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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shrine Stands at Center of Japanese Controversy

TOKYO -- One recent rainy morning, a couple dozen vehicles belonging to the Patriotic Youth League and other Japanese right-wing groups gathered inside the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto memorial to Japan's war dead. "Revere the Emperor," read a slogan on one truck.

At 12:30 p.m., the caravan spilled out onto Tokyo's streets, destination unclear. But the targets are usually the same: the Chinese Embassy, the liberal media, anybody daring to challenge the argument that Japan's wars were legitimate and that their leaders were not criminals.

The shrine attracts more than fringe groups, though. In a meeting on June 20, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi steadfastly resisted the entreaties of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun that he stop visiting the shrine and build an alternate one that would be more acceptable to China and the Koreas, all of them victims of Japanese colonization.

Yet, while the Japanese have received the bulk of the criticism for the shrine, they are not the only ones to have manipulated the meaning of Yasukuni and its war criminals. So have the Chinese, the Taiwanese and the Americans, each according to their own interests.

During their six-year occupation of Japan after World War II, the Americans first democratized the country and prosecuted war criminals. But with communists controlling China and the cold war bearing down, Washington reversed course: wartime leaders were rehabilitated in an effort to make Japan strong.

Built in 1869 as part of Japan's drive to create a nationalistic state religion centered around a divine emperor, Yasukuni Shrine held almost 2.5 million soldiers by the end of World War II.

Yasukuni's war museum argues that America forced Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor as a way of shaking off the Depression, saying that "the U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war." The museum makes no mention of Japan's occupation of Asia. As for the Rape of Nanjing, the museum blames the Chinese commander and adds that, thanks to Japanese actions, "inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace." Yasukuni's view of history is one that few Asians or Americans would accept. But like Japanese politicians, foreigners also appear to recognize the shrine's political value.

Shu Ching-chiang, a Taiwanese lawmaker who is pro-independence and anti-China, visited Yasukuni in April. "Every country has the right to pay respect to its war dead in the way it chooses," Shu said in a recent interview in Taipei.

Arthur Ding, an international relations expert at National Chengchi University in Taipei, decoded Shu's trip: "He delivered a message to Japan that his party wants a close relationship with Japan and to China that they are for Taiwanese independence."

U.S. officials tend to defend Japanese visits to Yasukuni, or maintain a studied silence. China's rise alarms the United States just as much as did the rise of communism in the 1940s. So better a strong, remilitarized Japan, no matter what the Japanese say about Yasukuni or war criminals.