The Yasukuni Puzzle: Why the United States Should Not Buy into the Narrative of Japan's Rightward Drift


This is a listing of older East-West Center events (newer listed first).  See Events to get the list of current or upcoming events.

When: Feb 7 2014 - 11:00am until Feb 7 2014 - 12:30pm
Where: 1819 L St, NW, Washington, DC. Sixth Floor Conference Room

The Yasukuni Puzzle: Why the United States Should Not Buy into the Narrative of Japan's Rightward Drift

An Asia Pacific Security Seminar:

Dr. Yoichiro Sato
Professor, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Beppu, Japan

Dr. Yoichiro Sato shared the perspective of 'an average Japanese citizen' on the Yasukuni Shrine controversies at the East-West Center in Washington

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's late December visit to the Yasukuni Shrine invited criticism from China, Korea, and the United States. The shrine, long considered a resting place for Japan’s war dead, became controversial after Class A war criminals were included among the interred in the post-war years. Therefore visits by Japanese government officials raise fears among some in the region of a tacit official reverence for Japan’s militant past.

It is a fact that Japanese conservative politicians have used the Yasukuni Shrine for their political purposes, and the Yasukuni Shrine has used them to promote itself. However, the nature of their co-dependency is much more complex than popularly presented by international media. Hoping to share the perspective of the average Japanese citizen, Dr. Yoichiro Sato argued that attributing Abe's visit to an ultranationalist foreign policy with broad public support is a gross misinterpretation. In his talk, he reviewed the past controversies surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine in the context of some of the popularized discourses on Japan’s wartime history and discussed the linkage between contemporary international relations, US foreign policy, and the reproduction of Asian history.

Domestically, official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine had been a controversial issues over the separation of "church and state," as some Prime Ministers had visited and made offerings with public money. (Citizens sued government and won.) However, official visits became the target of protests in China and Korea during the Nakasone administration, in which the conservative PM tried to promote the idea the a PM can visit the shrine as a public official at the same time he was planning to increase Japan's regional security role within the US-Japan alliance. From then on, the Yasukuni issue was seen by regional neighbors as inseparable from attempts to develop a more nationalist/militarist Japan, Dr. Sato explained.

East-West Center in Washington Director, Dr. Satu Limaye (right) looked on as Dr. Yoichiro Sato (left) engaged members of the audience in a passionate Q&A dialog on a range of topicsThis assumption has frustrated many Japanese citizens. Following the Allies' victory, despite no real strong leader that lead the nation to war, in the course of victors' justice the Japanese citizens were largely forgiven for being misguided by a militarist regime. This, along with the atomic bombings have fed the victims mentality among the Japanese, who dislike being demonized for issues they thought they had been forgiven for in the past. Therefore it is possible for citizens to either support visits to the shrine or be indifferent to the issue without being nationalist or ultranationalist.

As it happened, in Japan the post-war Allied version of history became official, and according to Dr. Sato, attempts by moderate conservatives to break through the liberal censorship on the narrative have been effectively blocked. Because of this the historical debate in Japan has been between this Japan-as-victim narrative, and the ultranationalist narrative supplied by the not-to-be-deterred far right. Recent polls reveal that the majority of the population does not share these views; a majority were against Abe's visit. Moreover, in a recent survey asking if Japan were attacked "would you be willing to fight" respondents in their 20s were most likely to respond in the negative-findings not necessarily supporting a rightward drift of the youth, or the population at large.

In terms of US response to reports of "Japan's rightward shift," Dr. Sato had a few recommendations. The first is to look at the internal trends in Japan, domestic opinion has remained steady while external forces have changed significantly. However, to avoid a severe swing in the accepted historical narrative, the US must be willing to see some moderate debate over the "1945 Allied history" without assuming a revisionist agenda.  Finally, the US needs to operate in the region in close coordination with Japan. When it engages in "offshore balancing" between Japan and China, Sato warned, it makes Japan insecure, which could lead to more calls for greater autonomy and a more nationalist bent. "An aggressive Japan is not dangerous," he concluded, "a scared Japan is."

Dr. Yoichiro Sato is a professor at the College of Asia Pacific Studies, at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Japan. Previously, he taught at the US Department of Defense’s Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Auckland University (New Zealand), Kansai Gaidai Hawaii College, and University of Hawaii. Most recently, he was a Henneback Visiting Scholar and Professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

Dr. Sato has commented on strategic and security affairs in East Asia on such media as Time Magazine, National Public Radio, and Voice of America. His major works include Japan in A Dynamic Asia (co-edited with Satu Limaye, Lexington Books, 2006), Norms, Interests, and Power in Japanese Foreign Policy (co-edited with Keiko Hirata, Palgrave, 2008), The Rise of China and International Security (co-edited with Kevin Cooney, Routledge, 2008), and The U.S.-Japan Security Alliance: Regional Multilateralism (co-edited with Takashi Inoguchi and G. John Ikenberry, Palgrave, 2013).

Dr. Sato holds a BA (Law) from Keio University, MA (International Studies) from University of South Carolina, and Ph.D (Political Science) from University of Hawaii.

Primary Contact Info:
Name: Grace Ruch Clegg
Phone: 202-327-9762