There are two reasons for South Korea and China to complain about the Yasukuni visits. Seoul and Beijing consider the visits to symbolise Japan’s intransigent refusal to repent for the wrongs it did in the wars, and as a resurgence of Japanese militarism. That is a chronic misunderstanding.
As a matter of fact, Japanese prime ministers have apologised repeatedly for the atrocities the Japanese militarists committed in South Korea, China and elsewhere. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murakami, in particular, apologised three times, once in 1984 together with a lower house resolution on repentance, and twice in 1985. Even ultranationalist Junichiro Koizumi, the mentor of Shinzo Abe, offered a public apology for the wars Japan started. But Prime Minister Abe, another ultranationalist, has not apologised, though he did not visit Yasukuni to pay homage in person.
There is a cultural difference. In Shintoism, which was the state religion of pre-war Japan, anybody enshrined is absolved of whatever crime he committed in life. Those honoured at Yasukuni are all kami – spirits and the essence of faith. Among them are 27,863 Taiwanese, one of them an elder brother of former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui, who visited Yasukuni a few years ago to pay homage. The Japanese visit Yasukuni to honour their long-dead relatives. It does not have anything to do with militarism, be the visitor a prime minister, a member of the Diet, a general or an admiral, or the man on the street. Any attempt to compel them to stop visiting the shrine may be construed as infringing upon their freedom of faith.
Their presence at Yasukuni be regarded as an omen of Japan’s revival of militarism, which is banned by its 1946 peace constitution General Douglas MacArthur imposed during his virtual rule of Japan for five years after World War II.
Ultranationalists like Koizumi and Abe wish to amend that constitution to make Japan a normal country, not to revive militarism. A normal country, like the United States for instance, has the right to declare war on another country. The proud people of Japan want their country to be a normal one. They do not want the constitution imposed on them. Prewar Japan was militaristic. Ultranationalism gained ascendancy in the chaos of the Great Depression that catapulted the military to dictate the weak government to launch the militaristic expansion overseas, creating the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Most of the prime ministers during the period were generals and admirals. The people attributed the woes the Great Depression brought on Japan to negative Western influences, including a weak democratic government. In a Japan at a loss about what to do to leave the Great Depression behind, the only stabilising force was the military.
South Korea, China and quite a few other countries are seriously concerned that Abe would revise the peace constitution, the death wish of his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi. To make Japan a normal country, Abe may succeed in removing the article of the constitution that prohibits acts of war by the state, but this does not mean that Japan will rearm itself to start a war of militaristic expansion again. Even with the act of war clause removed from the constitution, there isn’t a one-in-a million chance for the Japanese military to gain enough power to force the democratic government to plan to launch another military expansion overseas.