"Yasukuni has been a major obstacle to better relations throughout Asia for a long time," says Jeff Kingston, a professor of Japanese history at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, "but the friction just keeps getting worse."
Although the name Yasukuni means "Peaceful Nation," the Shine's controversial history has been anything but peaceful. Built in 1869, Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the souls of more than 2.5 million of Japan's war dead. During Japan's colonial era, military and political leaders made the shrine a focal point of Japan's native religion, which they used to help justify Tokyo's drive to conquer Asia. Nationalist propaganda proclaimed that the souls of those who sacrificed their lives at war for Japan would live on forever, venerated as heroes, at Yasukuni. Soldiers, pilots and seamen heading into battle would frequently bid farewell to each other by saying, "See you at Yasukuni."
Although Japan embarked upon a drive to become an economic superpower following its military defeat in 1945, the Yasukuni shrine has remained a quiet but potent and enduring symbol for the country's die-hard nationalists. Since 1959, priests at Yasukuni have quietly enshrined over 1,000 convicted war criminals, including infamous figures like Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister and Nazi supporter who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. The shrine frequently attracts ultra-conservatives who wear rising-sun headbands, drive ominous black vans blaring military marches, and call on the Japanese people to reassert the emperor's divinity and resist foreign influences.
While those black-van nationalists have long been an easy-to-ignore radical fringe, increasing anxieties over China's new global assertiveness have spurred a gradual rightward shift in the Japanese mainstream over the past decade. For politicians like Koizumi, Yasukuni is regaining its talismanic importanceeven before he was elected, Koizumi promised on the campaign trail to visit Yasukuni every year.
Not surprisingly, most Japanese are reluctant to acknowledge that nationalism is on the rise, and they resent the accusation especially from China, a country that spends a far greater proportion of its GDP on defense than Japan does. They point to Japan's 60-year track record as a democratic, pacifist, nuclear-weapon free nation, and say that Japanese leaders have apologized for World War II frequently and publicly. They also ask what the the more than $33 billion in direct aid, technical assistance and loans Japan has given to China since 1979 is, if not de facto, reparations for past injustices.
But while Japanese school kids are not taught to hate the Chinese, they are sometimes offered a distinctly exculpatory version of World War II history. At Yasukuni's museum visitors learn that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt restricted energy exports to Japan not in protest at Japan's invasion of China, for example, but because in 1939, he had resolved to join Great Britain in the war, and used "embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war." Likewise, an exhibit on the "Nanking Incident" of 1937 does not mention the tens of thousands (and perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Chinese citizens the Japanese military slaughtered there in 1937 and 1938. It says only that, "The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace."
And due to Japan's distinction as the only country to have suffered the effects of atomic bombs, many Japanese even perceive their country as one of the war's great victims. The growing popularity of nationalist pop culture, meanwhile, is only reinforcing the lapses in education. In "Introduction to China," a best-selling comic book, readers learn that Japanese atrocities like the massacre at Nanking or the biological experiments on Chinese prisoners by the Imperial Army's Unit 731 either never happened or have been cynically exaggerated for Chinese political gain. And today, the comic claims, China is a leading exporter to Japan of crime, prostitution and disease.
With booming economic growth and accompanying military build-ups in East Asia, the arguments over historical events 60 years ago may sound somewhat beside the point to many outsiders. But with the premiers of China and Japan no longer on speaking terms, talk is already turning to this: Will Koizumi's successor visit Yasukuni?