The Sun Also Rises: Resisting Militarism in Japan


The giant tori gate outside Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, a tranquil Shinto shrine in Tokyo that hosts a controversial museum that airbrushes and revises Japanese war crimes during the Second World War. Nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine in December, drawing outrage from China and Korea. (Photo: camknows / Flickr)

I passed through an enormous tori, the traditional gate in front of Shinto shrines. In the courtyard, white-clad Shinto priests walked quietly back and forth. A flock of white doves, specially bred on the site, pecked at the ground and then took wing at the prodding of a photographer. I visited the strolling garden and the sumo ring.  I examined the ema, the small wooden plaques that worshippers hang at the shrine to send their wishes to the kami, or spirits.

More than a decade ago, I was enjoying my visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a tranquil oasis in busy Tokyo, when my attention was suddenly attracted to several large objects lying on the ground outside the museum within the shrine complex. One of the objects was a kaiten. During World War II, the Japanese Army developed this manned torpedo for suicide missions. It was an ominous sign. Inside the museum, the Yushukan, the curators presented a sanitized version of Japan’s wartime conduct that celebrated sacrifice and ignored the less savory elements. There was no discussion of atrocities like the Nanking massacre or the drafting of women into sexual slavery or the chemical weapons experimentation. Indeed, at a book table on the ground floor, I scanned the titles of several publications that exposed these “myths.”

The Yushukan has generated its share of controversy. But Yasukuni Shrine has attracted far more criticism for the 14 “Class A” war criminals whose spirits have been enshrined there, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo.

Most controversial of all — and what thrusts Yasukuni periodically into the headlines — are the visits to the shrine by Japanese prime ministers. Such visits deeply offend Japan’s neighbors China and Korea, for they imply an unapologetic approach to history. In 2008, then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda broke with tradition by skipping the customary visit in August on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. “The nation inflicted significant damage and pain on many countries, especially on people in Asian countries,” Fukuda said at the time. “Here I express, on behalf of the nation, deep remorse and humble condolences for all of the people who fell victim.”

Japan’s current prime minister, however, is not big on apologies. Shinzo Abe is a right-wing nationalist who wants to revive Japan as a “normal” military power. He has been brusque in his rhetoric and his actions. At the end of December, his government announced a major increase in military spending of 5 percent over the next five years, which will include purchases of 28 U.S. F-35s and two Aegis-equipped destroyers. Japan under Abe has more aggressively asserted sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that China also claims, pledging to use force against Chinese patrols and rejecting any compromise on the islands’ status. On the home front, his administration has pushed through textbook revisions that offer the same airbrushed treatment of Japanese history that the Yushukan displays.

Just in case anyone was in doubt of his intentions, Abe made his own high-profile visit to Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, the first time for a Japanese prime minister in seven years. Even given Abe’s political orientation, it was an unusual time to make such a visit. There is no election pending. He doesn’t face any challenges from the hardline conservatives in his party. And December 26 doesn’t represent any significant anniversary in Japanese history.

The real reason for Abe’s visit, which elicited predictable outrage from Korea and China, was that he felt that he could get away with it. Japan’s neighbors, after all, have engaged in their own provocations. The month before, China had unilaterally declared its Air Defense Identification Zone. South Korea, under President Park Geun-hye, has reinforced its own claims to the Dokdo/Takeshima islands also claimed by Japan, sending a new coast guard vessel to patrol the waters in that area.

The Yasukuni visit was a signal that Abe would not really take into consideration the sentiments of Japan’s allies — or its adversaries — when developing its own foreign policy. For the last two decades, with the considerable encouragement of Washington, the Japanese foreign policy and military elite has been gradually shrugging off the constraints imposed by the “peace constitution.” Abe knows that the barriers are high for ridding the constitution of its famous Article 9 (by which Japan renounces war as a means of settling disputes). It’s much easier to make an end run around the constitution, as his predecessors have done by knocking out one prohibition after another — against weapons exports, against participation in UN peacekeeping, against the militarization of space, and so on.

The visit is also a signal to the Japanese public that the Abe administration is willing to play hardball on the home front. The recent deal to push forward the base restructuring in Okinawa is a case in point. Washington and Tokyo have been trying for more than 15 years to figure out a way to close down the aging Marine Air Force base in Futenma and build a replacement facility somewhere else on the island. For years, the residents of Henoko, the target of the base relocation plans, have fought back, with the support of their mayor. Until recently, they also had the governor of Okinawa on their side as well.

But at the end of December, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima buckled. The pressure from Tokyo — plus 300 billion yen a year for the next eight years for the Okinawan economy — made him break his campaign promise to oppose base relocation on Okinawa. Washington hailed the agreement as the final resolution to the problem.

But Washington shouldn’t begin the victory celebrations quite yet. In elections this upcoming Sunday, the current mayor of Nago, which has jurisdiction over Henoko, is running for a second four-year term. Susumu Inamine has pledged to continue his opposition to the base. In addition to this political challenge, citizens groups continue to file suits to block base construction on the grounds of the environmental damage it would cause. And despite the monetary incentives dangled by Tokyo, the vast majority of Okinawans still reject the plan.

All of this leaves the “Pacific pivot” in limbo. Half the Marines at Futenma are slated to move to Guam, Hawaii, and Australia. But it’s the insistence to keep a large contingent of Marines on Okinawa — a parochial obsession of the U.S. Marine Corps that has become an unmovable U.S. demand — that has been the core of the dispute. It doesn’t matter that the Air Force already has a huge base on Okinawa that provides the United States with all the air power it needs. It doesn’t matter that sufficient Marines will be stationed in the region to respond to any contingency. The services are always reluctant to give up anything for fear that they will lose even more when the inevitable belt-tightening begins.

