MEMORY is always treacherous. History, as the great poet T.S. Eliot reminds us, is full of "cunning passages", "contrived corridors" and "supple confusions". The interpretation of historical events is inevitably deeply political, particularly the interpretation of the tangled and bloody history of North-east Asia in the 20th century.
Little wonder then that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine has yet again embroiled Japan in fierce controversy with China and South Korea. This has added another overlay to ongoing disputes over such issues as maritime claims in the East China Sea and China's proclamation of an Air Defence Identification Zone.
The visit further complicated already complex bilateral relationships. Tensions in an already fraught region were raised. A nervous United States felt obliged to administer a rare rebuke to its principal Asian ally, no doubt to Beijing's glee. China has since launched a diplomatic offensive to denounce Mr Abe's visit, including at the United Nations.
The greater the controversy, the greater the need for clear thought, grounded in facts.
Visits once common
VISITS to Yasukuni by former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985, Ryutaro Hashimoto in 1996 and Junichiro Koizumi between 2001 and 2006 were also controversial. But it was once common for post-war Japanese PMs and Cabinet ministers to visit Yasukuni without any particular fuss being raised internationally. Emperor Hirohito himself visited Yasukuni eight times after the war, the last in 1975, without provoking international outrage Class B and C war criminals have been enshrined at Yasukuni since 1961. The first time China officially and directly raised the issue with Japan was in 1985.
Visits by political figures to Yasukuni became internationally controversial only after 1978, when Class A war criminals were enshrined in Yasukuni under circumstances and for reasons that remain obscure.
The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal had identified three categories of war crimes. Class B were "conventional war crimes" such as the murder and mistreatment of prisoners of war. Class C were "crimes against humanity" such as the massacres of civilians carried out at Nanking and Singapore, among other places. These categories were straightforward. But Class A war crimes, defined as "crimes against peace" by waging aggressive war, were and remain deeply problematic for several reasons.
War is a legitimate instrument of state policy. It is not clear that "wars of aggression" can be clinically distinguished from wars waged for other reasons. No country will ever admit to "aggression" as a justification for war. Whether a particular war can be characterised as "aggressive" will always be a subjective ex post facto judgment by the victors.
The specific indictment against those charged with Class A war crimes was that they had engaged in a "conspiracy" to wage a "war of aggression" from 1928 to Japan's surrender in 1945, a period of almost 18 years.
Most recent Western scholarship concurs that rather than a grand conspiracy, it was a series of ill-considered ad hoc decisions that led Japan into a disaster.
Right-wing Japanese nationalists claim that Japan fought to liberate South-east Asia from colonial rule. This oversimplifies history and is offensive nonsense.
Japan's real intention was to establish colonies in China and South-east Asia to secure supplies of raw materials. This is unacceptable today, but was in accord with the temper of very different times - in principle, little different from, say, the wars of conquest the British fought for Burma, the Dutch for what is now Indonesia, the French for Indochina or the Americans for the Philippines.
General Kanji Ishiwara, who played a major role in the 1930s Manchurian Campaign, asked an Allied prosecutor: "Have you never heard of Commodore Perry?" Japan's victory over China in 1895 was greeted with admiration by the Western powers whose only concern was that Japan should not hog the spoils of victory. Thereupon ensued a scramble to carve up the Chinese melon.
Japan's mistake was not to have realised that by the 1930s, international norms were evolving and go far too far.
None of those executed as Class A war criminals or charged with "crimes against peace" was in power during the entire 18-year period for which they were accused of "conspiracy". The only person in authority during this entire period and in whose name war was waged was Emperor Hirohito. Once it was decided to spare the Emperor to preserve social and political stability in post-war Japan, the indictment of his subordinates became questionable.
The US officer in charge of selecting the political war criminals to be tried, Brigadier-General Elliot Thorpe, subsequently admitted that "they made up the rules after the game was over". Major-General Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence to General Douglas MacArthur, later described the Tokyo trials as "the worst hypocrisy in recorded history".
This certainly does not excuse the atrocities that Imperial Japan committed in China, Korea and South-east Asia. Those hanged as Class A war criminals may well have richly deserved execution. But not for "crimes against peace" as then hastily defined.
