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Japan Honors WWII Dead, Including War Criminals

by Suvendrini Kakuchi

Japan's New History Texts Called Revisionist

(IPS) TOKYO-- Post-war Japan, unlike post-war Germany, has been never able to face its violent wartime record in any serious, self-reflective manner. And this year's anniversary of the end of World War II comes at a time when the country is undergoing a nascent rise in nationalism -- much to the worry of its Asian neighbors, in particular China.

Sunday, on the 59th anniversary of the end of World War II, four Japanese government ministers visited Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. This Shinto site honors the nation's nearly 2.5 million war dead, but many of them are considered war criminals, including 14 people judged as "Class-A" war criminals.

Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, Agriculture Minister Yoshiyuki Kamei, and National Public Safety Commission chairwoman Kiyoko Ono paid homage at the shrine, as did Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, war veterans dressed in vintage uniforms and hundreds of members of the public.

As expected, China, which was occupied by Imperial Japan, expressed outrage.

The Chinese foreign ministry swiftly issued a statement saying it deeply regretted the ministers' actions.

"The Chinese side hopes the Japanese side will honour its word by facing up to history," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.

The underlying tensions between the two peoples erupted earlier this month in China during an Asian Cup soccer match that Japan won. Chinese fans heckled the Japanese players, cowed Japanese fans with historical insults, and forced officials to deploy some 6,000 police.

The annual visit to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of the militarist regime that led Japan into war, was more charged than usual given the current debate in the country to amend Article Nine of the constitution -- drawn up by the U.S. post-war occupation which renounces the use of force in disputes.

Japan plays a role in international peacekeeping, and currently has troops in Iraq, but its constitution limits its military's powers. However, revising Article Nine -- would be highly controversial in Japan.

Article Nine of Japan's post-war constitution technically forbids Japan even having a military, although this has been re- interpreted to permit forces for self-defense. Japan's government needed to pass special legislation to allow the Iraq despatch.

For Yoichiro Minowa, 67, a tailor, August always brings back painful memories.

"I lost my parents during the U.S. bombing of Tokyo. As a result I was so poor that I had to give up my studies and become an apprentice when I was 14 years old, to survive," he tells IPS.

Minowa, who lives alone above his tiny shop in Tokyo, says the experience has made him a strong pacifist. He believes Japan must never wage war again and stay repentant for colonising countries in Asia.

But, as experts point out, such sentiments are fast diminishing in a post-war year that has been marked with material affluence and an education policy that has ignored a thorough debate on the nation's war responsibility and repentance.

Minowa, who sometimes volunteers in a peace program to share his experience with young children, says he can attest to the distressing situation.

"Many of the youngsters I meet are shocked to hear my story because they have never been exposed to the cruel side of Japan's war experience," he says.

"What I worry about most is the huge gap between me and the younger generation when it comes to understanding Japan's war history. They do not share my passionate distaste for any kind of military violence," adds Minowa.

Indeed, take the case of Kiyo Ueno, 24, who is working hard to be a rap artist.

"While I feel sorry for the Chinese and Koreans who suffered under Japanese rule, I do not feel personally responsible. The young Japanese look at the future not the past," says the university graduate who says she prefers to live in the United States rather than Japan.

Several surveys conducted over recent years support this lack of remorse among young Japanese.

A 2001 survey done by a leading television company on the opinions of the public on official government visits to Yasukuni Shrine revealed that 68 percent of people in their twenties considered it "nothing wrong" to pay homage to the war dead. On the other hand, 46 percent of Japanese against it were in their 60s and above.

Professor Hirofumi Hayashi, who teaches peace studies at Kanto University, says the contrasting views illustrates shortcomings of the Japanese education system where the violent side of Japan's war history has been expunged from school text books.

"As a result, there is little interest in Japan's past among the young. We now have a generation who have little political consciousness and prefer to be absorbed with having personal fun," explains Hayashi in an interview.

Hayashi heads the Center on Japan's War Responsibility, one of the country's few research groups that focuses on digging up documents that reveal the actions of the defunct Imperial Army.

But he says his research often runs into blank walls in Japan and reveals that most of his evidence of Japan's war-time role had been obtained from Britain and the United States where documents were more freely available to individuals.

On the other hand, conservative writer, Susumu Nishibe, explains that Japanese youth are searching for a national identity and are torn between the "sentimental philosophy" of leftists who call for repentance towards Asia and right-leaning politicians who make careless remarks to hurt the feelings of Asian neighbors by referring to Japan's World War II actions in a positive light.

"What is needed now is rekindling a strong identity for the modern generation about their own country -- something we lost as a result of American influence after our defeat," he explains.

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Albion Monitor August 16, 2004 (

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