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Japan's Shinzo Abe honors war criminals, enrages friends

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Dec. 14, 2013: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference at his official residence in Tokyo. (AP)

Japanese are rightfully proud of the economic achievements made in the last half century despite the country’s lack of natural resources. But the most precious resource of all -- trust among friends -- has been needlessly degraded because of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japanese war criminals. The solemn event there and comments made by the prime minister strains the U.S.-Japan relationship at a time when the mutual defense treaty between America and Japan is being put to the test.

Japan’s friends fully understand that a nation must take steps to defend itself, particularly when the tin pot dictator of Pyongyang threatens the Pacific region with ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons while he weaponizes terrorists and other rogue regimes.   

Bullying tactics to the freedom of air and sea corridors in the East and South China seas threaten vital interests of the United States and Japan, as well as Korea and the Philippines. These neighbors are also U.S. treaty partners with similar concerns, but they are also nations who suffered grievously during the Second World War. They to are troubled by Abe’s visit to the shrine at the very moment that they face new challenges by China’s hegemonic declarations.

What is needed now is unity and resolve between Japan and America and our Pacific allies. Friction and suspicion only help those who would drive the United States out of the Asia/Pacific Theater and constrict Japan’s legitimate aims to defend herself.   

Yet the visit to the Shrine makes many Americans think twice -- wherein lies the real danger point in the Pacific -- the crazy kid running North Korea, Chinese adventurism or a resurgence of the kind of nationalism that led Japan into war and conquest?  

The trauma of war, occupation and reconstruction, and a commitment to democratic practices has created a deep and abiding partnership between American and Japan. But there is one area of consequence where domestic Japanese politics undercuts the alliance between friends, raising the specter of Japan’s World War II atrocities -- the importance of the Yasukuni Shrine to the ambitions of Japan’s political elite. As a symbol of Japanese nationalism it falls far from the mark while it inevitably raises distrust.

Here's why:

Enshrined in Yasukuni are the names of more than 2,400,000 Japanese war dead, among which is the name of the notorious war criminal Hideki Tojo, who led Japan into war, conquest and ultimate defeat. Patriotic Japanese should be aghast that the man who led them to defeat should be honored at this shrine, but this does not fit the script of postwar Japanese politicians. Indeed, Abe is the fourth Japanese Prime Minister to bow at the shrine.

Yet something like this happening in Germany is unthinkable. Clearly no German politician would last a day in office had he chosen to honor Hitler, Heydrich, Himmler, or other Nazi war criminals, whatever the scope of the crime. For more than six decades, German politicians, right, center, and left, have labored diligently to build a road away from the horrors of the past, a bridge to a democratic future, built on acknowledgement and remembrance of WWII crimes. The result is a democracy that understands the evils of its past and the promise of a better future for younger generations. During the same time frame, Japanese leaders have failed to entrust their citizens with an education that acknowledges and confronts past misdeeds, leading millions of neighbors to wonder if they can ever trust again.

In remarks following his visit, Abe tried to quell American concern by comparing the Yasukuni Shrine to Arlington National Cemetery, turning irritation into outrage. There is no comparison! Arlington National Cemetery commemorates the courageous acts of American heroes, not the cowardly acts of those convicted of war crimes.  Whoever wrote those words for Abe did him no favors. As it happens, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy’s martyred father is interred at Arlington. She will have her work cut out for her explaining to the prime minister American concerns and how and why Americans distinguish honoring the fallen from honoring war criminals.  

Abe’s behavior also complicates the question of a possible visit by President Obama to Hiroshima. Does anyone expect an apology for the way the US ended WWII, when those responsible for launching it never fully apologized for starting it?

There must be better ways forward for cultivating Japanese pride and spark patriotic fervor than visits to a shrine where the ghosts of war criminals hide behind those worthy of shedding tears? As long as that shrine defines Japanese patriotism, millions of neighbors will be enraged, friends will worry and enemies will be emboldened.

There is bi-partisan support and sympathy in the United States for a strengthening of Japanese arms and a renewed role for the nation in the troubled Pacific region. But to rebuild the lost trust, Japan needs to figure out urgently how to move to a new position of strength without raising suspicions that it is up to its old games.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Alfred Balitzer is and Professor Emeritus, Claremont McKenna Colleges. Cooper and Balitzer meet frequently with leaders in Japan.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. Follow the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Facebook and on Twitter.