Is Exorcism the Key to Thawing Sino-Japanese relations?

Lauren Finch

By Lauren Finch, Chinese and International Relations:-

This was originally written in November 2014 after being inspired by both Leo Lewis’ article and the progressive Sino-Japanese meeting at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. Lauren spent the year studying at Peking University and is currently working towards a research project before her final year.


The world has witnessed what seems like a promising new start for Sino-Japanese relations after two years of a deepening freeze in between the major Asian powers. Ahead of the recent 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke for the first time since assuming leadership with the aim of restoring high-level talks between the two countries, producing a four-point document regarding the East China sea situation, and improving dialogue in “political, diplomatic and security fields”. They also forged a groundbreaking agreement to implement a “maritime communication mechanism” between China and Japan with a hotline highly reminiscent of the Cold War era Kremlin-White House link. Indeed, some news outlets have described the Sino-Japanese situation as “The New Cold War”; a by-product of the United State’s decline has been the power vacuum created in Asia in which both China and Japan wish to assert dominance. While the APEC summit may have begun to smooth over issues such as the East China Sea situation, the Yasukuni Shrine controversy continues to be a critical cause of tension.

yasukuni shrine

Longstanding sensitivities towards Japan’s past imperialism in Northeast Asia continue to mar the country’s relations with China and South Korea, both of whom suffered barbarisms during their Japanese colonisation. From China’s point of view, the wounds from the Japanese wartime atrocities will not heal while Japan refuses to neither recognise nor apologise for its role in the widespread civilian massacres, in which rape was commonly used as a weapon. The Yasukuni Shrine has become a symbol for Asian fears of resurgent Japanese militarism, due to the 14 WWII “Class A” war criminals secretly enshrined among the other 2,500,000 souls. The Yushukan War Museum on the Shrine’s grounds does not help calm tensions; it purports to glorify Japanese imperial rule and provides a revisionist view of history from 1931-45. The Rape of Nanking is unsurprisingly not mentioned, as with the 1982 Sino-Japanese textbook controversy, in which the Japanese Ministry of Education was criticised for approving textbooks that concealed Japan’s wartime aggression.

Yet whilst Yasukuni has been the source of incredible regional tension since the infamous 14 were secretly added to the list of deities in 1978, it is also a place of commemoration and source of pride and comfort for many Japanese families. Defenders of the shrine compare it to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C., while Yoshihiko Noda, the Finance Minister who was elected to be Prime Minister from 2011 to 2012, alleged that the “Class A” war criminals were not war criminals under Japanese law. Predictably, a response soon followed from China by way of Tsinghua University’s Liu Jiangyong, stating that Noda’s comments were “tantamount to having the viewpoint that Hitler wasn’t a war criminal”.

Emperor Akihito has refused to visit since 1978 for diplomatic reasons. It is unsurprising that Shinzo Abe’s ill-advised visit to the shrine on 26th December 2013 (making him the first Prime Minister to do so in seven years) sparked such outrage from China and South Korea and deepened the freeze in mutual relations. Controversy from previous official government visits to the Yasukuni Shrine led Kazuhiko Togo, a retired Japanese ambassador, to call for a suspension of Yasukuni visits, arguing, “China also needs breathing space to reflect on history… And if this practical consideration necessitates either of the two countries to make the first concession, Japan should take the first step”. Shinzo Abe failed to take this advice and knowingly risked the wrath not only of the Asian countries, but also of Japan’s strongest ally. The USA issued a statement stating its “disappointment” with the actions taken by Japan’s leadership that would “exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours”.

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One of the solutions to this issue may please both China and South Korea, as well as the many Japanese wishing to honour their dead at their most famous war memorial; bereaved families have called for the controversial souls to be “disenshrined” in order to allow the resumption of public commemoration services. The Chinese government has previously indicated that exorcising the souls of General Hideki Tojo, the wartime Prime Minister, and the other 13 war criminals would eliminate their objections to official visits to the shrine. There are, however, constitutional and religious hurdles which this potential solution will face; firstly that the Yasukuni Shrine is a religious organization, so pressure from political leaders to enshrine the “Class A” war criminals in a different location would violate the principle of the separation of state and religion under the Constitution. Secondly, some of the Yakusuni priests have argued that the entire concept is impossible to realise – an enshrined soul simply cannot be extracted.

Despite the recent warming of relations, both sides remain steadfast in the belief that their point of view is correct. Abe Shinzo justified his visit to the shrine, telling reporters that he “visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey [his] resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war”. Regardless of possible positive intentions, critics argue that it may be more prudent for the Prime Minister to engage in practices that don’t undermine regional relations with the other Asian powers. During APEC, a Chinese representative stated: “We urge the Japanese side to face up to history and keep its promise and to move in accordance with the spirit of the agreement together with China.” While all sides continue to disagree at a base level, no religious or political exorcism can purge the wartime demons from Pacific Asia. Thus, the responsibility falls on Shinzo Abe to helm Japan onto to a new course of foreign policy, where it fully recognises the true course of history and is repentant for its wartime acts.


To see what Lauren has got up to on her year abroad in Beijing, and for more of her writing please have a look at her blog, From Palatinate to Peking, or follow her on Instagram @pekingfinch

For more countries affected by a difficult history, try Tereré with Ña Ana (Santa Maria, Paraguay) or  Scattered Hearts: My Neighbours’ Story (Amman, Jordan).