Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Historical Debate at the Heart of Future Japanese-US Relations

On August 14, 1945, World War II officially ended in the Pacific theatre with the Japanese surrender in accord with the Potsdam Declaration. The nation of Japan was occupied by the United States army under the watch of General Douglass McArthur. Throughout the occupation, and following Japanese independence in 1952, to this day, Japan remains an important ally to the United States. In a region that includes Russia, China and North Korea, Japan and its neighboring US military bases, such as Okinawa, have become extremely important in furthering and protecting US interests in the region. Japan is also a huge economy and a top trade partner, hence, a hot bed for US investment. Nevertheless, Japanese ties with many of its neighbors have begun to improve, especially economically as China and Japan have recently become major trade partners. This has prompted some foreign policy experts to predict that Japan may begin to move away from ties with the United State and perhaps, become part of a regional Asian Union, along the lines of the EU. In a June 3, 2006 meeting of defense experts in Singapore, United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, expressed concern over an East Asian summit held last year which included ten of the states involved in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as China, South Korea and Japan, but excluded the United States, according to a New York Times article by Michael R. Gordon. Increasing ties with China could potentially bring Japan closer to such coalitions as the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, a security, economic and cultural based cooperation which includes China, Russia and several central Asian nations and has granted observer status to nations including Pakistan, India and Iran.

The direction of Japanese foreign policy will be greatly determined in the coming elections for Japanese Prime Minister. With the retirement of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizume, the vacant seat for Prime Minister and head of the governing Liberal Democratic Party has come down to two men with widely divergent views on the foreign policy path Japan should undertake. According to a New York Times column entitled “Race to Lead Japan May Turn on Asia Ties,” Norimitsu Onishi writes that the race has boiled down to politicians with “starkly different views:” Shinzo Abe, 51, current chief cabinet secretary and Yasuo Fukuda, 69, a former chief cabinet secretary. Mr. Abe has become popular amongst his supporters for his hard-line stance on North Korea and China, while Mr. Fukuda’s supporters rally behind his policy goals of rebuilding friendly ties with the rest of East Asia. While Mr. Abe leads in the polls, Mr. Fukuda has tightened the gap, which experts say is rooted in increasing public sentiment that Japan should fix ties with China as its top priority, according to the aforementioned article.

The issue of Japanese relations with its Asian neighbors is deeply rooted in historical circumstance, particularly, Japanese aggression against its East Asian neighbors, beginning in the early 1930s, and lasting throughout the duration of World War II. Following the war, in which Japanese troops committed horrendous war crimes including mass execution, rape, torture and pillaging; over one thousand Japanese troops were convicted as war criminals at the Tokyo Trials, including fourteen class-A war criminals. The Emperor Hirohito, the behind the scenes leader throughout the period of aggression and war, was allowed to stay in power, despite calls for his removal from power and trial as a war criminal. Since the war, intense debate has arisen between Japanese and other East Asian scholars over the nature of the crimes. In addition, all of the Japanese sentenced as criminals of war, including the 14 class-A war criminals, were enshrined in a monument to war veterans known as the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine has become a focal point of debate, both inside Japan and abroad. Retiring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine in 2005 to honor the war dead, a move that enraged critics of former Japanese militarism. His potential successors, being divided on future Japanese foreign relations, are no doubt also divided on the Yasukuni Shrine issue. The more conservative Mr. Abe, who promotes the hard-line stance toward China and North Korea, not only advocates the visitation of the shrine by Prime Ministers, but also refuses to accept the validity of the Tokyo Trials, which convicted the war criminals. Mr. Fukuda does not think that Prime Ministers should visit the shrine, as he views it a stumbling block toward improving relations with Asian neighbors. Mr. Fukuda claims that Japan must resume a “heart to heart” dialogue with its Asian neighbors and ultimately build an East Asian community, Norimitsu Onishi writes.

I have written two articles, the first of which discusses the Yasukuni Shrine issue and the second of which details the events that have created a sort of historical amnesia which continues to plague Japanese relations with its Asian counterparts. The articles were prepared for a history course on modern Japan, taught by Herbert Bix, world-renown Japanese historian and author of the myth-shattering Hirohito: and the Making of Modern Japan which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and was a New York Times notable book. Some of Professor Bix’s recent articles include:

"Japan's Surrender Decision and the Monarchy: Staying the Course in an Unwinnable War," (posted on, July 5, 2005)

"Torture, Racism, and the Sovereign Presidency," Z. Magazine Online, 18:7-8 (July-August 2005) at

"The Faith that Supports U.S. Violence: Comparative Reflections on the Arrogance of Empires," (posted on Z-net website and, Sept. 2, 2004)

"From Nanjing 1937 to Fallujah 2004: War Crimes in Perspective," completed May 3, 2004 and posted on

