Japan’s defence minister has been criticised by China and South Korea for visiting the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the Japanese honour their war dead.
Japan’s neighbours claim the shrine celebrates people who committed war crimes. Visits to the shrine by Japanese politicians often lead to complaints in the Chinese and Korean media, but the current defence minister Tonomi Inada is noted for her nationalism and noted as something of a hard-liner.
She even once suggested that Japan should develop its own nuclear weapons – although she has since sought to distance herself from that position.
Following her visit to the shrine she told reporters: “I offered prayers with the wish to firmly build peace for Japan and the world from a future-oriented perspective. I expressed my gratitude, respect and mourned for those who gave their lives for their country. I think people in any country can understand that.”
Many foreign writers and journalists have analysed the Yasakuni Shrine issue over the years so it has probably had more press attention than almost any other political issue. It was refreshing to hear some excellent analysis of the significance of the Yasakuni in a radio programme called “Axis of Power” on BBC Radio Four by the reporter Gideon Rachman.
He is one of Britain’s most respected newspaper commentators and regularly writes for the Financial Times.
During the programme, Gideon read out one of the signs below a Zero fighter plane which is displayed in the shrine. It was used in the Second World War to attack China. The sign claimed that the battle had been a “victory” for Japan and Gideon described the tone as “frankly celebratory.”
Gideon then interviewed the Chinese political analyst Eric Li, who is often used by the foreign press to explain the thinking of the Chinese government. Mr Li said that China’s anger towards Japan is justified because of the Japanese invasion of China which took place around 75 years ago. When Gideon put it to him that the long passage of time since then should have reduced the angry feeling, Mr Li said that to say the anger should cease is like saying the Jews should no longer feel angry toward the Nazis for the Holocaust. But he also asserted that no one in their right mind believes that the anger will lead to a war in which China invades Japan.
The other excellent commentator that Gideon spoke with was Carole Gluck, a professor in history at Columbia University who specialises in Japan.
She explained that after the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, the Chinese stepped up patriotic education for their youth and began to demonise the Japanese. “They revved up young Chinese people with an anti- Japanese patriotic sentiment. There’s an awful lot of very intense emotional polemic, mostly on the internet and mostly in the native Chinese languages. The Japanese youth have responded in kind, so there is a hostility among young people towards the other countries which is not fact based nor experienced based,” said Professor Gluck.
The Chinese propaganda and the nationalist rhetoric of Japan are both reasons why diplomatic relations between China and Japan remain tense. However, on an individual level, the Japanese and Chinese nearly always enjoy good cordial relations, especially when it comes to business.
Furthermore, 2016 saw a record number of Chinese tourists visit Japan, drawn especially for the shopping experiences in Tokyo and Osaka.
Japan extends the same warm hospitality to the Chinese as it does to all foreign visitors. This open approach does much to the help to offset the unhappy memories of the past.