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Japan's tribute to war criminals threatens regional ties

Every Aug. 15, Japan's politicians pay tribute to its war dead (including convicted war criminals) at the Yasukuni Shrine. These visits ignite painful East Asian memories of Japanese aggression, support revisionist history, and erode prospects for regional cooperation. They should be avoided.

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Members of the Japanese nationalist movement 'Ganbare Nippon' cheer after a march to pay tribute to the war dead – including convicted war criminals – at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15. Op-ed contributor Lulu Cheng writes: 'Japan cannot afford to discard international credibility, and by pursuing nationalism at home, conservatives have only made it harder to pursue objectives abroad.'

Issei Kato/Reuters

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In defiance of its name, literally translated as “Peaceful Nation,” Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine seems to provoke a fight with every mention. Notorious for embracing war criminals among its venerated spirits, Yasukuni today remains one of several historical grudges weighing on Japan’s relationships with its neighbors, primarily China and South Korea.

But unlike other issues, such as comfort women and textbook censorship, Yasukuni is identified with a particular date, Japan’s Aug. 15 World War II surrender in 1945. Every anniversary, high-level Japanese politicians visit Yasukuni to pay their respects, each time emerging to a news media firestorm that ignites painful East Asian memories of Japanese aggression and erodes the prospects of regional cooperation. These visits have long proven to be mistakes that can and should be avoided.

This year has been no different. While Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not pay tribute in person – likely to avoid further straining relations with China and South Korea – his representative made an offering at the shrine on his behalf, while two cabinet ministers attended in person. China condemned the move and other critics have again denounced the shrine and its museum for glorifying Japan’s violent days of empire and espousing a revisionist history that glosses over its war crimes.

A symbol of tradition and pride, Yasukuni is steeped in a 145-year history of honoring those who died in service of the Japanese empire. While tombs hold bodies, the shrine holds kami, roughly translated as a collective mass of spirits. Of the nearly 2.5 million souls at Yasukuni, only a small proportion causes the entire fuss: Because enshrinement requires only dying in service to the Empire of Japan, Yasukuni priests have not found reason to exclude more than 1,000 World War II honorees indicted for war crimes, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals.

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