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Everybody Who Trashes the Japanese Over the Yasukuni Shrine Ought to Learn a Little History About It
He would of course be wise not to go to Yasukuni, least of all in an official capacity. It incites China and Korea and gives Beijing an excuse for some nationalist gestures of its own, always a help in diverting attention from local issues.
But the rest of the world would do well to stop forever accusing Japan of wanting to gloss over its history of aggression and war crimes. Asian countries in particular may need reminding of of their history in that period as a counter to how views have been shaped by a mix of American (and western in general) bias and Chinese propaganda.
To start with, in the usual media coverage – at least outside Japan – the words Yasukuni Shrine are bracketed with the phrase “Class A war criminals” whose names are recorded among the fallen. Let us forget for a moment the numerous monuments to imperialist generals, oppressive colonial rulers and leaders of ethnic cleansing wars against indigenous inhabitants that are found in the cities of the west. Those may be deemed irrelevant if only because few excite much attention from contemporary politicians.
Instead let us look back at what actually happened in Asia 60-70 years ago. It is usually assumed that Class A criminals were adjudged by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – colloquially known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal -- to be the worst, most evil offenders and hence deserving of the death penalty.
In fact, however, Class A referred not to specific incidences of crimes in the normal sense of the word but the imprecise “crimes against peace”. Those indicted were not murderers and rapists but senior commanders and political leaders, including several top diplomats – but not the Emperor.
The actual specific crimes were in separate categories – Class B for crimes of war and Class C for crimes against humanity such as the Nanjing massacre. More than 300,000 Japanese were indicted under the latter categories.
The Tokyo Tribunal process lends itself easily to the term “victors’ justice.” The only representative of a non-combatant nation, India’s Radhabinod Pal, wrote a 1,000 page dissenting judgment in which he attacked the underlying assumptions of the proceedings and asked why the atom bomb attacks were not also included. Pal himself was biased because he had been a sympathizer of Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army had allied itself with Japan.
But if Pal’s sweeping condemnation of the process was unique, other judges had deep reservations too. The French judge was critical of the process and its speed, the Dutch one voted for several acquittals on account of the vague nature of the charges. Both of these judges were lawyers. China’s judge was a military man.
The Russians and Chinese also carried out their own trials. And so did the US. Perhaps the most notorious was the Manila trial and execution of General Yamashita, accused of being responsible for the war crimes that accompanied the battle for Manila in 1945. This was a travesty. Yamashita, who had a reputation for honorable conduct, had withdrawn with most of his force to northern Luzon rather than defend Manila. The battle for the city which cost perhaps 250,000 mostly civilian lives, was the result of a frontal assault with massive artillery use by General Douglas MacArthur and defense by a Japanese naval contingent which was only nominally under Yamashita’s command.
None of this is to deny the atrocious behavior of Japanese troops on various occasions, of which Nanjing is the most notorious. Nor the coverup of issues such as “comfort women” and germ warfare research that went on long after 1945 – with the connivance of the victors. But the performance of the tribunals, not to mention amnesty for the emperor and the rapid return to political leadership of unreformed rightists like Nobusuke Kishi who went from being a suspect Class A criminal to prime minister has naturally given the Japanese a sense of injustice. Add in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the symbolism of the Yasukuni visit becomes clearer.
Asians in particular should also remember how much they cheered the Japanese military victories, at least initially. Not only at the general level did Japan effectively end western imperialism in Asia. Even when the oppressive nature of Japanese rule was well known, some nationalist leaders saw wisdom in cooperating with it.
In Burma, Aung San was trained and installed by the invading Japanese who pushed out the British though he later fell out with them when he discovered their independence was a sham.
In Indonesia, Sukarno skillfully played the Japanese card in his push for independence, and future president Suharto worked for a Japanese-led force before becoming a hero of the war against the Dutch. Even Koreans, who were most obviously oppressed by Japanese occupation dating to 1910, collaborated. Park Chung Hee, the modernizing strong man of post-1960 Korea, was an officer in the Japanese army in Manchukuo.
In the Philippines, many leading families also collaborated. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino’s father was the ambassador in Tokyo of the puppet government of President Salvador Laurel, the father of Cory Aquino’s vice president. Yes, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was harsh, and the Americans were welcomed back. But the hardships were as much the result of the war as of the Japanese themselves. Laurel was charged with treason but this was later dropped and he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1949. He had been a nationalist who saw cooperation as the best way of protecting his people and at times stood up against his masters – including refusing to declare war on the US. A villain? A hero? Or a decent man caught between two imperialist powers?
In the Malay Peninsula, Chinese were naturally in the forefront of resistance to the Japanese. It was a time when Peiping (as Beijing was then known) claimed the loyalty of all overseas Chinese. But Malays, even the aristocracy that the British cultivated, tended to be neutral. Meanwhile the ever-pragmatic Thais under Pibul Songkram aligned themselves with Japan before switching sides as the outcome of the war became clear. Arrested as a war criminal, Pibul later returned to power for another decade. In exile after 1960, he moved to Japan.
It is worth recalling now, given the problems in Thailand’s southern, Malay-speaking provinces, that in 1945 the British proposed, as punishment for aligning with Japan, these provinces be joined to Malaya. This had long been favored by the Sultan of Pattani who preferred loose British oversight to direct rule from Bangkok. But the US opposed it on the grounds of keeping Thailand in the pro-west camp.
Does all this have much to do with Yasukuni? Yes it does. Because only by remembering what was happening in the turbulent decade of 1935-45, which the shrine recalls, can one understand Japan’s relationships with all its neighbors, not just China and Korea.