why the memorial offends

yasukuniOrdinary Gentlemen blogger Nob Akimoto’s “Guide” to the recently reignited controversy surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is mislabeled. What he has actually penned is an “Apology” for war criminals and those who honor them. That is unfortunate because trusting readers may misunderstand why the memorial deeply offends so many people all over the world.

The first clue that a bait and switch is being perpetrated is the deployment of that classic piece of illogic called special pleading. Just four sentences into the piece Akimoto raises and then immediately drops the Shinto concepts of kami and matsura with the plea that they are difficult to “translate into western terms.” Thus are readers invited to simply accept his subjective perspective as true, without further explanation. That some of those readers might grasp difficult ideas like predestination, non-attachment, or dharma doesn’t matter. Just accept that you’ll just never understand the essence of Japan (Then imagine you hear the ghostly music of Noh theatre).

The second clue is the obvious reduction through minimal description of the offenses committed by the 14 Class A war criminals who were memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine in 1978. Describing them as crimes against peace (conspiracy to start and wage war) and atrocities committed against prisoners of war doesn’t capture the extraordinary scale and extreme cruelty of their war crimes. To make matters worse, Akimoto offers only one figure: the 2,463,915 Japanese military dead from multiple wars memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine. The war that these monsters launched took the lives of 20 million Chinese and another seven million people in the other countries conquered by the Japanese military.

The third clue is the unnecessary narrowing of the explanation for outrage about the Yasukuni Shrine. Yes, Chinese and Koreans are angered when Japanese prime ministers perform there to curry support from nationalist voters, but so too are many Japanese. Japanese public opinion is not monolithic. Like the deceptive euphemisms of officially approved history textbooks, official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine reinforce the suspicion that Japan’s conservative elites are intent upon downplaying responsibility for the horrors perpetrated by Japan between 1937 and 1945.

Akimoto ends by deploying a tu quoque or ‘you did it too’ argument. Chinese have no right to complain, he argues, because they venerate Mao Zedong. What Akimoto fails to note is that it was the extraordinary disruption of Chinese society and economy caused by the Japanese invasion and occupation that created the political opportunity for Mao Zedong’s Red Army to win the Chinese civil war that erupted at the end of the Second World War.

What does Akimoto conclude? Only that it was in “bad taste” to include the 14 Class A war criminals among the other war dead memorialized at the Yasukuni Shrine. Bad taste? That isn’t even sufficient to describe Akimoto’s apology.

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Photo of the Yakusuni Shrine by Wiiii, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported2.5 Generic2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.