[Viewpoint] Japan’s disturbing imperialist instinctDistorted historiography, sovereign claims over the Dokdo islets and politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine are habitual for the Japanese. Each of these acts strains bilateral relations with South Korea.
Now, the Japanese are throwing another tantrum over history textbooks and the Dokdo islets. The latest spat has not yet been blown out of proportion because Japanese politicians have refrained from further annoying their neighbors by choosing not to visit their infamous Yasukuni shrine, which is dedicated to Japanese war heroes.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan did not pay a visit to the shrine on Aug. 15 - which marks the end of World War II and Japan’s occupation of Korea - for the second consecutive year. Instead, he attended a memorial service for the soldiers killed in the war and commented on Japan’s fault in inflicting pain on its neighbors.
Such decency was possible because the Liberal Democratic Party is in power. The right wing criticized the government for being cowardly and lacking patriotism. To ultranationalists, absolute loyalty to imperial Japan equates to patriotism.
Visiting Yasukuni, a shrine to house and honor the spirits of those who died fighting on behalf of the Japanese emperor, has, in the past, served as a way to fire up war enthusiasm among the populace.
Thousands of young men willingly and proudly sacrificed their lives during the war. The shrine is not a simple memorial hall to respect the dead and their families. It is a hypnotic dedication of commitment to the emperor and state. Paying homage to the shrine and attending a ritual there cannot be regarded in the same light as commemorating the dead.
The Yushukan memorial museum in the shrine compound is filled with war exhibits justifying the imperial Japanese government’s invasions. The Zero-Sen fighter aircraft, the kaiten torpedo and a replica of the battleship Yamato are some of the unabashed exhibits reviving the country’s war glories. The museum canteen sells “naval curry” with the same recipe that served the Imperial Navy. The place is brimming with nostalgia for Japan’s militarist heyday.
We are not simply criticizing the enshrinement of Class A war criminals; Yasukuni will not escape controversy even if it does not pay tribute to war criminals. The shrine remains a perennial symbol of imperialism and colonization. A leader who pays respect to the shrine cannot be trusted as peacemaker.
Yet, Japanese right-wing conservatives underscore Yasukuni rituals every year. They argue that Japan enjoys today’s peace because of the sacrifice of war heroes and that it is the people’s duty to honor them. Many Japanese agree. But they have overlooked an important fact - that it is they who caused the war. The Japanese are glorifying invasive war. They have not ruminated on their crimes. Instead, they regret that they were defeated.
Ultranationalists somehow worked their propaganda into the minds of the public, brainwashing citizens to identify as victims. Even if they do not consider themselves nationalists, ordinary Japanese believe they have suffered because of the war. The post-war generation considers its conscious clear of any war crimes.
Of course, there are many Japanese who disagree and feel ashamed of their past. Japan is a diverse and multicultural society even if, from the outside, the Japanese may appear entirely right-wing. It is difficult to stigmatize Japan as a whole because the country has many faces Some are extremely brutal, and some extremely genteel. Some could not be more cunning, and others are decent.
We should not stigmatize Japan. There are Japanese who claim Dokdo as theirs and those who are excited about Korean entertainers and pop culture. Some head to the Yasukuni Shrine and others shop on the streets of Myeong-dong in Seoul.
We are not upset with Japan as a whole. What disturbs Korea is the imperialist instinct that ultranationalists doggedly try to breed. They tend to be subdued during peaceful times but resurface when tensions build.
We are again at a time of tension. Japan is pleading for solidarity and patriotism in order to battle the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and ensuing economic hardship. In this case, nationalistic instinct can be usefully exercised.
But better-sensed Japanese will fight and master their demonic instincts.
*The writer is social news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
By Nam Yoon-ho