The Yasukuni Shrine Issue

Beginning in the eighth century, the people of Japan popularized the term Shinto (the Way of the Gods) to describe a diverse set of ritual observances and sacred sites.[i] The Shinto divinities were known as kami and they were worshiped in small shrines located throughout Japan. One thousand years later, Shinto would be used to justify a revolutionary shift in the governing apparatus of Japan. The Meiji constitution redefined the role of Emperor and Shinto from mere religious symbols to intimately intertwined entities within the Japanese state system. Ito Hirobumi, one of the post-revolutionary oligarchs, described the emergence of Emperor-rule, justified by state-Shinto and articulated in the Meiji constitution, in his famous Commentaries on the Constitution, which defined the now classic rhetoric of the theocratic emperor.[ii] The Commentaries dictated “The Emperor is Heaven descended, divine and sacred. He is preeminent above all his subjects. He must be reverenced and is inviolable.”[iii]
Following the depression crises and the Manchurian incident, right-wing militaristic forces began to consolidate power in Japan through heavy handed means of insubordination and outright terror. As Hirohito moved closer to the expansionists and began to increase military capabilities, the state unleashed an unrelenting propaganda campaign promoting ultra-nationalism with the armed forces, endowed by Hirohito’s spiritual authority as commander-in-chief, fulfilling a “moral mission” to expand.[iv] When Japanese soldiers began to die in Asia, the Yasukuni Shrine, established to commemorate the spirits of those who die serving the Emperor, took on a new significance.[v]
Following Japanese defeat in 1945, U.S. officials, together with the Japanese “moderates” and Hirohito agreed that preserving the monarchy was in the best interest of all parties involved, however the Emperor was to be redefined as a figurehead, absent of any political power.[vi] With the transformation of the Emperor came the abolition of the state-Shinto as well, for the new constitution provided for a scrupulous separation of church and state.[vii] In abolishing state-Shinto the constitution also removed ties between the Yasukuni Shrine and the state, yet the Shrine was not abolished and like the Emperor it was shielded from international pressures calling for its destruction.[viii]
The ties to Japanese militarism were thus overlooked, and the shrine was designated a religious monument independent of the state.[ix] The separation from the state as a purely religious entity is somewhat contradictory however, in light of the fact that the Shrine had been erected by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to honor pro-government troops who died serving the Emperor. Although officially separated from the state by the constitution, the Yasukuni Shrine had been established and evolved exclusively in accord with the policy of state-Shinto. The controversy surrounding the Shrine escalated when, in 1978, fourteen class-A war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni.[x] They were not the first war criminals to be enshrined, yet, in the eyes of the Asian continent that had suffered under Japan’s brutal military campaign, it was a direct insult.
When diplomatic relations between Japan and China were normalized in 1972, the Chinese government did not ask for reparations because many Chinese felt, according to a Daily Editorial, that Japanese aggression had been caused by a small faction of militaristic elements, who they did not equate with the Japanese people as a whole.[xi] Tensions over the Shrine were further inflamed in 1985 when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro made an official visit to the Shrine, conjuring memories of state-Shinto and its disastrous consequences.[xii] In light of the controversy, Nakasone sought to separate the fourteen war criminals, but was rebuffed by Shinto doctrine which states that once spirits of kami have been enshrined, removal of the spirits would be impossible, such a feat would be like retrieving a cup of liquid after it has been poured into a larger tank of water.[xiii]
The state also has its hands tied in regards to modifying Shinto doctrine because of the rigid separation of church and state embedded in the post WWII constitution. Nevertheless, Japanese politicians are constantly ridiculed by foreign populations, as well as peace activists at home, who feel that the post war Yasukuni Shrine represents the prewar view of Japan’s modern wars and stands in direct opposition to the results of the Tokyo Trials.[xiv] These opposing viewpoints can not be disregarded especially in light of the Shrines ties to the Yasukuni Museum, which serves to glorify the Asian campaigns of the 1930’s and exalts the Japanese soldiers as national heroes. The official website for the museum directly condemns any criticism of Japanese war policy, describing the 1,068 convicted war criminals sentenced to death as “Martyrs of Showa, who were cruelly and unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces (United States, England, the Netherlands, China and others).” Such sentiments add fuel to the international outcries against the Shrine for its role in channeling religious energy into the war.[xv] Ironically, the post-1945 separation of church and state, established to assure that the Emperor would never again be able to manipulate state-Shinto doctrine to fuel militaristic endeavors and construct autocratic power, has also tied the states hands in eliminating a symbol which glorifies the military campaigns conducted in the era of state-Shinto. Today, with economic ties uniting many of the Asian nations, particularly Japan and China, two of the world’s economic superpowers, the prospect of a united Asia, along the lines of the European Union economic alliance, may lie in the foreseeable future. Such a move, however, will require a vast amount of diplomatic maneuvering by Japanese officials to appease their Asian neighbors by acknowledging their crimes on the continent. Solving the Yasukuni Shrine dilemma will, no doubt, be a central component of the appeasement process.