It’s a critical time to support Japanese efforts to oppose Shinzo Abe’s nationalist refashioning of his country. And it’s a critical time to support the plucky Okinawans who have stood up against not just one but two Goliaths in their struggle for self-determination. The Japanese government has learned to say “no.” Now it’s our turn to support the Japanese who say “no” to their government.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Jon Reinsch

    On Japan, even “liberal” U.S. media sometimes take their cue from the Obama administration, which has been busily pressing for a draconian secrecy law, insisting on the new base in Okinawa, etc. The U.S. role gives Americans a special responsibility to act. Peter Kuznick says there will be an online petition soon in support of Okinawans in their struggle against the base.

  • Concerned American

    The United States should fully support Japanese Prime
    Minister Abe in his efforts to militarily strengthen Japan.

    In fact, the United Sates should make it clear to Abe that
    he is not doing enough in this regard.

    The only rational foreign policy for the United States with
    regard to East Asia is to resist any Great Power that is attempting to achieve
    Hegemony there, and to support any other Great Powers that oppose it.

    When it was Japan attempting to impose Hegemony on East Asia,
    from 1895 to 1945, the United States correctly opposed Japan, and correctly
    supported any Great Powers that opposed it, China and Russia in particular.

    When it was the Soviets attempting to impose Hegemony on
    East Asia, from 1945 to 1989, the United States correctly opposed Russia, and
    correctly supported any Great Powers that opposed it, China and Japan in

    Now that it is China attempting to impose Hegemony on East
    Asia (and indeed, on the entirety of Asia and the Western Pacific as well), the
    United States must oppose China, and support any Great Powers that oppose it,
    Japan, India, and it is to be hoped, eventually Russia in particular.

    The fact that Japan and Russia were particularly odious in
    the past exercise of their power is completely irrelevant to this principle.

    Since Japan is an island nation, to defend itself from
    China, it mainly needs to strengthen its Naval and Air forces.

    Avoiding the strengthening of its Army would make this strengthening
    less threatening to Japan’s neighbors.

    A good starting point for the level of effort that should be
    asked of the Japanese by America would be 2% of their GDP, a significant
    increase from the very low 1% of GDP that the Japanese currently spend on their

    And, although Japan currently enjoys the protection of the
    American Nuclear Umbrella, if China, in the future, begins to seriously
    threaten Japan with Nuclear Attack, then the U.S. should withdraw all
    objections to the establishment of a Japanese Nuclear Deterrent, a feat that
    Japan is well qualified, both economically and technologically, to achieve.

  • Sani Eltanor

    Concerned American, you need to seriously read your comment and realize how utterly foolish you sound.

    If you allege hegemony needs to be resisted, then why support American hegemony? Why make that exception? Do you not consider it hegemony when your own country does it? Or do you buy into the demonstrably untrue idea that America’s presence purely exists for the good?

    You fully admit that America helped China and Russia resist Japanese hegemony, which you say was the “correct” thing to do, and then what happened? The end of the war with Japan just created future conflicts with the same powers you once called allies, who’s ambitions were made possible through US support. You’d think you’d see a pattern and realize that maybe intervention is not the best idea.

    The government of Japan is 100% a puppet of the US. The LDP was created and funded by the CIA and ensured to maintain the power they continue to hold today. Just about all the major politicians are descendents of pardoned war criminals. Japan is not a democracy; it’s a pure puppet oligarchy. Any time a Japanese politician makes objections that go against the US regional hegemony, they will become embroiled in a scandal that will virtually end their political careers.

    The Japanese public have become so brainwashed that they think that they can continue to be under the protection of America forever. I’ve got news for them that their corporate puppet media doesn’t want to talk about: America’s got some bad problems at home. Look at this: All arguments about whether the US “needs” to provide security are irrelevant because the reality is THEY CAN’T AFFORD IT. It’s best to bow out while the country still has some dignity rather than prolong the inevitable and waste more money on military spending. The military industrial complex does not benefit any actual Americans aside from the filthy rich tiny percentage at the very top. They don’t care about you.

    History changes, as does the balance of power. If China wants its day in the sun, let them have it. If they were smart, they’d learn from America’s mistakes and see that hegemony does not create any real benefits for its people. Spending billions and billions of dollars just to have a solid presence in the region does not create any reward aside from perhaps bragging rights. Well nobody cares if your country is the top player in the world, especially when millions of your own people are struggling to feed themselves. And just like America, China is already falling into the same mistakes that lead to financial ruin. You can bet their time as Asia’s greatest power won’t last long unless they fix some serious problems with their economy. Sometimes, people need to learn lessons the hard way.

    But hypocrites will be hypocrites and the whole world seems to wants to stay stuck in their “Us vs them” mentality that is ruining the world.

    • Concerned American

      Dear Sani,
      America does not exercise Hegemony in East Asia, or in any other part of Eurasia as well.
      America only enjoys Hegemony in North America.
      So your comment about American Hegemony does not apply with regard to the current China/Japan conflict.
      With regard to whether I consider American Hegemony, or more correctly, American Power, to be good, the answer is a resounding yes.
      Without American resistance to the power of would be Eurasian Hegemonists, either the Nazis or the Soviets would have gone on to create a truly horrible world.
      Instead, America has used its power to create the Liberal International Trading Order, which has, since World War II, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of povertry, and which has also allowed hundreds of millions their first enjoyment of freedom in their history.
      With regard to your suggestion that America should “bow out” of Eurasian conflicts because of it undoubted current problems, I would only point out that America generates roughly one half of world military power using only 4% of its wealth.
      So America still has plenty of economic, technologic, and miltary potential with which to make a difference for the better in the world.
      Concerned American

  • Chris Herz

    Japan needs new territories — Lebensraum — in Asia to resettle her population after the true scope of Fukushima becomes apparent.