TOKYO -- The past is present everywhere, but Japan is an unusually history-haunted nation. Elsewhere, the Cold War is spoken of in the past tense. Japan, however, lives in a dangerous neighborhood with two communist regimes -- truculent China and weird North Korea. For Japan, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not close an epoch. Even the Second World War still shapes political discourse because of a Shinto shrine in the center of this city.
Young soldiers leaving Japan during that war often would say, ``If I don't come home, I'll see you at Yasukuni.'' The souls of 2.5 million casualties of Japan's wars are believed to be present at that shrine. In 1978, 14 other souls were enshrined there -- those of 14 major war criminals.
Between that enshrinement and 1984, three prime ministers visited Yasukuni 20 times without eliciting protests from China. But both of Japan's most important East Asian neighbors, China and South Korea, now have national identities partly derivative from their experience as victims of Japan's 1910-1945 militarism. To a significant extent, such national identities are political choices.
Leftist ideology causes South Korea's regime to cultivate victimhood and resentment of a Japan imagined to have expansionism in its national DNA. The choice by China's regime is more interesting. Marxism is bankrupt and causes cognitive dissonance as China pursues economic growth by markedly un-Marxist means. So China's regime, needing a new source of legitimacy, seeks it in memories of resistance to Japanese imperialism.
Actually, most of China's resistance was by Chiang Kai-shek's forces, Mao's enemies. And Mao, to whom there is a sort of secular shrine in Beijing, killed millions more Chinese than even Japan's brutal occupiers did.
Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's prime minister, made a campaign promise to visit the shrine regularly, and has done so, most recently last Tuesday, the anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Shinzo Abe, a nationalist who is almost certain to replace Koizumi, who is retiring next month, seems inclined to continue something like Koizumi's policy, and for at least one of Koizumi's reasons: China should not dictate the actions of Japan's prime ministers.
This is the Admiral Nelson Fire Poker Principle. Speaking with some of his officers the night before Trafalgar, Nelson picked up a poker and said: It doesn't matter where I put this -- unless Bonaparte says I must put it there. In that case, I must put it someplace else.