Sunday, August 27, 2006

An Internal Japanese Affair

“The president is not going to get involved in that,” said White House press secretary Tony Snow responding to a question regarding Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s official visit the previous day – Aug 15, anniversary of the end of World War II – to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Snow then sequed into an irrelevant discussion about how the shrine visit would not impact resumption of the six-party talks for disarming North Korea. Three of the antagonists in the Yasukuni Shrine issue are a part of the talks. There was no followup question and Snow moved on to other matters.

Still, it was a pregnant moment. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that the Yasukuni Shrine, hitherto a matter of supreme indifference in the U.S., had impinged on a presidential news conference or begun to be acknowledged and discussed outside of Asia.

A couple of prominent American pundits picked up the issue, presumably because Koizumi made his pilgrimage on the anniversary of the surrender. Previously, he had paid his respects on other days.

George Will of Newsweek wrote a column about it, although he made a rather curious comparison to the controversy surrounding display of the Confederate flag. “With their comparatively minor but still acrimonious arguments about displays of Confederate flags, Americans know how contentious the politics of national memory can be.”

In one sense the U.S position that the brouhaha is “an internal Japanese matter” is understandable, even wise. One could argue that Washington, President George W. Bush in particular, has enough global problems to contend with without adding a new one, especially with a valuable ally.

Prime Minister Koizumi has been a faithful handmaiden in many recent American endeavors, from the War in Iraq to the efforts to disarm North Korea. Why antagonize him or his successor over an issue that almost no American knows or cares about?

There is a curious disconnect in the American attitude, though. It is as if World War II in the Pacific was some minor dustup between China, Korea and Japan of which the U.S. was merely a passive bystander. It is as if the U.S. is being asked to settle differences among Asian friends of which it has no stake itself.

Yet the famous 14 “Class A” war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni – not to mention Class B, C, D criminals – more than 1,000 in all – were not convicted by the Chinese or the South Koreans. They were convicted by the Tokyo Trials set up by U.S Occupation Forces. It is America’s war legacy that is at issue in Koizumi’s visits.

It may be that Koizumi’s presumed successor when he steps down next month, Shinzo Abe, will discontinue the practice, and the issue will essentially go away. He has been vague on whether he would follow Koizumi’s practice (though he is every bit as conservative on the matter, if not more so, than Koizumi.)

During President Bush’s visit to Japan late last year, Koizumi had the cheek to tell Bush to his face, “even if I am told by the U.S. not to, I will go.” This is sheer bravado. If Washington made an issue of the visits, they would stop. Period.

All it would take would be one well timed snub, one official protest. The only real issue is whether anyone in the U.S. government has the spine to do it.


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