Japan was given an unexpected shock this past week after a public suicide that left the press hungry for details. On Wednesday, March 5, at 8:15 AM, the usually mundane--and always orderly--session of the Diet, Japan's parliament, was interrupted by an unusual protest from the Right Wing. Brandishing a handgun and two handwritten letters, the still unidentified "activist" stepped out of a cab onto the steps of the Diet building during Tokyo's morning rush hour and shot himself in the head in the midst of the passing crowd. The letters--one addressed to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the other to the Japanese media--"urged" the government's reconsideration of the highly divisive issue of the Yasukuni Shrine, a site that honors 2.5 million of Japan's war dead, including, controversially, 14 Class A war criminals that were found guilty (7 were hanged) by the Tokyo Tribunal in 1947.
The source of the issue's divisiveness: Prime Minister Fukuda is yet to pay his respects in his official government capacity, departing from the precedent of his predecessors and incensing Japan's Right Wing--apparently, to the brink of suicide.
This deadly demonstration is just the latest manifestation of Japan's enduring conservatism regarding interpretations of its guilt for the offenses of the Second World War. Such political extremism, anchored by its control of the popular media, continues to polarize and entrench debates over Japan's wartime past and mar the reputation of Japan in the international arena.
Re-defining modern Japan
Originally commissioned by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the Yasukuni Shrine was built to commemorate the victims of the Imperial Restoration, symbolizing a hard-fought effort to create a modern and globally recognized Japan. For the next 70 years, Yasukuni served as a symbol of state power. Following Japan's surrender in 1945, however, Yasukuni hit a crossroads. In a series of "postwar reforms," the Allied occupiers sought to quell Japan's propensity for militarism by purging the state doctrine of Shintoism. As a result, Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine, was privatized in 1945, and Japan's secularized government has since maintained no connection to it.
So what are Japanese people today to make of Yasukuni's legacy? This most recent episode, and the subsequent media reticence, clearly demonstrates that Japan has lost sight of its pre-war history. Consequently, the history of Yasukuni and its connection to the roots of modern Japan have become concealed by a small clique of militarists, whose presence in the shrine currently taints the entirety of Japan's modern history. It is likely that the thousands of samurai enshrined at Yasukuni, who honorably lost their lives in support of Emperor Meiji during the Boshin War (1868-69), are turning in their graves. This is not to say that those protesting the war criminals' enshrinement are misguided. But Japan's place in modern history goes well beyond the events and misdeeds of its aggressive warfare, something that is not so obvious to younger generations of Japanese and even less obvious to international observers.
Are the crimes committed between 1931 and 1945 so egregious and enduring that they should overshadow Japan's history prior to its aggressive Imperial pursuits? As Japanese pundits continue to squabble over this question they continually miss the point: no interpretation of guilt is absolute. What is more, the whole world is watching them miss this point.
To be sure, the case of Japan stands in marked contrast to modern Germany, where denial of Germany's past misdeeds has become public enemy number one. So what's going on?
An intellectual climate of extremism
The Yasukuni visitation, the suicide and the perpetual media fracas ultimately boil down to personal opinions over Japan's legacy of war and conflict in East Asia. Ask yourself: is Japan still guilty?
Barring Asahi Shimbun, Japan's most liberal newspaper, which was quick to condemn last week's incident as actions "of a man clearly in a disturbed psychological condition," Japan's press has been asking the wrong questions. Both the Left and the Right have for the most part written off this behavior as that of a deranged "Rightist," as though his political orientation were a sufficient explanation for his behavior. Unfortunately, they stop short of the million-dollar question: what are the limits of Japan's extremism?
Regrettably, the press in Japan continues to espouse the mutually exclusive views of either staunch apology or outright denial. This comes as no surprise when one considers the nature of the print media in Japan: the liberal Asahi, the conservative Yomiuri and the ultra-conservative Sankei papers power-sharing in a news-hungry market. Each paper takes a different stance on Japan's guilt: Asahi the apologist, Yomiuri the denier and Sankei ludicrously supporting the notion that the Japan of today is the real victim of these debates.
Surprisingly, the op-ed page of Asahi Shimbun has remained silent, leaving many wondering if, when and how the Left will respond to the suicide. The foreign press has leaned less toward complacency, demonstrating the clear disconnect between the current state of domestic and international perspectives on Japanese guilt. Japan's silence has, sure enough, reinforced the perception in the Western media that Japan's extremism is not just a domestic problem, but becoming the world's as well.
