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Yasukuni, Nagasaki

Tomorrow Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, probably best known in this country for his big hair and his Elvis impersonations, will mark the surrender of Japan in WWII by visiting–as he usually does every August 15–the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating Japanese war dead, including the condemned war criminals who led the Japanese war effort (the latter’s commemoration was added to the shrine in 1978).  There is always some wailing and gnashing of teeth that Koizumi would go to this shrine to mark the end of the war, because the inclusion of the war criminals supposedly taints it and his visit to the shrine allegedly tacitly endorses the truly horrendous deeds of these men.  The late emperor Hirohito apparently even stopped visiting the shrine on account of this.  The shrine also boasts the latest in Japanese nationalist revisionism that overlooks or denies Japanese atrocities and aggression.  So there may be an argument that visiting the shrine endorses something quite perverse. 

Unfortunately this outrage over Koizumi’s decision–and what constitutes unacceptable Japanese revisionism–is often tied up closely with Americans’ own preoccupations about FDR and the war.  Here is Gary Bass in The Houston Chronicle:

Yasukuni’s museum claims that Emperor Hirohito wanted peace until the very end, but an unyielding Franklin D. Roosevelt schemed to force Japan into war. The inconvenient fact of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor is portrayed as a strategic necessity. 

Now I cannot speak for Hirohito, but FDR’s scheming to get into the war is not something that serious historians of left or right dispute.  The Japanese certainly viewed the attack as a strategic necessity.  That does not make an act of aggression excusable, but it does not remove FDR’s responsibility for having brought it down on this country.  Many historians try to justify FDR’s schemes as necessary, because we simply had to get into WWII, and they will defend his provocative and illegal actions for the same reason, but outside of the clique of professional nationalist hack pundits no one who knows the history leading up to Pearl Harbor denies that FDR’s scheming provoked the attack and was designed to provoke an attack.  This used to be something that Republicans and conservatives remembered and about which they insisted on reminding people, but those days are long gone.  But the message here is that when the shrine recalls an inconvenient truth about one of our past leaders, that allegedly adds to its faults.  Sorry, I don’t think so. 

Now five days ago was the 61st anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, which stands out as one of the greatest single war crimes in the history of the world.  But no official tribunal ever said that it was a war crime, and so it becomes instead just an unfortunate incident on the way to V-J Day.  Now let me ask which is worse: is it worse to have the head of a government going to a traditional, if considerably flawed, shrine to commemorate a nation’s war dead or to build a national monument to the man who ordered and oversaw the creation of the device that was used to butcher hundreds of thousands of civilians (and which could scarcely have had many other practical purposes except for laying waste to cities) and who inaugurated the doctrine of unconditional surrender that ultimately led to the use of such a weapon on civilian populations?  (FDR was fortunate to pass on before having to bear the terrible burden of ordering those bombings, though he had approved enough “strategic bombing” in his own time.)  We have such a monument to FDR standing in Washington today (his shining face also looks back at us from every dime we have), and I doubt very much that anyone even thinks twice about our politicians visiting it or saying exceedingly favourable things about Roosevelt, in spite of the fact that he and Truman might both be reasonably considered war criminals every bit as much as Tojo.  As near as I can tell, the reason for the difference in treatment is that FDR was on the winning side and, perhaps more importantly, on our side; there is no fundamental difference from the evil results of the decisions of Tojo and his fellows and the sorts of abhorrent, evil things to which FDR’s decisions led directly. 

This is not a view a lot of people like, because it suggests that we are capable of the same myopia and hero-worship with respect to our political leaders as any other people, and because it suggests that the ‘Good War’ was capped off by some of the most heinous atrocities known to man. 

If that were not bad enough, there is a regular corps of apologists for Truman’s decision (some of them will invoke the slaughter as cover for other people’s excesses–witness the recent recourse to the argument from warcrimes), and every year in New Mexico, home to the impiously named Trinity site, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, we are routinely treated to the faux debate between people who talk about how “necessary” it was to massacre hundreds of thousands of innocents and the people who suppose that it is probably always horribly evil to do this even if it is deemed “necessary” by some inhuman political calculation.  I call it a faux debate because treating it as a debate assumes an equivalency between the two positions that does not really exist.  It as if one or the other position had an equally likely chance of being rational and moral, when it is rather more clear that the brutal appeal to necessity has no claim to being either.  Personally, I am against this sort of moral equivalency between massacre and charity.  Perhaps before we worry about whether the Japanese are honouring their war criminals, we should ponder why we honour ours.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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