Next to Yasukuni, where no fewer than 2.5 million gods are venerated, there are some magnificent gardens with their inevitable cherry trees, a noh theatre, a sumo ring and a military museum displaying all sorts from bows from distant epochs to planes and tanks from the Second World War. Its entrance is guarded by a horse, a German shepherd dog and a pigeon, sculpted in homage to the animals which died in combat. The list of the gods, which in other latitudes would be called martyrs or the fallen, is in one of the pavilions. In one corner there is a small monument, engraved only in Japanese, which pays homage to some special spirits: the members of the Kempeitai, totalitarian Japan’s secret police and the equivalent of the Gestapo.
Yasukuni was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1872, initially to commemorate the dead from the wars that took place during the time of the country’s aperture and modernization, and later from the wars embarked on by an aggressive Japan. You have to visit Yasukuni to understand why every time the prime minister pays a visit to the shrine, as Shinzo Abe did last December, indignation boils over among governments and public opinion in virtually the entire region. In its glass cases Japanese militarism is openly displayed, its only disguise being the authenticity and the victimization of nationalism, always a pure and innocent sentiment. War criminals are gods; kamikazes are heroes; the attack on Pearl Harbor is the result of American intransigence; and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are just two more bombing attacks, stripped of the transcendence ascribed to them in Japan by the postwar pacifist left.
Visits to Yasukuni underline the weight of the past in the continent of the future. The South Korean prime-ministerial nominee Moon Chang-keuk has just stepped down over statements referring to events which took place more than 70 years ago. He said that the colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 had been “God’s will”. In a seminar about Asia organized last week in Tokyo, the pan-European think-tank ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations) asked the question: “How do Asians see their future?” According to everyday political news but not economic developments, the answer is very simple: by flinging it at each other’s heads.
Everything is growing in Asia: the economy, consumption, population, defence budgets, military arsenals and disputes over half-submerged rocks; and also nationalism, inevitably fed by historical grievances. The power shift the world has seen from the Atlantic basin to that of the Pacific has taken along with it an onerous cargo: the same collective tensions which once tormented Europe, although Europe itself appears to be responding with its own wave of populism and nationalism, as if that were its final attempt to cling on to lost power.
Lluís Bassets is deputy editor of Spanish newspaper El País and ECFR Council Member. This article was originally published in Spanish by El País.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.