|Shinzo Abe (center) at the Yasukuni shrine, courtesy of Reuters.|
Perhaps I’ve gotten ahead of myself here. What is the Yasukuni shrine? For those not in the know, the Yasukuni shrine is a Shinto shrine dedicated to all of the Japanese war dead from the Meiji era through World War II. This is some 2.5 million souls, including civilians killed in American bombings, Korean and Taiwanese soldiers who were drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during the colonial period, and, most controversially, fourteen Class A war criminals who committed atrocities and massacres throughout Asia and the Pacific during WWII. So from the Chinese or the Korean perspective, this would be kind of like a memorial to the German war dead that included the guards killed in the Treblinka uprising. The enshrinement of the war criminals’ souls (and more on the absurdity of this whole business shortly) first came to public attention in the 1970’s, and from then until now it’s this big, recurrent controversy over who visits the shrine and who doesn’t (because not visiting the shrine is making a statement just as much as visiting it). So, for instance, from the seventies until his death, Emperor Hirohito himself refrained from visiting the Yasukini, whereas every right-wing asshole in Japan—and some from overseas, like the aforementioned Le Pen—have visited it and continue to visit it to make a point that they’re nationalists and they want to honor Japan’s shameful military history.
So, you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, if they could enshrine the souls of the war criminals, can’t they just disenshrine them?” Oh my goodness, no, not at all, it doesn’t work that way. As any reputable Shinto priest could tell you, once you enshrine a soul, you can’t disenshrine it; that’s just not possible, according to the totally arbitrary rules of Shinto. Now, I’m aware that this doesn’t sound particularly polite, but I can’t think of a nice way to say it: Shinto, like all other religions, is made up. And there are no souls inside or outside the Yasukuni Shrine. Souls do not exist. The priests may have said that they “enshrined” the “souls,” but that didn’t actually make something happen in the real world. This is a great example of why atheists shouldn’t just shut the fuck up and pretend to respect religion (if you’ve been on Salon.com lately, it seems that every other article is about how the “militant” atheists need to shut up and pretend to respect Christianity and Islam (Salon doesn’t have much to say about the other religions, but I digress)), because this situation is just fucking absurd. There are no souls in the Yasukuni shrine, and by saying that there are, you’re insulting the memory of the millions of people throughout Asia and the Pacific who were slaughtered by the war criminals you’re pretending to “enshrine.” Are the governments of China and South Korea engaging in demagoguery when they complain about Yasukuni? Certainly. But do the people of these countries have a genuine right to be pissed about it? Absolutely. Again, the Germans don’t honor their war criminals, and imagine that uproar if they did.
Which brings us back to Shinzo Abe, whose visit today to the Yasukuni shrine marks the first such visit by a sitting prime minister since Jun’ichiro Koizumi made the pilgrimage at the end of his term in 2006. Now, Abe claims that his visit was meant to propagate peace; according to the BBC, he says that “I chose this day to report (to the souls of the dead) what we have done in the year since the administration launched and to pledge and determine that never again will people suffer in war.” Note the absurdity in “reporting to the souls of the dead.” He could have done that from the comfort of his own home, without pissing off Korea and China. This is especially troubling for me because, despite Abe’s conservatism, I want to support a lot of his policies (unlimited quantitative easing to revive the economy, a degree of remilitarization to counter Chinese aggression). But when he pulls this kind of shit, most likely to shore up support from the right and to piss off the Chinese, he makes it difficult to do so and he plays directly into the hands of the people throughout Asia who view any Japanese military growth as a threat. This despite the fact that Japan’s relative pacifism has produced an unnatural military vacuum in the region which has left the Chinese Communist government with an opening to aggressively expand and prosecute territorial claims against its neighbors throughout the region. It is in the interests of South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries to have a strong Japan to counter an even stronger China. All of the countries currently facing territorial disputes with China should seek a cooperative relationship with Japan and with a Japan that isn’t dependant for its defense on a declining United States. When Abe pulls shit like this, he’s just giving ammunition to every Nihongoskeptic (to coin a word) in the region, as well as demonstrating a historical insensitivity that’s really just shameful.