TOKYO — Here, by a grove of cherry trees whose thick, dark canopy trembles with a flock of brilliantly white doves, stands the altar of Japanese militarism. The spirits of foot soldiers and generals, cannon fodder and war criminals are enshrined as deities in this place and rest eternally, without judgment, blame or sin.
At Yasukuni Jinja, the "Shrine of the Nation at Peace," stoop-backed widows pray for the repose of their husbands who fell in Manchuria. White-haired veterans grieve for comrades lost to unbelievable carnage on Pacific islands. Political leaders come, too, making bold nationalist statements--without uttering a word.
Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the brilliant naval strategist who planned Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 50 years ago today, is part of the pantheon of Yasukuni gods. So is Gen. Hideki Tojo, prime minister during Japan's maniacal war of aggression against the United States and Asia.
Half a century after the attack on Pearl Harbor triggered America's entry into World War II, Japan shows no overt signs of going down the dark path to militarism again. Its people are peace-loving, well-educated and affluent--presumably no longer susceptible to the kind of mass delusions and emperor-worship that supported the jingoistic fervor of 1941.
Stunning postwar economic success would seem to eliminate the need for military adventure. Strategic overseas investments and trade ties now provide security in oil imports and food supplies. Genuine prosperity is bonding Asia, not marauding troops.
But as Yasukuni illustrates, Japan still transmits ambivalent and sometimes disturbing signals to the watching world, arousing suspicion where perhaps there need be none.
And that is why today, with the Pearl Harbor commemoration stirring emotions across America, an ordinarily unthinkable question arises: Could it happen again?
Could a testy U.S.-Japan economic relationship deteriorate so badly in the future, and common strategic interests diverge so radically, that the postwar allies would once again come to blows?
Consider the throngs of ordinary people who crowd the Yasukuni shrine on weekends and holidays, knowing full well it is spooked by the ornery spirits of the militarists. Or the columns of Cabinet ministers and ruling Liberal Democratic Party leaders who file through to pay homage to the war dead every Aug. 15--the anniversary of Japan's surrender--knowing they will provoke outraged protests from Asian neighbors as well as Japanese pacifists.
The outside world cannot understand what is truly in the minds of Yasukuni worshipers, both ordinary folk and policy-makers. Nor can it gauge the importance of the right-wing forces that survive in contemporary Japan and are pointedly unapologetic about the aggression that caused the war.
Likewise, many Asian and some American victims of World War II remain unforgiving, and deeply suspicious about Japan's rising global economic clout. Behind the economic challenge, they fear, lurk hidden intentions.
So it is that the long-running debate on Japanese "revanchism"--a revengeful spirit that moves a defeated nation toward rearmament and renewed aggression--comes to the fore.
Tetsuo Nojima, 72, a regular at Yasukuni who saw action in Burma, parrots a revisionist line on history that is gaining currency:
"Most people I know believe we fought a justifiable war to liberate Asia. . . . It certainly was not a war of invasion or aggression," said Nojima, among the gang of white-capped veterans who sold Yasukuni calendars and rightist literature on a recent Sunday, lining the pebble path by the shrine's towering \o7 torii \f7 gate. "We have nothing to apologize for."
Shintaro Ishihara, a member of Parliament notorious for his right-wing polemics, denies that the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) ever took place. Historians say as many as 100,000 Chinese civilians were massacred by Japanese soldiers in that incident.
Such views are bound to grate on Americans. But do they portend another collision in the Pacific?
The scenario for belligerency is far-fetched. The two countries are committed to and bound by a mutual defense and security treaty, which is designed to make them long-term partners in stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the tragedy of the last war instilled a deep loathing of the military in most Japanese and spawned a postwar ethos of pacifism.
"All Japanese, with the exception of a few insane right-wingers, know our relationship with the United States is essential for our survival," said Masamichi Inoki, chairman of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. "Military conflict between our two countries is unthinkable."