Japan’s “hawkish” defense minister Tomomi Inada (稲田朋美) has been called the “Japanese Joan of Arc” by her admirers and “Japan’s Sarah Palin” by her critics. She is considered a likely successor to current prime minister Shinzo Abe. In any case, Inada’s visit on December 29 to Tokyo’s ‘war crimes shrine‘ following her “tour of reconciliation” to Pearl Harbor with Abe has sparked anger among Japan’s neighbors—particularly China and South Korea—that suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II.
The visit is also certain to provide a nice wet lump of red meat for the Chinese government’s anti-Japanese propaganda machine. By extension, China’s anti-Japanese ire will likely be turned for propaganda purposes against Japan’s close ally, the United States; and used by China as a wedge in its efforts to pry South Korea away from the U.S.-Japan orbit. This is obviously highly unhelpful for U.S. efforts in the region.
Built in 1869, the Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) honors millions of Japanese soldiers who died in wars since the second half of the nineteenth century. Among those enshrined, however, are more than a thousand who are considered war criminals, including fourteen convicted Class A war criminals secretly enshrined in 1978. A visit by Prime Minister Abe to the shrine in 2013 was condemned by China, South Korea, and the United States, the latter of which had strongly advised Abe against the visit. Abe has since sent offerings but has made no further personal visits to the shrine.
Other officials have made visits, however, including the latest visit by Japan’s defense minister. For its part, the South Korean government denounced as “deplorable” Inada’s visit to the shrine. Said a statement from South Korea’s defense ministry: “We strongly condemn the Japanese defense minister’s visit to Yasukuni, which beautifies Japan’s war of aggression against its neighboring countries and honors war criminals.”
“It is deplorable that Japan’s responsible politicians visit Yasukuni Shrine that glorifies its past colonial invasions and war by housing war criminals,” said a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman, “Unless Japan demonstrates humble introspection and sincere self-reflection on its wartime past, it will not be able to gain the trust of neighboring countries and the international community.”
China likewise condemned Inada’s visit to the “notorious war-linked Yasukuni Shrine.” A statement from the Chinese foreign ministry said that “China is firmly opposed to the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine by Tomomi Inada, and China will make solemn representations to Japan.” Further outrage from China should be expected in the days to come, likely extended to the United States for its alliance with Japan.
For the moment, Chinese media seem content to depict the Americans as dupes of the wily Japanese. “Perhaps it is the Obama administration and the Americans who should feel insulted most by Japan’s tricks, rather than China and South Korea,” said the state-run Global Times, “The Americans are just a bargaining chip the Abe administration can make use of.”
Inada’s hawkish, far-right views and associations have been widely noted. She has frequently defended Japan’s actions during World War II and denied Japanese war crimes including the Nanjing Massacre and the use of women and girls in occupied countries as sex slaves (“comfort women“). In 2014, Inada and far-right politician Sanae Takaichi appeared in photos with Japanese neo-Nazi leader Kazunari Yamada.
People in China, South Korea, and other Asian nations that suffered under Japanese occupation are rightly outraged at Inada’s actions and statements. Unfortunately, however, this hawk is also a golden goose for anti-Japanese and anti-U.S. propagandists in the Chinese government with their own expansionist agenda, and an albatross around the neck for America’s Asia-Pacific alliance.