What War Criminals? Japan’s New P.M. Raises Old Concerns in Asia

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Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called Tuesday to congratulate Yoshihiko Noda, Japan’s newly elected prime minister, telling him that strong ties between Japan and China were good for both the two countries and the rest of the world. Apparently left unsaid were concerns in China and other Asian nations about Noda’s thoughts on Japan’s wartime legacy.

Noda has said that he doesn’t believe that the top-level Class A Japanese war criminals convicted by the Allies after the end of World War II are indeed war criminals under Japanese law. That stand, which he repeated at a news conference earlier this month, has sparked complaints in China and South Korea, which were occupied by Japan during the war. A spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry hinted at the issue Tuesday, saying, “We expect to continue to forge mature and future-oriented relationships with the new Japanese government led by Prime Minister Noda as it looks squarely at its past,” the Yonhap news agency reported.

Noda’s statement on Japanese war criminals has also raised concerns that he might visit Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors some 2.4 million war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. Past visits by Japanese prime ministers have upset many in Asia who feel that Japan has not fully atoned for its past aggression. Junichiro Koizumi’s half-dozen trips during his 2001-2006 leadership term appeased conservatives at home but clouded his country’s relations with its neighbors. Since then, no serving prime minister has visited the shrine, which has helped improve ties between Japan and China. In recent years the two nations have grown economically closer, with China surpassing the U.S. as Japan’s largest trading partner. But Yasukuni still has the potential to disrupt. Noda has not indicated whether he will visit the shrine, but China’s state-run Xinhua news service has already issued a stern warning against it:

To improve the relationship between the world’s second and third biggest economies, Noda’s cabinet has to carefully craft and implement a proper policy in treating Japan’s war past to soothe the resentment among the Chinese public toward Japan.

Plus, no Japanese politician should ever visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which is a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and honors some 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including 14 war criminals. And it should never let these historical problems take the two nations’ relationship hostage.

Should Noda choose to avoid the shrine, there are ample sticking points for Sino-Japanese ties. Last year Japan detained a Chinese fishing boat captain near the Diaoyutai, a group of islands in the East China Sea held by Japan but also claimed by China. The immediate uproar subsided after Japan released the captain, who returned home to a hero’s welcome. But the improving capability of China’s navy has unsettled Japan. And the Japanese coast guard says that last week two Chinese fishing patrol vessels briefly entered waters claimed by Japan near the Diaoyutai, which are known in Japan as the Senkaku. Japan officially protested the incursion, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman responded that the islands “have been Chinese territory since ancient times.”