The politics of memory

Posted: Aug 20, 2006 12:01 AM

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.

The museum adjacent to Yasukuni says ``The Greater East Asian War'' began because, when the New Deal failed to banish the Depression, ``the only option open to Roosevelt ... was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war. The U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war.'' That is disgracefully meretricious -- and familiar. For years, a small but vocal cadre of Americans -- anti-FDR zealots -- said approximately that. But neither Koizumi nor Abe includes the museum in his visits to the shrine.

It would be helpful if Abe would discontinue visiting Yasukuni. He could cite the fact, learned last month, that Emperor Hirohito, who died in 1989, stopped visiting it because he strongly objected to the war criminals' enshrinement. Because China decided to be incensed about Koizumi's visits, there has been no Japan-China summit meeting for five years. In 2005, there were vicious anti-Japan riots in China, and 44 million Chinese signed an Internet petition opposing Japan's quest for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Relations between the nations are colder than at any time since relations were normalized in 1972, when Mao decreed that both the Chinese and Japanese people had been victims of Japan's militarists.

Things are so bad that, speaking about the incessant incursions by Chinese submarines and military aircraft into Japanese sea and air spaces, a senior Japanese official casually makes the startling suggestion that China's regime, like Japan's regime before the war, does not fully control its military. But relations other than diplomatic ones are flourishing. China is, after America, the second-most popular destination for Japanese tourists. Ten thousand people a day travel between the two countries, and in 2004, for the first time since 1945, Japan's trade with China was larger than with the United States. The controversy about Yasukuni should not mystify Americans. With their comparatively minor but still acrimonious arguments about displays of Confederate flags, Americans know how contentious the politics of national memory can be, and they understand the problem of honoring war dead without necessarily honoring the cause for which they died.