China. The United States and China have generally productive, multilayered relations; our connections and shared prosperity improve the lives of our people, and we have much to gain from cooperation. And anyone who remembers the U.S. containment of the Soviet Union can recognize that the United States is not trying to contain China today. But as China’s power grows, Washington is interested in preserving the alliances and sphere of influence it worked so hard to create after World War II.

Washington sees both Japan and South Korea as prominent within that group--and thus is looking for ways to encourage these countries to come together. In Washington’s view this would increase the security and well-being of not only Washington, but also of Tokyo and Seoul.

Thus when Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine, Americans see him taking a sledgehammer to what the Americans have been trying to build in the region--while hitting himself in the head in the process. This explains a great deal of the U.S. anger and frustration.

It is true that the Japanese people have every right to honor their beloved relatives and heroes who died for their country. It is true that Tokyo does not get credit for the contrition it has already shown its neighbors. And it is also true that Chinese and South Korean leaders seem to shower endless criticism on Abe--whether he visits Yasukuni shrine or stays home.

While all of these things may be true, that doesn’t mean that visiting Yasukuni is a wise policy. In 1985, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone advocated a military buildup and the “normalization” of Japanese defense. He visited Yasukuni Shrine that year, triggering regional and global condemnation. Nakasone, quite understandably, went to the shrine to honor the memory of his brother killed in the war.

But he realized that the visits harmed his own agenda: the combination of a more muscular defense and seemingly impenitent nationalism fueled fear in the region and discord within the U.S.-Japan alliance. He did not go again.

Today, Washington hopes that Abe will draw a similar conclusion and in the future will show the same restraint.