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What a shrine to an Indian judge says about Abe's Japan

To understand one reason why Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has a soft corner for India, visit the small Tokyo monument to Radha Binod Pal, a judge at the World War 2 crime trials of 1946.

world Updated: Sep 04, 2014 07:49 IST
Sitaraman Shankar
Sitaraman Shankar
Hindustan Times
Japan,Shinzo Abe,Tokyo

To understand one reason why Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has a soft corner for India, visit the small Tokyo monument to Radha Binod Pal, a judge at the World War 2 crime trials of 1946.

And to predict the way Japan's relations with India and the world will develop under Abe, spend some time at the controversial Yasukuni shrine on whose grounds the Pal memorial stands, just four kilometres from the hotel that hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit.

Pal, a judge from the Calcutta High Court deputed to the Tokyo trials, was the only one of 11 Allied judges on the panel trying Japanese wartime leaders who found them “not guilty”.

“Pal has been hijacked by the right to assert that its leaders committed no war crimes,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University here, pointing out that Pal's dissenting opinion actually did not exonerate Japan but only argued that the trials were deeply flawed.

The simple monument to him stands 100 metres from the main shrine. The bouquets there are fresh: This is a man revered in Abe’s Japan.

“Dr Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalised vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan,” says a note from Yasukuni’s chief priest.

Pal, who died in 1967, was also highly regarded by Nobusuke Kishi – Abe’s grandfather and role model, a former prime minister himself, and a suspect war criminal who was never charged.

Abe’s relationship with the Yasukuni, a memorial to Japan’s war dead, illustrates perfectly what he stands for: a revival of pride in Japan’s history and a rebuilding of its military tradition.

The Japanese PM controversially visited the shrine in December 2013, riling the Chinese because among those honoured at the shrine are 14 of his countrymen deemed high-grade war criminals from World War 2.

Because of its role as an occupying power in that war, Japan has an uneasy relationship with some countries in the region. And rising nationalism under Abe has come with some undesirable side effects: Just last week, a United Nations panel called on the Japanese government to make hate speech a crime, a response to growing incidents of racist protests against Korean residents.

“Abe is keen to turn the page of history before it has been understood, and this augurs poorly for Japan's future role in Asia," said Kingston.

The Yasukuni is located in a leafy part of Tokyo and through the day elderly Japanese come and bow before the main temple, clapping their hands once in the traditional Shinto manner.

It is a tranquil place, but the impressive museum nearby celebrates a past that is anything but peaceful.

Among the exhibits from WW2 are a restored Zero fighter plane, a suicide-bombing torpedo and tragic letters from young soldiers to their families, written in the knowledge that death was imminent.

History seen through Japanese eyes here is very different from that taught in the English-speaking world.

But even the most revisionist Japanese politician would find it difficult to better the lines attributed to Pal – he was actually quoting a politician from the US civil war – engraved on his memorial.

“When Time shall have softened passion and prejudice….then Justice, holding evenly her scales, will require/much of past censure and praise to change places.”

First Published: Sep 04, 2014 00:01 IST