ICAS Special Contribution


Responding to the Abe Visit to Yasukuni:
The Park Initiative and Beyond

Larry Niksch

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422
Email: icas@icasinc.org

Biographic sketch & links: Larry Niksch

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution of this testimony with written permission to ICAS of Larry Niksch sjk]

Responding to the Abe Visit to Yasukuni:
The Park Initiative and Beyond

Larry Niksch 1

The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, drew well publicized reactions by high level officials of China, South Korea, the United States, and Singapore. The initial South Korean and Chinese reactions were very critical in line with the virtual freeze in their relations with Japan. The U.S. and Singapore reactions were more cautious, expressing disappointment over the visit.

However, all of the initial reactions had one thing in common. They were general in nature and lacked a focus on the substance of the controversy over Yasukuni. The critics accused Prime Minister Abe of refusing to acknowledge the many negative feature of Japan's history during the first 45 years of the 20th century. They warned that Abe was worsening Japan's relations with his neighbors and isolating Japan. These criticisms have validity. However, the criticisms lacked specifics on how Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese Government should deal with the Yasukuni issue now that he has visited the shrine. The earlier appeals and demands that he not visit Yasukuni had no permanent impact. In view of the visit, future visits appear certain.

President Park's Initiative

Then, on January 13, 2014, President Park Geun-hye gave an interview with CNN that changed the South Korean responses to the Japanese history issue. For several years, a hardening South Korean policy had three elements: (1) sharp denunciations and diplomatic confrontations in reaction to Japanese policies and pronouncements; (2) warnings that the Japanese Government should not undertake certain actions aimed at revising dominant interpretations and judgments toward Japan's history in the first half of the 20th century; (3) and a South Korean attitude, perceived by many U.S. observers (and Japanese), that Japan never could satisfy South Korean demands on the history issue no matter what Japan did, that South Koreans always would create new demands.

The changes that President Park laid out were twofold. First, she specified two steps that Prime Minister Abe could take that would resolve at least some of the impasse between the two countries. She called on Abe to endorse as Prime Minister two past Japanese government statements that acknowledged the wrongdoings of Japan's past. One of these was a statement of apology that Prime Minister Murayama had issued in 1995 to countries that Japan had occupied before and during World War II. The second was the well-known statement on the issue of Japanese "comfort women" pronounced by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei in 1993. Kono acknowledged that thousands of women who sexually served the Japanese army during that period had been coerced into this servitude and that the Japanese Government and Army were responsible for this program. He issued an apology in the name of the Japanese Government.

Second, President Park portrayed these statements in positive terms, that "Japanese political leaders" had shown "their correct understanding of history." This positive portrayal was unprecedented, the first such portrayal from any South Korean leader. Prior to President Park's pronouncement, R.O.K. leaders either had described these statements as insufficient or had cited them only to warn Japanese leaders against modifying or rescinding them-as many Japanese history revisionists propose. According to President Park, however, because of the Murayama and Kono statements, "we were able to move forward with Korea's relationship with Japan."

President Park thus strongly suggested to Prime Minister Abe that he publicly endorse the Murayama and Kono statements and that such an endorsement would restore a more normal relationship between South Korea and Japan. Her interview also had two additional meanings. First, that she believes that a response to the Yasukuni visit should aim at seeking a resolution of the history issue with Japan rather than seeking to perpetuate the dispute. Second, that Prime Minister Abe should separate himself clearly from the history revisionists by endorsing the Murayama and Kono statements.

President Park thus has given to Prime Minister Abe an opportunity to move the Japan- South Korea relationship in a new, more positive direction. But this would require Abe to voice a positive endorsement of the Murayama and Kono statements, including a reaffirmation of the accuracy of the Kono statement on comfort women. A merely negative promise of not rescinding the statements undoubtedly be an insufficient response to the Park initiative.

An affirmative response from Prime Minister Abe would not resolve all disputes between Japan and South Korea-certainly not the Dokdo-Takeshima dispute-but it would appear to be an important step to re-open this frozen relationship. The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress should voice support for President Park's initiative. U.S. officials, too, should describe the Kono statement in positive terms instead of feigning public silence under a policy of "neutrality," while State Department warn Japanese officials in private not to revise or rescind it.

