Saturday, July 01, 2006

One Shrine or Another

One of the greatest honors that the United States can confer on any foreign leader is an invitation to address a joint session of Congress. All 535 Senators and Congressmen gather in the chamber of the House of Representatives to listen to the speech.

This honor is usually bestowed on America’s closest friends and allies. Winston Churchill set the pattern when he addressed Congress during World War II and won the members over by commenting that he might have made it to Congress himself if his father had been American and his mother British – instead of the other way around.

Only a couple weeks ago, that great and good friend of America, key ally in the war on terror President Vaira Vike-Freiberger of Latvia was invited to speak before Congress. He followed on the heels of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, the latter a sentimental favorite since Liberia was founded by the US and recently emerged from years of turmoil.

Asian leaders have also addressed joint sessions. They include president Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India (who was preceded by former prime minister Atal Bihart Vajpayee, who was preceded by his predecessor, prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.)

There is one glaring omission in this parade: Japan. No Japanese prime minister or other leader has ever addressed a joint session of Congress. The perfect opportunity to rectify this would have been during his recent visit to Washington.

After all, who else among the world’s leaders has been such a consistent friend and ally of the US? During his five years in office, Koizumi has been almost slavishly pro-American. He bucked Japan’s pacifist traditions by sending Japanese troops to Iraq and helping supply coalition warships in the Gulf.

His tenure as premier has seen the Japanese-American defense alliance strengthened in many ways. His government has been an active participant in the Six-Party talks on Korean disarmament and has been helpful in Iran and many other international issues.

On top of that would have been the sheer symbolic value of a Japanese prime minister speaking from the podium, from the very spot, where President Franklin D Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech more than 60 years ago.

But Koizumi did not address Congress during this visit. Instead, the self-professed Elvis fan, who shares a birthday with the King of rock and roll, was invited to tour Graceland, the late entertainer’s shrine in Memphis..

The official position is that no invitation to address Congress was extended and none was requested by the Japanese government. But in reality, Tokyo was worried that the dispute over Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which have brought Japan’s relations with her neighbors to new lows, might blot what they hoped would be the out-going premier’s “victory lap”.

Congressman Henry Hyde of Illinois had written House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter asking that Koizumi reassure Congress that he would not pay another visit to the Yasukuni Shrine anytime soon after his speech. The next obvious time for such a visit would be August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Koizumi is expected to pay his respects there once again before leaving office in September.

In his letter Hyde said he welcomed Koizumi speaking to Congress, but added that making the speech and then visiting the Yasukuni shrine so soon thereafter would be “an affront to the generation that remembers Pearl Harbor and dishonor the place where president Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech.”

Hyde, a veteran of World War II, is an influential member. He is currently chairman of the House International Relations Committee. While his views may not be widely shared in Congress, the Japanese probably didn’t want to take chances of it developing into an issue and spoiling Koizumi’s upbeat and sentimental farewell from the world stage.

Americans have been curiously detached from the Yasukuni shrine issue. Hyde may be the only member of Congress, indeed the only member of the entire government, who takes the matter seriously and has expressed his disapproval.

This is strange since it makes it seem as if World War II in the Pacific was some kind of parochial dustup between Japan China and Korea, in which the US was simply a passive bystander. Yet Americans might be more concerned if they realized that their entire legacy in that epic conflict is under attack in Japan.

The Yasukuni Shrine is a memorial to the souls of more than two million Japanese soldiers from wars stretching back to the Meiji Era 1868-1912). It also honors 14 “Class A” war criminals (not to mention Class B, C and D. criminals) – 1,068 war criminals convicted in a series of post-war tribunals known as the Tokyo Trials.

The issue isn’t just the technical appropriateness of the Japanese prime minister paying respects to Japan’s fallen (which was recently declared constitutional by the country’s Supreme Court.). The larger issue is what might be called the “Yasukuni Mindset”, an entire catalogue of coalescing attitudes toward the war and its legacy.

Americans would be surprised if they were to visit the Yashukan War Memorial attached to the shrine to learn that:

1. Japan fought a purely defensive war forced on it by “Chinese terrorists” and a cabal of Europeans and Americans who connived to hold down a rising but resource-poor emerging power.

2. That Asian nations from India to Indonesia owe their independence from European colonialism to the thankless efforts of the Japanese.

3. That the Tokyo Trials were a sham. The 1,067 “Showa Martyrs” – from the reign name of the late Emperor Hirohito – were railroaded through victor’s justice.

These views are no longer the province of the right wing fringe, the kind of people who patrol the streets of Tokyo in sound trucks hectoring people through loudspeakers. They are becoming mainstream.

Koizumi’s presumed successor Shinzo Abe subscribes to most of them, even if he is guarded in proclaiming them.. He has questioned the validity of the Tokyo Trials and ducked questions as to whether he considers Japan to have been the aggressor in World War II. He was expected to continue visiting the Yasukuni shrine, although he has lately hedged on that issue too.

The visit to Graceland was a public relations triumph that perhaps gives an exaggerated impression of a surface commonality that tends to mask a sense of deep revanchism that lurks just below the surface in Japan’e elite.

Washington could easily end the Yasukuni visits by making an issue of them instead of ignoring them. In doing so it would go a long way toward defusing a growing animosity among America’s Asian friends that cannot be in the country’s best interest.

Congressman Hyde is retiring from Congress at the end of this term. He will be missed. He seems to be the only person willing to defend America’s legacy from the war with Japan.


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