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The Trouble with Japanese Nationalism

Barely half a year into his premiership, Japan’s Shinzo Abe is provoking anger across Asia and mixed feelings in his country’s key ally, the United States. But will the Bush administration use its influence to nudge Abe away from inflammatory behavior?

Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, was a mold-breaking leader, reviving Japan’s economy, reforming the postal savings system, and smashing the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s faction system. But Koizumi also legitimized a new Japanese nationalism, antagonizing China and South Korea by his annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. If anything, Abe is even more committed to building an assertive and unapologetic Japan.

Anyone who believes that the Yasukuni controversy is an obscure historical matter that Chinese and Koreans use to badger Japan for political advantage has probably never spent much time there. The problem is not the 12 Class-A war criminals interred at the shrine; the real problem is the Yushukan military museum next door.

Walking past the Mitsubishi Zero, tanks, and machine guns on display in the museum, one finds a history of the Pacific War that restores “the Truth of Modern Japanese History.” It follows the nationalist narrative: Japan, a victim of the European colonial powers, sought only to protect the rest of Asia from them. Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, for example, is described as a “partnership”; one looks in vain for any account of the victims of Japanese militarism in Nanjing or Manila.