|Illustration: Liu Rui/GT|
The atmosphere is unbearably tense with near universal anticipation. The setting is ritualistic, tinged with orchestrated drama. And the reactions are universally strong and typically unequivocal. And these, alas, have been the typical circumstances year after tiring year before, during and after the August commemoration of Japan's WWII surrender.
To visit, or not to visit Yasukuni - that has indeed become the annual dilemma confronting almost every Japanese prime minister in recent years.
The shrine in question, Yasukuni, hosts the spirits of those who died fighting for Japan, including some WWII war criminals.
A visit by Japan's top officials will understandably confer an aura of official sanction and of vindication to the sense of militarism many view as symbolically embedded in the shrine, and it is that air of legitimization which appeals to many on the Japanese political right.
But it is precisely these subtle steps to rekindle Japan's militaristic past that irk many of its neighbors. Many of these countries, foremost of which are China, South Korea and those in Southeast Asia, suffered horribly during WWII, being the victims of Japanese imperialism.
What took place in Japan after the horrible war instigated by the unholy alliance of Axis powers was distinctly different from the official attitude of Japan's wartime partner, Germany.
The postwar German authorities, in addition to solemnly pledging never again to repeat the shameful mistakes of the country's Nazi past, took proactive steps to commemorate and adequately compensate the victims, foreigners included, and enforced strict laws against propagation of Nazism in any form.
In contrast, successive Japanese governments tolerated what came to be known as the "cosmeticized" versions of Japanese wartime history in school textbooks, glossing over the imperialistic atrocities and glorifying the militaristic spirit.
The many still living "comfort women" who were forced into military prostitution, received scant if any attention, not to mention compensation.
And the annual official Yasukuni visit by the Japanese cabinet, with all its symbolic trimmings, is thus especially painful to the hearts of those victims and their descendants.
Many wonder how, for example, would their European counterparts feel if the German and Italian cabinets were to pay annual official respects to memorials honoring the likes of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini?
It was against this understandably emotionally charged background that the present Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the politically expedient decision of skipping the annual Yasukuni visit this year.
But perhaps so as not to alienate the political right in his own party and beyond, Abe still arranged for the donation of his "personal offerings" to the shrine. In addition, three of his cabinet members went ahead with the internationally much maligned Yasukuni visits.
These "lingering," irresolute steps by the Abe administration in regards to Yasukuni specifically and Japan's overall official attitude toward its militaristic past are unwise.
Japan's neighbors are perhaps as eager as the Japanese themselves to usher in a once again economically vibrant, technologically innovative and, hopefully, politically mature Japan that has contributed much to the economic prosperity of the region.
Countries in Southeast Asia are especially looking forward to the economic leadership provided by the troika of Japan, China and South Korea to extricate the Asia-Pacific region out of its present quagmire. Economic initiatives such as the negotiations toward a free trade area among the three Asian economic locomotives, and a possible similar measure with ASEAN countries, are much welcomed.
However, for these bold and potentially beneficial initiatives to come to pass, a level of political trust needs to be present, and most of this trust is built upon neighborly perceptions of Japanese political maturity.
A politically mature Japan would be expected to make a clean break with its infamous past which has festered as a sore point in its relationships with many neighbors.
The recent, almost simultaneous launchings of a "helicopter destroyer" and an aircraft carrier by Japan and India respectively, diverted much needed resources in both countries from economic development, besides raising unnecessary tension and a possible arms race in the region.
Starting with a clear and unequivocal break with the annual Yasukuni visit tradition, instead of the half-hearted or two-faced measures above, the Abe administration can send a clear signal to the Japanese people and the wider world that "Abe means business," that Japan's primary focus now is to peacefully revive its economy, with the help of, and eventually benefiting, its neighbors.
Such a new and mature Japan would stand tall in the eyes of its neighbors.