End Notes

[i] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 6
[ii] Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000. p. 29
[iii] Bix 29
[iv] Bix 274
[v] Bix, Herbert P. “Emperor, Shinto, Democracy: Japan’s Unresolved Questions of Historical
Consciousness” (13 June, 2005): (accessed May 2, 2006)
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Yomiuri Shimbun. “Yasukuni: Behind the Torii / From Government-run Shrine for War Heroes to Bone
of Contention” (11 July, 2005): (accessed May 2, 2006)
[x] Bix, “Emperor…”
[xi] Shimbun
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Bix 653

Historical Amnesia Concerning Japanese War Crimes

In June 1945 American forces secured the island of Okinawa, killing an astounding 250,000 Japanese people in the process.[i] Japan’s wartime ally Germany had surrendered and a massive campaign of carpet bombing had turned most of Japan’s cities to rubble.[ii] Coupled with the Soviet announcement that they would not renew their neutrality pact with Japan, Hirohito and his cabinet understood the inevitability of defeat, yet refused surrender.[iii] Well aware that continued fighting was hopeless, Hirohito, Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro and the senior statesmen around the throne refused surrender, fearing peace, which might doom the imperial institution, more than a prolonged war, which promised a continuation of death and destruction.[iv]
Imminent defeat and the ever fading illusion that the crippled Japanese army could mount a decisive blow to allied forces, made the prospect of unconditional surrender all but certain. Still, Hirohito, while introducing the idea of “early peace” to his military leaders, took no steps toward immediate surrender.[v] With the prospect of conditional surrender off the table, Hirohito and his senior statesmen could no longer manipulate the actions of the allies. Perhaps the Japanese leadership knew they could play the United States and Soviet Union against one another, convincing the US of the value in preserving the imperial throne to effectively combat communist elements. The fact that the US Secretary of State was none other than Joseph C. Grew, the former ambassador to Tokyo and a man sympathetic toward the emperor and the “moderates” around the throne, supports this theory.[vi]
Nevertheless, the Emperor and his associates understood that they were at the mercy of the foreign powers and planning shifted toward the domestic sphere. The Potsdam declaration was issued on July 26, 1945 which notified Japan that it had just two choices, “the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces” or “prompt and utter destruction.”[vii] The threat of destruction did concern Hirohito, not the destruction of lives but of the imperial regalia, three sacred items that symbolized his legitimacy of rule through the northern court, these items, he stressed to Kido, were to be protected at all costs.[viii] The destruction of lives, however, was not of primary concern to Hirohito, whose dismissal of the Potsdam Declaration echoed the sentiments of Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa, who told his secretary on July 28 that there was “no need to rush.”[ix]
Indeed, Hirohito’s primary concern had shifted toward domestic issues however his concern was not to save the people from further destruction but rather, to save the kokutai (Emperor worship) from destruction by the people.[x] Perhaps Hirohito was waiting for a declaration of war by the Soviets, thereby allowing him to surrender in the face of insurmountable force. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (August 6), convinced Stalin to enter the war a week early (August 8), and the subsequent atomic bombing of Nagasaki (August 9), the same day as the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, taken together provided, as Professor Bix notes, “a face-saving excuse to surrender.”[xi]
Hirohito manipulated the situation masterfully, declaring that he was acting out of altruism to save “human civilization” from “total extinction” by “paving the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come.”[xii] The Emperor, in whose name the war had been fought, sought not only to avoid accountability, but to redefine his image as the center of domestic unity, from which the people of Japan would prosper.[xiii] Following the surrender rescript, radio announcer Wada Shinken proclaimed “We ourselves invited a situation in which we had no choice but to lay down our arms,” having thus implicated the people she illustrated the benevolence of the Emperor, who declared “I can no longer bear to see my people die in war,” despite what may become of him.[xiv] “Before such great benevolence and love,” she asked, “who among us can escape reflecting on his own disloyalty?”[xv]
Following the conflagration of materials that could implicate Japan’s highest leaders, the media unleashed a relentless propaganda campaign which established Hirohito as a national hero, the savior of Japan.[xvi] The Emperor and his propaganda specialists constructed another myth alongside that of the peoples shared responsibility and the Emperor’s exalted ideals in saving the nation. To lift the burden which the whole nation was made to share, the Japanese aggression in Asia was redefined, or perhaps restated, as having been a legitimate war of self defense, seeking autonomy from western encroachment while promoting the altruistic ideals for the “liberation of Asia.”[xvii]
The surrender rescript and the myths constructed to legitimize surrender served not only to redefine the Emperor, but also the Japanese war of aggression in Asia and the status of convicted war criminals. Thus, the portrayal of Japan’s role in the aggression and mass atrocities of the 1930’s, combined with United States policy which allowed a war criminal to remain in power, so long as he served US interests, created a problem of historical consciousness that today, as Professor Herbert Bix notes complicate Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors.[xviii] These issues, which began with the surrender, continue to foster fierce debate, within Japan as well as with its neighbors, over the true nature of Japanese aggression in Asia.

End Notes

[i] Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, NY:
Oxford University Press, 2003. p. 223

[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Bix, Herbert P. “Japan's Surrender Decision and the Monarchy: Staying the Course in an Unwinnable
War” (5 July, 2005): (accessed May 3, 2006)

[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2000. p. 500
[viii] Bix 502
[ix] Bix “Japan’s…”
[x] Bix 509
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Bix 526
[xiii] Bix 527
[xiv] Bix 527-28
[xv] Bix 528
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Bix “Japan’s…”
[xviii] Ibid.


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