At their recent summit meeting in the United States, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. president Donald J. Trump reaffirmed that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unshakeable. The United States also expressly said that it would use every military means at its disposal, including both conventional forces and nuclear weapons, in order to defend Japan from any attack.
Lately, Abe has made a point of not forgetting to mention the solidarity of the alliance whenever discussing U.S.-Japan relations. When he gave a speech before a joint session of Congress in April 2015, he said, “Enemies that had fought each other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit.” In that speech, for the first time, he spoke of the U.S.-Japan alliance as an “alliance of hope”. During his December visit to Pearl Harbor, Abe spoke highly of the “power of reconciliation,” and, again, of the “alliance of hope”.
Abe was telling the world that, yes, during the Pacific War the United States and Japan fiercely fought each other. But after the war they achieved reconciliation and formed a relationship built upon a solid alliance.
President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments during his May 2016 visit to Hiroshima. However, unlike Abe, Obama did not use the word “apologize” for the events of the war. There were some who were not pleased by this omission, but it must be remembered that this omission was a message to China, which has been relentlessly pursuing a history war against Japan.
One month after the United States and Japan made a final announcement, in September of 1997, on revisions to the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation (“the Guidelines”) in response to the increasing prominence of the threat posed by China, then-Chinese premier Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader in 12 years to visit the United States. On his way to Washington, he stopped in Hawai’i and laid a wreath at the memorial of the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. The thinly-veiled political intention behind this visit was to drive a wedge into the U.S.-Japan alliance by calling to mind the wounds suffered long ago. It was China’s “Remember Pearl Harbor” gambit.
Before Japan fought the United States in World War II, it fought in Asia, mainly against the Nationalist Kuomintang army led by Chiang Kai-shek. At that time, the United States was engaged in joint operations with the Nationalist army and provided them with military aid.
However, the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious in the civil war that broke out in China after the end of World War II. It is the People’s Republic of China, and not the Chinese Republic, which now occupies one of the five permanent seats at the United Nations Security Council, and which also assumed the role of “victorious nation” from Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists. Strictly speaking, Japan has never fought a war against the People’s Republic of China, and so it is absurd for the PRC to claim to be a “victorious nation” in any war against Japan.
When Kozo Sasaki, who would later go on to become the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, visited Beijing in 1964, Chairman Mao Zedong said, “Japanese militarism was tremendously advantageous for China, in that it allowed the Chinese people to take back power. Had it not been for your imperial army, it would have been impossible for us to reclaim power.”
But such adherence to history has been brushed aside today, and the PRC has enthusiastically styled itself as a “victorious nation in the war against Japan” in order to force Japan into a posture of atonement. It is for that reason that China has been assiduously played up the history wars.
Last year, Obama and Abe together visited Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima—places symbolizing the beginning and the end of the Pacific War—and accomplished a true reconciliation. Surely this markedly decreased the effectiveness of China’s history-wars card against Japan.
As if to signify this, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who together with Abe visited the Pearl Harbor memorial during their trip to Hawai’i, also visited Yasukuni Shrine upon their return to Japan. However the reaction to her visit petered out quickly. This could be taken to mean that the road now lies open for Abe to resume visits to the shrine.
From the beginning, the true nature of the “Yasukuni issue” has been subsumed within China’s history wars against Japan. The objective of China’s anti-Japan history wars is to drive a wedge into that alliance, and to impose restraints on Japan’s security guarantees. In order for China to develop an effective diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis Japan and circumscribe Japan’s presence in the region, it is necessary that Japan continue to be portrayed as an aggressor nation locked into an “apology consciousness” over the Second World War.
It was in 1985, at the height of the Cold War, that China began making clear its objections to Japanese prime ministers’ visiting Yasukuni – precisely the year in which PM Yasuhiro Nakasone and President Ronald Reagan began touting a “honeymoon” for Japan and the United States. More recently, China vociferously objected to prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni. But these, too, coincided with strengthened U.S.-Japan ties, in this case over their cooperation in the war on terror.
On the occasion of Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that “there are other memorials besides Pearl Harbor, such as the memorial for the Nanking Massacre.” But by that logic, Japan has memorials, too. Like Yasukuni.
During his most recent visit to Washington, Abe visited Arlington National Cemetery to pay his respects to America’s war dead. Would it not therefore be appropriate that Trump honor Japan’s war dead by visiting Yasukuni Shrine during his visit to Japan slated for some time later this year? Doing so may be enough to remove the postwar millstone hanging around Japan’s neck.
Kazuhiko Inoue is an independent journalist