Hakenkreuz and Hinomaru
An Aug. 15 visit to Yasukuni Shrine reminds a German reporter why reconciliation in Asia is such a difficult endeavor. While Japan’s government tries a new approach toward Korea, the Japanese right agitates against it. Here is his on-scene account.
To visit Yasukuni Shrine as a German on the 15th of August is a surreal experience. Especially if like this year the end of the war in Japan coincides with the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of Korea.
At first I could not spot any signs of remorse for the aggression. It felt more like visiting a haunted house in an amusement park, where the undead ghosts of the past were out to remind visitors of more glorious times. Just before I entered the shrine compound I passed by a line of uniformed men displaying the Hinomaru on their right arms and the "Hakenkreuz" (swastika) flag of the Nazis on their left. That was nothing compared to the welcome I received a little later, though. In one corner, half hidden between a statue and a fence, I spotted a dozen or so old war veterans and young wannabe-warriors dressed in Japanese Imperial Army uniforms. A frail teen tried hard to look determined as he stood holding a small plastic toy front loader rifle. One chubby die-hard fan of the good old days paraded around in rubber boots. Around them hustled a young fellow wearing a World War II-era German officer's cap emblazoned with the eagle and Hakenkreuz.
"You are German?" the latter asked eagerly. As his right arm shot up, he clicked his heels and shouted "Heil Hitler!" at me. "Germany, strong country," he uttered in broken English, and wrestled a CD featuring the 24 top hits of German Wehrmacht soldiers out of his bag to show his admiration for Japan's former war ally. Another wartime music fan next to him started singing Wehrmacht songs to me. In the background, a guy clad in the white uniform of a sea cadet waved the Rising Sun flag of the Japanese navy.
After many encounters involving similarly ill-conceived attempts at hospitality during my twelve years of living and traveling in China, Japan and Korea, I must admit that I am not surprised or shocked anymore. But having grown up in the German anti-fascist and peace movement of the 1980s, I still cringe.
The latest incident had a more sobering effect, however. From a European perspective, this occupation of Yasukuni Shrine by the right-wingers on such a momentous date reveals a lack of historical reflection and an unwillingness on the Japanese side to understand the feelings of other Asian nations. Both stand in the way of reconciliation in Asia.
Of course, the display of power by a few fringe elements of Japanese society does not mean much in itself. But a simple hand fan distributed by the Zaitokukai, a fast-growing organization against voting rights for foreigners in local elections, suggests that these few are only the vanguard. Thousands of people were gripping the group's little gift bearing a message to the world, especially Koreans: "The annexation of Korea by Japan is the source of the modernization of Korea!" Not at all supportive of Prime Minister Naoto Kan's attempt to ease Japan's strangled ties with its closest neighbor.
The good news – at least from the standpoint of reconciliation – is that the Japanese government got its message across abroad and at home. Not only did Prime Minister Kan acknowledge in his message of remorse that the annexation was forced, but for the first time the government did not devalue the symbolic gesture. In stark contrast to prior prime ministerial apologies, no cabinet ministers visited the shrine on Aug. 15.
Of course, Kan's gesture alone is not enough to tear down the strong wall built and fortified by forces in Korea and China, which use Japan's past to prop up their own nationalist agendas at home and as a convenient stick to keep Japan in check diplomatically. They too play their role in the reconciliation game. I like to say: What Japan lacks in historical recall, China and Korea holds far too much. But at least Kan made it harder for South Korean society to doubt that his government means what it says.
Equally important is that the message conveyed at home. "No ministers showed up," fumed one visitor in front of the reception hall reserved for visiting government representatives. "The democrats are ruining Japan!" shouted a Zaitokukai agitator.
But others saw the anger as improvement. Finally, they said, the Japanese right now understands that there is resistance to their view of history.
Martin Koelling is the East Asia correspondent for Financial Times Deutschland. He also writes a weekly blog about technology from Japan for the online version of the German edition of Technology Review.