[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
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
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.
This page last updated February 1, 2014 jdb
|| 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
Fellow with the Institute for Corean-American Studies. The views expressed are his personal views.