Those who think that the Japanese are a little odd will have been confirmed in their prejudice by the behavior of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro during his June visit to the United States. The social highlight was a trip to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Japanese leader, with his arm around Elvis’s only daughter, Lisa Marie, swiveled his hips and crooned a rendition of “Love Me Tender.” The excursion was President Bush’s gift to Koizumi for his staunch support of the Iraq war and “the close friendship of our people.” This, and a jukebox stocked with Elvis hits. On their way south on the presidential aircraft, the two men listened to more Elvis while consuming grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches. “It’s a dream,” exclaimed Koizumi.
An address to a joint session of Congress was also in the original package, but the Japanese prime minister politely declined without offering an explanation. The reason was a trifle embarrassing. Koizumi, unlike any other postwar Japanese prime minister, has made a habit of visiting Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo where the souls of warriors who died for the imperial cause are honored. His last visit was on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The honored souls include those of war criminals such as General Tojo Hideki. Tojo’s portrait can be seen inside the shrine’s war museum, along with the grim countenances of officers from the notorious Kempeitai (the nearest Japanese equivalent to the SS), and the more wholesome faces of kamikaze pilots.
The Yasukuni museum celebrates the wartime Japanese as peace-loving, benevolent, heroic fighters against Western imperialism in Asia. This is why Congressman Henry Hyde made it clear to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert that if Koizumi were allowed to address Congress, he “would dishonor the place where President Franklin Roosevelt made his ‘Day of Infamy’ speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Yasukuni Shrine is a long way from Graceland. A fondness for both places might seem eccentric, or at least paradoxical. How can a man be such an Americophile while subscribing to an unreconstructed view of Japan’s wartime past? Is it possible to dream of crooning “Love Me Tender” to Lisa Marie while also wishing to pray for General Tojo’s soul? The answer is complicated, but yes, it is indeed possible. Koizumi’s apparent paradox has a history. It has to do not only with Japanese attitudes toward the US, but also toward China and other parts of Asia. If Congressman Hyde finds visits by a postwar Japanese prime minister to a former center of state Shintoism offensive, the Chinese, who suffered so much more than the Americans under Japanese militarism, and the Koreans, who were forced to pray to the Japanese emperor at colonial Shinto shrines in their own country, find it even more so.
Koizumi himself is strangely obtuse when it comes to history that goes …