So far the Left has refused to challenge Japan's provocative and outspoken conservatives--advocates of what has been dubbed the "free history" movement (more accurately, the whitewashing of Japan's past). This comes as no surprise when one considers that conservative pundits and "free history" researchers in Japan are well funded, highly publicized (in all media) and highly influential in both the political and social realms. Until either side is willing to concede the malleability of historical truth, we will be left with more of the same maddeningly polarized debate.
Of course the suicide was brash and nonsensical. And of course there is no clear-cut answer for policymakers or Japan's ideologically splintered society. But what will it take to catalyze a candid and constructive debate? The recent coverage of Japan's press does nothing but reinforce the current status quo of entrenched positions on Japan's guilt and squander an opportunity to reflect on the irrationality that grips politics and intellectual life in Japan. The responses of Japan's Left and Right seem to indicate that they aren't ready to answer these questions (let alone ask them), sidestepping what is truly at stake: moving beyond 'postwar' Japan--a moniker that Japanese are growing increasingly tired of.
That Sankei Shimbun regularly prints the outlandish editorials of Fujioka Nobukatsu--a professor of education at Tokyo University considered to be the father of the "free history" movement--clearly demonstrates the ridiculous heights that extremism has reached. Yomiuri and Sankei continually amplify the voices of Japan's right, only to bring Asahi to respond with its opposing view in uncompromising ways. There is no moderate voice in Japan simply because intellectuals refuse to concede that there might, in fact, be many truths as to "what happened."
In the light of war veterans losing face and children growing up in a masochistic society, Sankei's assertion that today's Japanese are the true victims of these debates has one thing right: contemporary citizens are indeed the victims of these debates, as the country inexorably spirals into what is widely known as Japan's rekishi mondai (history problem).
To Yasukuni or not to Yasukuni?
Thus, we are left with the thorny problem of political symbolism: to Yasukuni or not to Yasukuni--what is a Prime Minister to do? The actions of former Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe offer us some insight. Koizumi, embattled for nearly five years due to his regular and public visits to the shrine, got more outrage from the international community (namely Taiwan and South Korea) than he gained in support from his Right Wing constituencies. Abe took a different approach. Well aware of the dangers of another public visit and already on a slippery slope toward resignation (which Japan's leadership has a predisposition for), he opted instead for a visit in a "private capacity." Abe shrewdly visited the shrine off the government clock, much to the chagrin of Japan's Right Wing--the very group that propelled him into Koizumi's cabinet and then propped him up as Koizumi's successor.
Fukuda, an established foreign policy dove, has done neither. In fact, he hasn't done anything and is likely to keep it that way. The decision to visit the shrine clearly rests on the priorities of the Prime Minister--forced to strike a balance between party politics and foreign diplomacy. No clear-cut answer exists, and as long as Japan continues to tiptoe around a constructive discussion of its future (as defined by its past), the administration of Japan will continue to be burdened by this unrelenting political tightrope walk.
Toward a proud nation?
What, then, does the story of Yasukuni tell us? Above all else, the story of Yasukuni has come to represent the enduring debate in Japan over pride--both national and individual. This issue, essentially the crux of the debate over collective guilt, has taken many forms throughout the postwar era: textbooks in the '60s, comfort women (a euphemism for women forced into the sexual servitude of the Japanese Imperial army during the Pacific War) in the '90s and, today, Yasukuni.
Should the next generation of Japanese, detached from the memories of the Pacific War, be fostered in an environment of a "masochistic history" devoid of pride, as the Right Wing fears, or should they be forced to bear witness to the misdeeds of Japan's past in order to forge a new, "post-postwar" Japan? This is the essence of the war on history being waged by Japan's intellectual community, one that has without a doubt spilled beyond academic circles and into public life, mass media and the international presses.
If the historian Howard Zinn's mantra of "history as power" remains relevant today, then Japanese intellectuals--beginning with the media--must take the lead in fostering an environment for debate that will unify Japan for the struggles ahead: post-keiretsu economic reform, a declining population, a faltering US alliance and the ever-shifting geopolitical terrain of the Pacific Rim. This stagnant debate is and will remain the greatest hindrance to Japan's effort to move out of the shadows of its past in order to set a new course for the 21st century.