Abe's response to the Park initiative is uncertain. Throughout his two tenures as Prime Minister, he has shifted toward and then away from the history revisionists, especially regarding the Kono statement. A positive response would separate him from an important goal of the revisionists, to rescind the Kono statement. If the Prime Minister took this action, it seems to me that outsiders ought to establish a moratorium-albeit a watchful moratorium-on criticizing future visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. No one should deny the leader of any government the right to honor the war dead of the country he or she leads.

However, if the Prime Minister's response to President Park is negative, or if he ignores her overture, he will give the history revisionists another incentive to advance their agenda of rescinding the Kono statement and revising Japanese history textbooks to omit or de-emphasize the responsibility of the Japanese Government and Army for the abuses and oppression of the 1930s and World War II, and earlier in Korea.

An Elevated Response

If his response is negative, then it seems to me that a revised response to the Yasukuni visit should elevate the challenge to the Prime Minister. An elevated response should focus on the most controversial element of Yasukuni: the enshrinement of 14 "Class A" Japanese war criminals. The 14 include Japan's wartime premier, Tojo Hideki, and several top Japanese military leaders. They were convicted in 1948 by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, better known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The enshrinement took place in 1978. The Shinto priests, who administer Yasukuni, had debated enshrinement since the mid-1960s. An examination of their decision reveals that they acted to refute directly the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. This act foreshadowed the rise of the history revisionists in Japan. A leading component of their agenda has been a refuting of verdicts against the Class A war criminals. It should be noted that many Japanese opposed the enshrinement of the 14. Emperor Hirohito and Emperor Akihito have not visited Yasukuni since 1978, reportedly because of the enshrinement.

This response would be in the form of two direct questions posed to Prime Minister Abe: "Do you accept the verdicts of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East?" And "Does the Japanese Government continue to adhere to Article 11 of the Japanese Peace Treaty of 1951?" Article 11 states that "Japan accepts the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied war crimes courts."

These questions would pressure Prime Minister Abe to make a fundamental choice between the agenda of the history revisionists and the views of the Allied governments and occupied countries during this period of Japanese history. A "Yes" answer to the questions would separate him from the history revisionists and undermine their agenda. It should end the controversy over his reasons for visiting Yasukuni. A "No" answer or an attempt to evade the questions would signal everyone that the Japanese history issue is a major problem that will threaten country relations throughout East Asia.

Prime Minister Abe, in fact, did address these questions twice, on October 2 and 4, 2006. According to Japanese officials, Abe answered questions in the Japanese Diet by stating that Japan accepts judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East through Article of the San Francisco Peace Treaty. These statements, however, preceded Abe's ambivalent pronouncements on the comfort women issue in 2007 and later and the current controversy over Yasukuni visits. Thus, it seems to me that this new context renews the importance of these questions.

In judging the necessity of this kind of response, two questions must be answered. The first is whether the Japanese history issue is a sufficiently serious threat that warrants a direct challenge to the Prime Minister. That question is debated in Washington. The State Department's position, stated on November 24, 2013, is clear-that the Obama Administration has no intention of acting openly to resolve Korea-Japan disputes. However, it seems to me that President Park's overture has raised this question to a higher level. Abe's response to Park will raise this question to a higher level. Moreover, since the December 26 visit, Chinese officials in Beijing and at least 30 other world capitals have denounced Abe continually for the visit as "proof" of his intent to revive Japanese militarism. China's actions and strategy to exploit the Japanese history issue makes the history issue a serious threat.

A second question is "Who would pose questions regarding the Tokyo war crimes verdicts to Prime Minister Abe?" Certainly, the position of the State Department stated above makes it unlikely that the Department and the Obama Administration would act that assertively on the Japanese history issue. The willingness of the South Korean Government to challenge Abe in this way is uncertain. But, aside from governments, there are influential experts, policy research organizations, and media organs in the United States, South Korea, and other countries, that could begin to raise the question of Japan's acceptance of the war crimes verdicts. A sustained raising of the issue would gain the attention of the Japanese Government, the Japanese media, and the Japanese public. There would be a Japanese debate over these questions and answers coming from Japan, and possibly from the Prime Minister.

President Park has issued the first substantive response to the Yasukuni visit. Prime Minister Abe's response to her initiative should determine whether her initiate will achieve a positive breakthrough on the history issue or whether an elevated response is needed.

1 The author was Specialist in Asian Affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service from 1966 to 2010. He currently is a Senior Associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an ICAS Fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies. The views expressed are his personal views.

This page last updated February 1, 2014 jdb