Those convicted as Class B and Class C war criminals were more clearly culpable of war crimes as conventionally understood. The ambiguity of the charges against the Class A war criminals has allowed them to be regarded as scapegoats and has contributed to the inability of Japan to come to terms with its past. It allows Japan to stress Hiroshima over Nanking in its historical memory.
MOST Japanese, like most people anywhere, do not really care very much about history. They are not taught very much about their country's history leading up to and during World War II. At best they vaguely know that the Imperial Army did not behave very well. But even more historically knowledgeable Japanese quite understandably do not think that events almost 80 years old have very much to do with them.
If asked a direct question, they will probably give a politically correct answer. And so, a Kyodo poll after Mr Abe's visit showed that almost 70 per cent disapproved. Yet, the same poll showed that more than 55 per cent approved of Mr Abe's Cabinet, perhaps indicating that their real concerns were about daily issues.
PM Abe's considerations in visiting Yasukuni were probably domestic, to consolidate his base of political support ahead of bruising battles over raising consumption tax and reinterpreting the Constitution. Only the Japanese people can judge whether his domestic calculations were correct.
But his visit to Yasukuni can be criticised internationally because it undermines his own goal to have Japan play a more active diplomatic role, particularly in Southeast Asia.
No Asean country wants to be drawn into Sino-Japanese controversy. And the greater the controversy, the greater the wariness. China is playing this to the hilt.
Mr Abe is a nationalist and his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served in Prime Minister Hideki Tojo's wartime Cabinet. But it would be a simplification to see his political agenda only in the light of his family history or his personal views.
Japan's Self-Defence Force has long been one of the most powerful and technologically sophisticated in Asia, and Japanese defence budgets among the world's largest in absolute terms. For many years, US administrations have urged Japan to play a greater role and shoulder a larger share of the burdens of common defence in the US-Japan alliance.
The need for balance
EAST Asia's stability depends on the maintenance of balance. The US-Japan alliance is a crucial element of that balance. So, Mr Abe's desire to make Japan a "normal" country playing a more active regional role is not against the essential interests of the entire region, including, I dare say, China's interests.
The US will increasingly need help to maintain the stability of the region. Stability benefits all countries and is the essential condition for continued growth. And without the US-Japan alliance, Japan would in all probability go nuclear.
Every Chinese school child knows the history of "a hundred years of humiliation" at the hands of foreign powers, of which the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45 was the most recent and vicious phase. But most Chinese probably do not know that on at least three occasions, no less than Chairman Mao Zedong himself brushed it aside.
In 1964, Mao told a Japanese socialist delegation that they need not apologise for the war because it had been the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) path to power. In 1972, he told then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka not to apologise because it was with the "help" of the Japanese invasion that the CCP was victorious. A year earlier, he had told American President Richard Nixon much the same thing.
Under Mao, the CCP's primary claim to legitimacy was class struggle, that is, its defeat of the Kuomintang. But once China began to embrace the market economy, this was no longer sustainable
In 1996, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin described the CCP as the "firmest and most thoroughgoing patriot". In 2001, at the CCP's 80th anniversary celebrations, he announced that businessmen working in private enterprises - "capitalists" by any other name - would be allowed to join the CCP. This was formalised at the 16th Party Congress in 2002. So much for "class struggle".
Increasingly, the CCP began to stress nationalism. But as nominal communists, can the CCP fully endorse China's long imperial legacy? The CCP's attitude towards its own revolutionary past and episodes like the famine precipitated by the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and indeed towards Mao himself, is ambivalent. Chinese nationalism today must, far more than in other countries, be outwardly directed.
As for Singapore, its position on the Japanese occupation is clear. It is part of our history, and we cannot deny or forget history.
So when Mr Abe visited Yasukuni, the Singapore Government expressed its regrets. But as a country, Singapore decided long ago to look forward and not backward in its relations with Japan.
And so, when it regrets Mr Abe's visit, it is more in sorrow than in anger because Singapore also recognises that, in the words of the Foreign Ministry, "tensions in the region have been rising due to the recent series of events, actions and counter- actions, taken by a number of different parties".
North-east Asia is particularly susceptible to manipulations of history. Singaporeans should be aware of this reality lest the "supple confusions" of others blind us to our own national interests.
The writer is ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he was, until May last year, its permanent secretary.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 18, 2014
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