The Yasukuni Shrine honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including war criminals executed after World War II. It played a role in promoting wartime nationalism, with Japanese soldiers commonly pledging to fight to the death with the promise to "meet at Yasukuni." It is located in Tokyo and was founded in 1869. It also hosts a museum attempting to justify Japan's militarist past. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer has said the museum -- which paints the secret attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of self-defense -- is "very disturbing."Over at the Washington Post, G. John Ikenberry, a political scientist at Princeton University, lays out how the shrine's significance in East Asian historical memory has roiled Japan's diplomatic relations:
Japan has a serious geopolitical problem -- and increasingly it is an American problem as well. Essentially, the problem is that Japan has not been able to eliminate the suspicions and grievances that still linger in China and Korea about Japan's militarist past. While postwar Germany has somehow been able to put the "history issue" to rest, postwar Japan has not. The result is that Japan -- 61 years after its surrender and the inauguration of its long, peaceful return to the international community -- remains isolated and incapable of providing leadership in a region that is quickly transforming in the shadow of a rising China. The most visible manifestation of Japan's history problem is the controversy that erupts each year when the Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo -- the Shinto memorial where the names of 14 World War II-era Class A war criminals are listed among the honored dead. In China and Korea these visits evoke the memory of Japanese war and imperial aggression, trigger popular protests and official condemnation, and provide a readily available tool to push Japan on the defensive and shrink its regional influence and appeal. This problem was again on display Tuesday -- the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War -- when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made his expected pilgrimage, covered live on Japanese television, to the Yasukuni Shrine. Complicating matters, the United States has urged Tokyo along the course of great power "normalization." Indeed, some Washington strategists envisage Japan as America's "Britain in the East" -- a normalized and militarily capable ally that can stand should-to-shoulder with the United States as it operates around the world. This is in essence the vision of the very influential Armitage Report of October 2000 (named for former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage), issued by a bipartisan group of American security specialists, and it is the dominant view today among both Democratic and Republican thinkers concerned with Japanese security. The problem is that "normalization" and "historical reconciliation" are working at cross-purposes. Normalization requires amending the constitution, acquiring new sorts of military capabilities and breaking longstanding pacifist norms against the use of force. Historical reconciliation requires symbolic gestures of apology and redoubled commitments to restraint and peaceful intent. This will be a tricky game to play. It is certainly going to take more enlightened and imaginative thinking than Tokyo has yet exhibited. And the United States will need to rethink its own vision of East Asia and the U.S.-Japan alliance.This is a very interesting historical problem, illustrating the divide in Japan between popular antiwar sentiment and the remants of Japanese militarism and nationalism among sectors of the country's religious and political elite. Ikenberry goes on to compare Japan's postwar situation to Germany's, noting how German leaders have done a remarkable job of historical attonement for the crimes of the Nazi regime, efforts that have combined with the substantial institutionalization of regional integration in Europe to bestow on the German state a high degree of legitimacy, strengthening its leadership position.