Why Yasukuni Is Different From Auschwitz

In symbolism, it's worse.
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Prison photos of Nobusuke Kishi, one-time
Japanese prime minister and grandfather
of current prime minister Abe, via Wikipedia.

Last night I was so amazed/regusted by news that Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that I batted out a quick item that used the wrong analogy. In the item I said:

For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

As many people have written in to report, Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren't the right comparisons. Those and other former Nazi concentration camps have become memorials to the suffering and sacrifice of their victims and, as anyone familiar with Germany knows, symbols of the country's introspection through 60+ postwar years. For some other time, more on the difference between Germany's (comparatively) unflinching awareness of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and Japan's averted gaze from that era. For now, a sample message from a reader with a Chinese name:

The "but it's close" implies that the Yasukuni visit is not as inflammatory as a Auschwitz or Buchenwald visit by a German chancellor.

Arguably, it is more so. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are widely understood
to be sites dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany; when German chancellors visit Nazi concentration camps, as they often have, they are sending a message of contrition. Yasukuni, on the other hand, is dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Imperial Japan, and a visits by Japanese politicians send the opposite message....

The rest of your blog post is, alas, all too accurate.

And from a reader with a non-Asian name:

I suspect many readers are writing to protest your attempt to create an analogy to Abe's visit to the shrine of war criminals.

A German chancellor visiting Auschwitz is not glorifying Nazi atrocities, but more likely acknowledging the historical reality in the face of increasing denial.

Likewise, an American politician visiting a lynching site (though this has room for more ambiguity, depending on the politics of the individual and other factors).

But this rather than just bitch about this, it raises a more interesting question as to what a really good analogy would be. There are no doubt plenty of places in the American south that are unambiguously tied to Confederate  and Jim Crow history, making a visit there a clear statement about the Civil War  or civil rights. Maybe Jefferson Davis' tomb? Perhaps in Germany a visit to someplace significant in the life of Adolph Hitler?

The difficulty of finding a good analogy points out the relative uniqueness of the Japan enshrining an event or people that is offensive to so much of the rest of the world.

Similarly:

I would take issue with your comparison to "a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald" in any context. The central difference is that Auschwitz and Buchenwald are recognition of the wrongs committed by German troops, not a recognition of imagined heroism. It's difficult to imagine any German political figure visiting those places with an intention of honoring the perpetrators, which is what Mr. Abe seems to have done at Yasukuni. 

It's difficult to construct a plausible analogy in Western Europe. Perhaps a French president visiting Napoleon's tomb before visiting Russia, but even that lacks the historic immediacy of Yasukuni. Perhaps if the Stalin museum were in Russia, rather than Georgia, there could be a comparison with Putin visiting there before going to Ukraine. 

And, for a little twist: 

Both of my grandparents fought against the Japanese during WWII and many of my mother’s relatives were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese.  I used to agree that Japanese leaders should not visit Yasukuni.  

Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.”  

First, while Yasukuni holds war criminals alongside many regular service men and women, it is not some outlier.  Many war memorials not only include the names and graves that others regard as war criminals, but directly honor these figures.   The UK has a memorial to the man who ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden.  The Chinese still have a cult around Mao, who oversaw terrible slaughters.  In the USA, we still have high schools and monuments to Confederate generals 150 years later.  Entire cities and states are named after slave owners, more so than the early abolitionists.  (How many Washingtons and Jeffersons vs Adams and Hamiltons?)  

Second, while the Japanese acted barbarously in the 1930s to 1945, they were also terrible victims at the end of the war, and they have been the model of peaceful world citizens for the past 70 years, even in the face of serious provocations, including from those who criticize Japan now.

Finally, the East Asians of all people should be most sensitive to the issue of “face.”  The main East Asian nations still gripe loudly about each other’s sins and defects, but reserve special criticism about the Imperial Army.   The louder the Chinese and everyone else shout about the sins of the Imperial Army, the more that a Japanese leader has to do something to save face.  A visit to Yasukuni is less belligerent than many alternatives, like lobbing missiles or sinking boats.

All in all we, the rest of the world, are the ones making a visit to Yasukuni about war crimes.   Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on.  Better yet, we take the issue away from the neofascists and warmongers on all sides, just as East Asia heats up.

Heating up indeed. I'm watching CCTV [China Central TV] right now, which is wall to wall about Yasukuni -- and P.M. Abe's comment that he is "sorry" he didn't make the visit earlier. Thanks to readers for the corrections. [Update: Please see additional item, with comparisons to similar gestures in U.S. history, here.] 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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