The shrine to insensitivity
published : 7 Jan 2014 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
Events of the past often must be tucked away so nations and people can get on with their lives. The US fought for years to contain Southeast Asian communism, but that was yesterday, and today is more about trade and cultural exchanges. Burmese conquerors committed huge injury on Siam, but Thailand and Myanmar must get along. The main exception to this spirit of moving on is Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Dec 26 visit to the Yasukuni war shrine is just the latest case of Tokyo rubbing every neighbour the wrong way with a needlessly offensive act.
Japanese leaders for many years have claimed they visit this Tokyo shrine as a way to honour the dead created by World War II. And it is true that the vast majority of those honoured by the shrine were helpless Japanese, forced to serve the aggressive military leaders.
But any visit to this controversial shrine honours all 2.4 million names found there. It refers to the murderous occupation of China as "the China incident". And it honours 14 undoubted war criminals, responsible for the slaughter, torture and suffering of hundreds of millions of people.
Mr Abe, Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera and other top officials know the history of the shrine. Mr Abe, during and after his visit, tried to justify it this way. "I have renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again". It is a strange way to make such a pledge, among the remembrance of brutal war criminals. But that is just the beginning, for there are two important problems Mr Abe cruelly ignores.
The first is the combination of hurt and anger this brings to Japan's current neighbours. China, arguably the most violated victim of the Japanese actions before and during the war, has decided Mr Abe is no longer welcome. South Korea, which suffered Japanese invasion, occupation and casual barbarism, understandably accused Mr Abe of trying to "beautify" its decades as a colonialist and warmonger nation.
Mr Abe said it was not his intention to hurt the feelings of Chinese and Koreans. This is an insincere explanation. There are countless ways he could abhor war. Whatever his intentions, the fact is that not only did Mr Abe hurt and anger neighbours, but he knew all along that he would do so. It seems, therefore, that he did not care about the Chinese and Korean reaction at all.
The second problem is arguably worse. Mr Abe spoke of China and Korea, but only because those two countries were so utterly offended their leaders spoke up. He did not mention the score or more of countries whose hundreds of millions of citizens suffered under the Japanese jackboots _ the Philippines and Indochina, for example, the Pacific islands, Malaya and Singapore, Burma and Thailand.
Thais may be mostly ambivalent towards Japan and even about the shrine visit, but thousands of actual survivors of the war, including Seri Thai patriots, nurse a special hatred of Imperial Japan, and have been shocked by Mr Abe's insensitive honouring of his country's criminal past.
Japan has never dealt forthrightly with its crimes of the past. Unlike, say, its World War II ally Germany, there never has been an attempt to account for war crimes. Mr Abe's blithe and blase approach to the shrine visits only accentuate his nation's refusal to man up. It is an indefensible attitude, just as Mr Abe's inconsiderate shrine visit is an insult to every East Asian neighbour.