The Magazine

Japan's Memory Lapses

A visit to the war shrines of Tokyo.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By MAX BOOT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The views expressed at the Yasukuni are hardly universally held in Japan, but neither are they confined to a lunatic fringe. Just days before I visited the shrine, the popular governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who won reelection in a landslide this year, ignited a controversy by asserting that Korea had asked to be annexed by Japan in 1910--something that comes as news to Koreans, who still have bitter memories of the occupation that ended in 1945. Few Asians, indeed, would share the self-serving view expressed on the Yasukuni's website: "Japan's dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia." Far from being sought, Japanese occupation was actively resisted by many Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos, and other patriots who had no desire to be part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Is all this merely ancient history today? In a sense, yes. Not even the most artful romanticizers of Japan's past have any desire for a sequel. Japan remains one of the most pacifist places on the planet. It is starting to play a more active international role by participating in some international peacekeeping missions, and there is a growing movement to revise Article 9 of its Constitution, which "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation." But the Japanese are hardly embracing war; indeed, they are so wary of casualties that recent attacks in Iraq have caused them to pull back from sending support troops to help the coalition occupation.

Japan's seeming lack of repentance for its past (despite some carefully hedged expressions of "remorse" from its leaders) affects the current debate over its role in the world in two ways. First, it fosters a certain amount of unease among other Asians about a more assertive Japan. This sentiment has undoubtedly been manipulated for cynical ends by the Chinese and North Korean Communists, who have caused far more suffering to their own people than the Japanese ever did. But there nevertheless remains some genuine residual fear of Japan among its neighbors.

Second, and more important, the Japanese themselves seem rather ambivalent about their country's playing a more assertive role in the world. Polls show a slight majority in favor of rewriting the Constitution, but there is a lot of opposition. Several analysts I talked with suggested that it may not be possible to drop Article 9 altogether; the government may just have to "reinterpret" it, in order to allow Japan to build missile defenses and send combat troops abroad.

This foot-dragging is hard to figure, since Japan faces clear and present dangers like North Korea, which has roused considerable anger here by kidnapping Japanese citizens. One explanation offered by some Japanese professors is that their countrymen still fear what an unbridled military outside of effective political control might do. Such concerns might seem risible given Japan's more than half-century of democracy and pacifism. And yet, on second thought, perhaps they are not so outlandish after all: Some Japanese no doubt fear that letting the Self-Defense Forces off their leash might bring them under the control of the sort of unrepentant nationalists who worship at the Yasukuni shrine.

This is hardly an insoluble problem. The example of Germany, Japan's co-conspirator in the original "Axis of Evil," shows the answer. Germany has managed to erase pretty much all doubts about its character through a three-pronged strategy: First, making apologies, paying reparations, and banning all glorification of the Nazis. (You don't hear mainstream German politicians claiming that Poland asked to be invaded!) Second, subsuming its armed forces under NATO control. Third, merging its economy, and perhaps soon its polity, with its neighbors, via the European Union. Unfortunately, if Japan were to follow the third strategy (and there is some talk here along these lines), it might wind up becoming as beholden to China as Germany is to France today. A better prospect would be to create an Asian security structure, along the lines of NATO, that would have the United States in the lead.

Such a prospect seems unlikely now, when the Bush administration is focused on other, more urgent priorities, such as the war on terrorism. But the two are not unrelated: As we lose the support of traditional allies like France, we could use new friends willing to contribute to our larger struggle in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Japan, the world's No. 2 economy and a bastion of pro-American sentiment, remains an obvious candidate. It has, in fact, stepped forward to offer some help ($5 billion for rebuilding Iraq), but it could do even more if it could only put to rest the ghosts of World War II.

Max Boot, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is Olin senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."