Several Asian nations reacted harshly when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni war shrine last month. But in Manila, which was the second most devastated Allied city during World War II, Abe’s visit almost went unnoticed.
Yasukuni is Japan’s monument to honor citizens who died during the Second World War. But it is also notorious for memorializing war criminals, which explains why Japan’s neighbors are furious every time a Japanese politician visits the shrine. Abe never visited Yasukuni during his first term, in order not to antagonize other Asian countries – but he made a surprise visit to the shrine last month, a move which was quickly denounced by China and South Korea.
China and South Korea suffered tremendously during the Japanese occupation. They have argued that any visit by a high-ranking public servant to the shrine is an insult to all those who perished under the brutal legacy of Japanese militarism.
In fairness to China and South Korea, they were not alone in voicing opposition to Abe’s visit to Yasukuni. Singapore’s foreign ministry said that it “regrets” the visit made by Abe and added that the action is “unhelpful to building trust and confidence in the region.” Even the United States, Japan’s strongest treaty ally, expressed disappointment over the incident.
In the past, protests were even organized in Taiwan to condemn the continued honoring of Japanese war criminals at Yasukuni.
But not a word or even a whimper of protest was heard from Manila. In fact, Filipino officials have never reacted to Yasukuni visits by Japanese ministers. Yasukuni is recognized as a war shrine but it has never been seen by Filipinos as a symbol of Japanese brutality during World War II. It seems Filipinos are no longer outraged by the idea that Japan is keen on honoring its war dead, including war criminals.
This is quite odd considering that Manila was almost completely devastated by retreating Japanese forces during the last days of the war. The ruins of old Manila were often compared to the trail of destruction in Warsaw, Poland. Elsewhere in the country, Japan’s war atrocities are amply documented. There is no shortage of narratives that highlight Japan’s war crimes in the Philippines which included murder, looting, and sex slavery.
So why are Filipinos silent over Abe’s Yasukuni visit?
Perhaps the answer is that Japan is considered by many as a strategic friend in warding off China’s expansionism in the region. Like Japan, the Philippines has been waging a war of words with China over several maritime disputes. Between a rising China and a “declining” Japan, the former is viewed by Filipinos as a bigger and more sinister security threat.
Since 1945, Japan has been a consistent trading partner of the Philippines. Japan went on to become the second biggest economy in the world while the Philippines deteriorated as a regional laggard. Despite its economic difficulties, Japan continued to be a top aid donor to the Philippines. It has extensive infrastructure investments and loan projects across the country.
The Japanese are no longer seen by today’s generation as war aggressors but investors, tourists, and allies. Japan’s war crimes are still mentioned in school textbooks but they have already ceased to be a divisive political issue that could substantially affect the relationship between the two countries.
Recently, Japan deployed some of its troops to the Philippines to join in the relief and rehabilitation efforts after super typhoon Haiyan wrought havoc in the Visayas islands. It was a symbolic political act because it meant the return of Japanese soldiers to Philippine soil after 68 years. Japan arrived not as an invading force but as a neighbor extending aid and solidarity to typhoon victims.
Nevertheless, is Japan’s rehabilitated image a legitimate excuse to ignore the significance of Yasukuni? Can’t the Philippines remind its friend and ally not to risk further regional animosity by asking Japanese leaders to stop visiting Yasukuni? There are effective ways to spread the message of peace and provoking more hatred by reopening old wounds is not one of them.