Historical Responsibility: The Yasukuni Shrine and Mao Zedong

I’m trapped in Tianjin for four days which means four days of Chinese television including the always exciting 新闻联播 (CCTV Nightly News).  My in-laws are big fans and even though I am not, I dutifully watch alongside because that’s just the kind of guy I am.

I really need to watch it more.  The colossal display of cognitive dissonance totally devoid of any irony makes for fascinating viewing.

The lead for December 26 was the Magnificent Seven (A.K.A. Xi and the boys) at a symposium honoring the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong.  Many shots of leaders wearily underlining relevant passages of Mao Zedong thought.  Wang Qishan was so bored I thought he might actually take his own life right there on the screen. It was like watching an old Lei Feng propaganda film…but only if they used the real embalmed body of Lei Feng instead of an actor.

Speaking of embalmed bodies, segment two was the whole gang dutifully tramping over to the Maoseleum to pay their respects to the old man.  I’m assuming that for yesterday’s spectacle they had the real corpse on display and not the “stunt Mao” they use when the other one is in the shop for repairs.

Xi Jinping led the collected leadership up the steps of the "Mao-seleum" and into the main hall.  They stood in silent attention and then President Xi led them in a solemn bow to Mao Zedong.

Flash forward to segment four.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leading his cabinet to Yasukuni Shrine followed by a solemn bow…to the sound of the CCTV announcers positively losing their minds at the egregiousness of it all.

Meanwhile, Qin Gang was back at his old stomping grounds doing the MoFA press conference, lambasting the Japanese for, among their many apparent failings as a country and a race, “refusing to take historical responsibility.”

I’m not going to get into a debate over what or who was “worse.” As I’ve written before, when you talk about death in large round numbers there comes a point where it’s all just degrees of horrifying.

I agree that Japan has not done enough to apologize for its actions during World War II.  Yes, I know they have technically apologized, but more in a “Gee, dude, I’m sorry I spilled the bong water on your new carpet” kind of way.

Japanese politicians and the Ministry of Education placating Japanese paleo-conservatives only exacerbates the problem.

Yesterday, Shinzo Abe became the first prime minister in seven years to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Apologists can make all the arguments they want — that it’s a religious site, that of the two million souls ‘registered’ at Yasukuni only 14 are Class A war criminals, that it’s a way to honor all Japanese veterans — but Abe knew that this was a provocative act. He has designs on amending the Japanese constitution and he’s not shy about throwing an elbow at the Chinese if he thinks it can serve his purposes.

It was an insensitive and counter-productive move on the part of the Japanese government.

But the CCP calling somebody out for being unable to accept historical responsibility is like Chris Brown putting his arm around your shoulder in a club and saying, “Dude, you really need to chill around your lady.”

For all of the gnashing of teeth in China over Japanese history textbooks, Chinese history textbooks are just as bad. Both countries use history education as a way to promote “patriotism” in students at the expense of critical thinking.  There is little in either Japanese or Chinese textbooks that challenges preconceived notions, introduces controversies, or allows for counter-narratives and dissenting voices.

As Stephen Ambrose once wrote, “The Japanese presentation of the war to its children runs something like this: ‘One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us.’”

To paraphrase Ambrose (no stranger to paraphrasing himself): The Chinese presentation would be “One day in 1978 we woke up and, for some reason we can’t quite recall, found our country desperately poor, hopelessly broken, and in serious need of sane leadership. Help us, Deng Xiaoping, you’re our only hope.”

Historical responsibility is difficult.  It can be argued that the US, despite a boisterous cohort of historians who love nothing better than to masochistically slit the wrists and let blood flow onto the page, has its own trouble with historical responsibility.  Too many Americans remain unaware of why their standard of living is so much higher than most of the world. (Hint: It’s not just because we are a freedom-loving, industrious people despite what Toby Keith says.)

But in Asia, where old wounds fester, the first step in healing is for countries — and parties — to take a good honest look at their past actions and take responsibility.

For those governments — and parties — who fear that doing so would cause them to lose respect and prestige, remember that taking responsibility for past wrongs is an act of courage, hiding shameful acts is simple cowardice.

Courage or cowardice.

The choice is on the table.