Japan’s aggression in Asia during World War II killed millions, and deeply traumatized China and Korea. Since then, Japan has apologized and paid reparations. Nonetheless, the onus remains on Japanese leaders to show sensitivity to war victims, which is why Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was right to avoid making a visit last week to a memorial that included some of the country’s worst war criminals. Unfortunately, he sent a ritual offering instead, in a move to placate Japanese conservatives. Hopefully, Abe and his successors will steer clear of the Yasukuni Shrine in the future — and avoid any offerings, as well.
In the eyes of many Japanese, especially the right-wing voters who helped elect Abe, the annual controversy over visits by Japanese politicians to the shrine seems unfair. It honors the nation’s war dead, including top politicians later found guilty of war crimes, but supporters claim the visits are merely a non-political way to pay respects to the dead.
Yet other Asian countries, especially China and South Korea, see the visits as glorifying militarism. Japanese officials know full well that visits stir outrage, and they have a responsibility to avoid picking at historical scabs. They should follow the lead of the Japanese emperor, who has wisely declined to visit the shrine in recent decades.
Nonetheless, reconciliation has to be a two-way street. Asia will never forget Japan’s past actions, but the Japan of today poses no existential threat to Korea or China. It does nobody any good to cling to hatred, and it’s disappointing that both countries kept up criticism despite Abe’s gesture. Japan can’t undo the past; China and South Korea can’t live in it.