Monday, July 13, 2020
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Japan’s New Prime Minister, and the Shrine to War Criminals


Meet Yoshihiko Noda, who will officially become “Prime Minister Noda” in three days. I always prefer to stay away from politics here, but an election of the highest authority in the country is a valid exception. I’m not going to get into his political plans, like how he might raise taxes to help pay for the tsunami reconstruction (which is really the same thing as giving to charity, except they don’t ask for permission). But it may be helpful to know who he is, how he got here, and what the deal is with this “shrine to war criminals.”

Who is Yoshihiko Noda?

For Noda, this is a big promotion from his title as the Finance Minister, and it has people talking. Many business circles are happy to have a new Prime Minister, especially one who understands social security policies and finance. Based on past work, he is expected to enforce strong ties with the U.S. – Japan’s most important ally – and he’s likely to be well received there, especially having voiced concerns over China’s growing military which threatens America’s martial supremacy. However, most people may have wanted another leader all together.

Jeff Kingston – Director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan – describes Noda’s emergence as a “compromise.” He says “[Noda’s] not charismatic, or a populist or a good communicator, [and] not a particularly bold or visionary leader. He’s sort of a ‘Steady Eddy’ and doesn’t raise expectations that much. Maybe in the context of Japanese politics, that’s the best you can hope for.” But it seems that what most people were hoping for didn’t happen at all. The Washington Post describes the voting process that over the last few days:

“HAD JAPANESE VOTERS had a say, their new prime minister would be former foreign minister Seiji Maehara. In a recent poll, Mr. Maehara scored 40 percent — the only one of five candidates to rank in double digits. The runner-ups in the survey were tied at 5 percent.

But the next prime minister was chosen by 398 ruling-party legislators. And they went for someone who polled even below the 5 percenters, finance minister Yoshihiko Noda.”

Just to elaborate, the voting was done in stages. The first round of voting eliminated the minor players, and the next one basically brought Noda into office. So there was no public election.

The revolving door of Japan’s Prime Minister role is embarrassing, and the now resigning Prime Minister Naoto Kan leaves after support has plummeted due to his slow response to the tragedies from March 11, and his consistent lack of leadership. Kan lasted 14 months, which is the longest anyone in Japan has been in office for since 2006.

The Yasukuni Shrine

Practically, the right-wing litmus test is a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WWII. In the realm of politics, nationalists believe that this is nothing more than paying homage to dead soldiers. On the other hand, such nationalists, like Governor “Toby” of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, downplay or deny many of the events of WWII, including the Rape of Nanking.

Yasukuni Shrine

With millions of Japanese people visiting the Yasukuni Shrine (which means “nation at peace”) annually, most are just coming to honour the fallen. In fact, there originally was no controversy with the shrine, which was essentially supposed to be for people who lost their lives during wars between 1867 and 1951. That includes the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (marking the end of Japan’s feudal era), and many other battles that occurred well before WWII.

However, a war crimes tribunal conducted in 1978 changed the meaning of the shrine for many people. Out of the nearly 2.5 million people in the shrine’s records, just over a thousand were convicted of war crimes. Out of those thousand, 14 were Class-A war crimes (“crimes against peace”) – and therein lies the problem.

Yasukuni is now more a political shrine than a spiritual one, or at least according to some people. Politicians decide whether to go based on the message they would like to send, kind of like the clear one Toby sent, regarding the many politicians such as Prime Minister Kan, who opted not to attend – “They’re not [true] Japanese.”

The shrine will continue to offend other Asian nations, namely China and Korea, who were victims of Japan’s brutality in the first half of the 20th century. Both of their governments have stated that such homage conveys that Japan has not atoned for its cruelty during WWII, and both countries have been involved in protests about official visits to the shrine.

[August 31 update: I just found a great article that explains the situation with the shrine from a Korean perspective. It’s very interesting.]

Though Noda did not join Toby in his attendance at the shrine, he did mention a few weeks ago that with so much time passed, the wartime leaders should not be considered war criminals any longer. Toyo University international relations professor Yoshimitsu Nishikawa says “Noda will need to be careful when commenting on topics such as the Yasukuni issue, Japan’s war crimes and the right to collective self-defense.” Noda has not said whether he will visit the shrine as prime minister, but he has noted that there’s no valid argument against him visiting in his new role.


Noda is inheriting a volatile country with seemingly unending problems. The Yasukuni Shrine is really the least of his worries. It may, however, reveal his character in the following months, or perhaps – if he is to break the cycle of short-term Prime Ministers – years.

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