With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan has once again taken the position that it has nothing to apologize for in World War II.
At a time when East Asia is already on edge with territorial disputes between China, South Korea, and Japan, Japan’s hardline nationalism threatens to stifle diplomacy further.
The Yasukuni Shrine enshrines all those who have died fighting for Japan from the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s through World War II. Included among the enshrined are 14 Class-A war criminals and more convicted of lower level war crimes in World War II.
There are many more who served their country with integrity. But the Empire of Japan’s expansionist violence was not limited to World War II, and neither is Yasukuni’s offensiveness limited to the shrine itself.
Japan took control of the Diaoyu Islands, the main islands being disputed by China, in 1895, the same year they took Taiwan with a treaty that has since been invalidated. Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
When it comes to Yasukuni, the on-site Yushukan war museum may be even more offensive than th
e enshrined war criminals, for within the Yushukan there is no apology — nor even any acknowledgement — of many of the massacres those very war criminals presided over.
Take the Nanjing Massacre. Shortly after the start of the Sino-Japanese War — it is known as the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in China — in December 1937, Japan ransacked the city, burning and looting, and executing civilians.
According to the findings of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, within the first six weeks of Japanese occupation, over 200,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers were killed and 20,000 women were raped.
Yet at Yushukan, in the text about the “Nanking (Nanjing) Incident,” there is no mention of these atrocities, only an assertion that “General Matsui Iwane distributed maps to his men with foreign settlements and the Safety Zone marked in red ink. Matsui told them that they were to maintain strict military disciplines and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished.” Matsui was convicted at the war crimes tribunal for his failure to control his men in Nanjing.
Throughout the museum, the displays echo these revisionist viewpoints. Japanese disgraces are downplayed or whitewashed, and alleged Chinese acts of violence are trumpeted.
Seishiro Itagaki, who served as a leader of the brutal Kwantung Army in the 1930s, is one of the 14 Class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni.
He was one of the lead plotters of the Manchurian Incident, a false flag bombing blamed on the Chinese. The Japanese used their own attack on a railway to justify their invasion of Manchuria and establishment of the Manchurian state.
Of the Manchurian Incident, the museum says simply, “The Manchurian Incident was triggered by a bomb ripping the Japanese railway near Mukden on September 18, 1931. It was engineered by the Kwantung Army.” Later text blames “Chinese nationalism” for a campaign of “anti-Japanese harassment and terrorism.” “Under such circumstances the Kwantung Army resorted to force,” it says.
Manchuria, rather than being a puppet government established under the false pretext of a Japanese-committed terrorist attack, was established “by a confederation of five ethnic groups, who hoped to create a nation of peace and righteous government,” museum visitors are told.
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, was the start of total war. The “incident” occurred when Japanese soldiers carried out unannounced military maneuvers in violation of existing agreement.
Surprised Chinese troops responded with light fire. Early the next morning, Japanese reinforcements massed and attacked the bridge.
Yushukan places the fault squarely on the Chinese: “The prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in China helps spread the small incident of Chinese shooting at the Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge into a full-scale engagement covering all of North China.”
Another early battle in the war was the “Second Shanghai Incident,” which, the museum goes to lengths to claim was “again triggered by the Chinese side.”
The Japanese view of the war today has not changed much since the International Military Tribunal for the Far East published their judgments in 1948.
As the judgment states, “They maintained that no state of war existed between Japan and China; that the conflict was a mere ‘incident’ to which the laws of war did not apply; and that those Chinese troops who resisted the Japanese Army were not lawful combatants, but were merely ‘bandits.’” The scars of World War II continue to impact East Asian diplomacy, and Japan’s actions aren’t allowing those scars to heal.
Mitchell Blatt is an American writer based in Hong Kong.