Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Cheers For Kan

It surely won't win him many fans among right-of-center Japanese voters, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan's decision to issue a formal apology for the suffering inflicted by the Japanese military during World War II on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in lieu of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as have his predecessors is a step in the right direction towards improving relations between the country and its Asian neighbors. It's not exactly fair to say that the shrine glorifies the actions of the war criminals among the 2.4 million war dead to whom it is dedicated - in Shinto cosmology, death absolves a person of his or her sins, so honor is paid to the spirits of the dead regardless of their actions in life, and in my experience even moreso than in other cultures it is considered taboo to continue to nurse grudges against those who have left this world. (Incidentally, this seems to apply to foreigners as well - while the Japanese continue to commerorate August 6th and 9th, the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings respectively, as days of national tragedy, I have met very few people in my time who blame Americans for dropping the bombs). But the fact that the shrine makes no distinction between the honorable and the dishonorable dead is a major sore spot for Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and others who suffered under the rule of militarist Japan during the war years, and understandably so. They neither understand nor share the Shinto preference for letting bygones be bygones and view each visit made to the shrine by a Japanese leader as an added insult given that they have already so vociferously voiced their displeasure with the custom. Continuing to visit it is therefore a needless international provocation for a Japanese leader. It is an act of allegiance more-or-less demanded by the nationalist right, who have been a key component of what has been Japan's ruling coalition over most of the past sixty years, but it is foolish. There are other ways to honor the heroic among Japan's war dead, and as the years go by and Japan becomes ever more connected politically and economically to its neighbors, strained relations with them become a luxury it can less and less afford. Kan's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, realizes this and has made it a major plank of their platform, and hopefully the fact that they have managed to elect a Prime Minister willing to refrain from using internationally antagonistic appeals to nationalism to buy votes will make it easier for Japan's leaders to do the smart and sensitive thing in the future.

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