Yasukuni Shrine and Political Theatre
The Lord of She instructed Confucius, saying, “There is an upright man in my district. His father stole a sheep, and he testified against him.”
Confucius said, “The upright men in my district are different. Fathers cover up for their sons and sons cover up for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.”
The above quote reflects, in some ways, a different world view. On this view, one’s duties to respect and honour one’s ancestors can and does over-ride issues pertaining to their criminality. Would I necessarily uncritically endorse such a world view now? No, I’m suspicious that such a view excuses venality and corruption among public officials who are supposed to operate impartially without favouring their own family members. That said, even to this day, in many common law jurisdictions, there is still spousal privilege. People are not legally obligated to testify against their spouses in criminal matters. The difference between spousal privilege and Confucius’s condemnation of a son’s testimony against his father seems to be just a matter of degree.
But symbolic matters are different. More concrete matters like rights violations, public order, poverty and inequality are not at issue. Shinzo Abe like many Japanese politicians including ex prime-minister Junichiro Koizumi (who BTW kinda looks like Richard Gere) publicly visited the Yasukuni Shrine. China and South Korea have predictably freaked out like they did the previous times Japanese politicians visited the shrine. The Yasukuni Shrine is a controversial shrine with war dead interred in it. A number of these war dead include war criminals. Of particular concern are the 14 Class A war criminals. These people did not merely follow orders, they were the order givers. War criminals were interred in secret at Yasukuni shrine and were later enshrined as Showa War martyrs* in 1978. The enshrinement was publicised a year later and the Showa Emperor** (Hirohito) in an act of towering hypocrisy or contrition (depending on your view) publicly refused to worship at Yasukuni. Since then, Akihito sends a lesser member of the Royal family to visit the shrine. Other members of the government have continued to visit the shrine.
If you don’t place such a high value on virtues like filiality (to the extent that covering up for one’s criminal father is the right thing to do) it is understandable if one sees visiting the shrine as nothing more than a way to piss off one’s own neighbours and rattle a few sabres. But, if one is familiar with Confucian culture as China and South Korea ought to be, then one should recognise the seriousness of the moral dilemma that officials face in deciding whether or not to visit the shrine. On the one hand, one has a prima facie obligation to honour one’s ancestors and on the other hand, one has an obligation to repudiate war criminals. When the ancestors and war criminals are one and the same, you get a dilemma. One thing that tilts the dilemma in favour of visiting the shrine is that the trials which condemned said war criminals are thought to have been both procedurally and substantively unfair. One alleged procedural flaw as pointed out by Justice Radhabinod Pal was that hearsay was admitted as evidence without supporting secondary evidence. Pal also accused the US of provoking the attack on Pearl Harbour and pointed out that the failure to prosecute allied commanders for firebombing civilians, mass deaths of non-repatriated Japanese soldiers and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki implied that the tribunal which prosecuted the Japanese war criminals was just a form of victor’s revenge.
Does any of this mean that visiting the shrine is the right thing to do? I don’t know. But it should be obvious that is at least understandable. But, if South Korea and China should find such visits understandable, their vehement objections to such visits seem wildly disproportionate. It seems that any such response has more to do with political theatre than any sincere moral outrage. What seems to be the case is that South Korea and China hope to leverage on the Yasukuni visits to generate international pressure to overcome Japan’s economic clout. The idea is to better their own bargaining position by exploiting Japan’s military dependence on the US. Since US troops provide a big chunk of Japan’s defence, i.e. Navy and Air defence capabilities and treaties are arranged such that any attempt by Japan to build up its own capabilities in these sectors results in the withdrawal of US troops***. That means that there is no way for Japan to develop air and sea defence forces without an interim period of sever vulnerability.
Understanding Chinese and Korean caterwauling for what they are allows us to ignore them, or at least gives us less moral cover in terms of putting pressure on Japan to not visit the Shrine. Ultimately, none of this is to deny that there is more than a bit of political posturing going on with such visits. One may very well object that politicians like Abe do not have pure motives when visiting the shrine. However, that is irrelevant: Such posturing would lack bite if there wasn’t already an underlying moral dilemma.
*There is also a Yushukan war museum which promotes a wildly denialist and creepily revisionist account of the pacific war whitewashing all the war crimes. That is just sick and wrong and may very well be a big part of what makes the shrine controversial. The ministers avoid the museum when they visit the shrine.
**Hirohito and many other members of the Royal families would have been war criminals but for the fact that General MacArthur forgave the Royal Family in order to provide a symbol of continuity. While allied propaganda paints Hirohito as an unwilling warrior forced into war by his military advisors, other views portray Hirohito as having more control both d jure and de facto over major war decisions.
***There is a one year gap between informing of intention to break treaty and the complete withdrawal of US troops.