Enshrining War Crimes


Just how much the world’s second largest economy still suffers from the sclerotic hold of events more than half a century old is demonstrated today, in Japan, by a curious incident and perhaps a plot centring around the late Emperor.

What precipitated the latest story was a scoop by Japan’s equivalent of the London Financial Times, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun; the memories of two old loyalists of Emperor Hirohito, one of them dead; a Right-wing bomb thrower; and the probable next Prime Minister to succeed the conservative Junichiro Koizumi when he retires in September. The plot is unproved but then most political conspiracies that succeed remain secret.

Yasukuni shrine

It began when the newspaper, known as the Nikkei, published last Thursday an article remarkably embarrassing to both Koizumi of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and his expected successor, the hawkish Right-winger Shinzo Abe, 51, presently Cabinet Secretary. The Nikkei report disclosed that Hirohito, who died in 1989, was displeased at a decision to enshrine 14 Class-A, convicted Japanese war criminals the worst at a military holy place, the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The criminals were sanctified (not interred) there in 1978 and Hirohito stopped his visits to Yasukuni thereafter. His successor, Akihito, has not set foot in the shrine either.

The evidence came from the fading diary of an old royal household retainer, the Grand Steward Tomohiko Tomita, who died in 2003. He wrote in a 1988 entry, which Nikkei obtained, that the Yasukuni priest who decided to let in war criminals was not a man of peace and, the Emperor said, ‘That is why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart.’

In most countries, this small episode would be, at best, a minor historical footnote of interest only to scholars. But in Japan, it was front-page news because it strikes at the heart of the dilemma in which Tokyo finds itself today: how to resolve the still unsettled crimes and atrocities of its imperial warmongering of 1931-45. These still impede its aspirations to civic normality and have damaged diplomatic relations with China and South Korea, crucial neighbours who are Japan’s two biggest Asian trading partners.

The timing of Nikkei’s scoop immediately aroused suspicion. Although Japanese refrained from public comment, resident foreign historians revealed that the Tomita diary was old news. Historian Earl Kinmonth of Taisho University, Tokyo, commented on the ‘open secret’ and said:

I have to wonder, ‘Why now?’ Have business interests, who think that pilgrimages to Yasukuni are bad for the bottom line, decided that it’s time to play the Imperial card?

His point illuminated why the article was so embarrassing to Koizumi and Abe. In Japan the Emperor is still revered, and conservatives in particular regard his words as commands. Koizumi’s much-criticised Yasukuni visits, which he began immediately after becoming Prime Minister in 2001, must now look like blatant disobedience.

As for Abe, the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1957-60), he seemed to be hoist on his own patriotic petard. He has said he would continue Yasukuni visits as Prime Minister; yet in his grandfather’s early political years, such a flouting of imperial wishes would have meant shame and disgrace. Abe immediately hedged, saying Hirohito’s visits had stopped ‘for a variety of reasons.’ He did not list them, adding lamely that it was a decision of the Imperial Household Agency. But all imperial decisions are promulgated by that institution.

Then came the bomb.

It was filled with petrol and hurled at Nikkei’s entrance in the early hours of Friday. It did little damage and nobody was hurt, but the perpetrator was reported to be wearing a red cap to ensure he would not be missed?

Again there was little or no Japanese comment, but Reporters Without Borders based in Paris, immediately published a protest, castigating

infuriated ultra-nationalist groups [who]have launched previous attacks on the press, murdering a journalist from the Asahi Shimbun in 1987. We condemn this attack as well as the threats and harassment against journalists accused of sullying Japan’s Imperial past. It is essential that the Government ensures the safety of Nikkei and identifies those who carried out this attack.

Display room inside the shrine

When it comes to Japan’s Right-wing, murder is often part of the story. It is even privately theorised that some extremist factions in the ruling LDP, as well as other forces of ‘patriotism’ in the country, deliberately but secretly encourage threatening activities from the Rightists (uyoku). Visitors to Tokyo can see them today in loud-speaker trucks festooned with slogans and the rising sun symbol, shouting at a volume that breaks every anti-noise law in the land.

In the 1930s, assassination was a feature of Japanese politics, though mostly carried out by army fanatics. However, insulting the Emperor has still brought death or attempted murder to public figures in recent years. The 1987 assassination referred to by Reporters Without Borders of a liberal reporter, Tomohiro Kojiri, of the Asahi Shimbun, was never solved despite claims for the crime by a uyoku group called Sekihotai.

Meanwhile, another old patriot of imperial times is making more embarrassing disclosures in support of the Grand Steward’s diary. He is Hisao Baba, 81, Yasukuni’s former publicist and an official there for 45 years. He told the Japan Times of a conversation he had with the shrine’s top priest, Fujimaro Tsukuba.

Baba said Tsukuba was a man with a strong temper who sought to ‘ignore’ the postwar international Tokyo tribunal that sentenced the 14 war criminals to death for crimes against humanity. ‘Tsukuba ordered us to call them œmartyrs  and I have questions about that,’ he added.

The next test of the so-called new generation of Japanese politicians and their attitude to the charge that Japan is unrepentant over its imperial agressions, will come next month, on 15 August. That is the anniversary of the nation’s 1945 surrender a date that Koizumi has favoured for a Yasukuni prayer visit in the past.

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