Over the last decade in Japan, the long-standing refusal by Japan's dominant Liberal Democratic Party to acknowledge Japanese war guilt and war crimes (see a sample of quotes in "Introduction") has been accompanied by a strong and largely successful push to rehabilitate the symbols and men associated with the military aggression of Imperial Japan between 1931 and 1945. In this context, it is disturbing to learn that Japan is taking steps to become a military power again and intending to shed constitutional restraints on projection of that power beyond Japan.

Restoring symbols associated with Imperial Japan's military aggression

In August 1999, two symbols indelibly linked with Japanese military aggression were officially recognised by the Japanese parliament at the instigation of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The rising-sun flag (Hinomaru) flew over the charnel house created by Japan's conquering armies in East Asia and the Pacific region and it now flies over Japanese schools. The national anthem of militarist Imperial Japan (Kimigayo), a hymn of praise to the divine emperor, is now sung by Japanese schoolchildren.

Wearing traditional costume, a defiant Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits the infamous Yasukuni Shinto Shrine to pay homage to Japan's worst war criminals and the Japanese troops who slaughtered, raped, and looted their way across East Asia and the Pacific region between 1937 and 1945.

Restoring the ideology of Imperial Japan

In May 2000, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told a gathering of members of parliament belonging to Shinto religious associations:

"Japan is the land of the gods with the emperor at its centre".

Responding to strong criticism from within and outside Japan that the remark breached Japan's postwar constitution by harking back to the ideology of Imperial Japan, Mori claimed that his words had been misunderstood. Although Mori gave the appearance of backing down under pressure, published statements attributed to Mori and other members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, both within and outside parliament, suggest that they are aligned with the thinking of neo-Imperialist and militarist groups.

Official homage to Japanese war criminals implies legitimisation of Japan's military aggression

In August 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid an official visit to the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine in Tokyo where Japan's war dead are enshrined. Koizumi paid homage not only to the men who slaughtered, raped and looted their way across East Asia and the Pacific region between 1931 and 1945 but also to Japan's worst war criminals who are also interred at this controversial Shinto shrine.

Paying homage in this way is perceived as excusing Japan's military aggression and the countless atrocities committed by Japanese troops, including the slaughter of millions of captives and the raping of hundreds of thousands of captive foreign women. Koizumi's visit was cheered by a large gathering of militarists and extreme nationalists outside the shrine. Koizumi brushed off international and local protests with the comment:

"Why do we have to select among the dead".

If Koizumi had simply wanted to pay his respects to members of the Japanese military who died in war, he could have done so at Japan's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which has none of the militarist associations of Yasukuni Shrine. Instead Koizumi elected to visit a Shinto shrine indelibly linked to Japanese militarism, military aggression, and countless war atrocities. The political message was clear. The Prime Minister's official visit to Yasukuni Shrine, and associated homage to Japan's worst war criminals, marked a further step in the postwar rehabilitation of Japan's war criminals and legitimisation of Japan's military aggression between 1931 and 1945. A significant step in that direction, although largely unnoticed outside Japan and East Asia, had already been taken in 1995 when 221 members of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party moved a resolution in the Japanese parliament (the Diet) that:

"The Pacific War was a war to liberate colonised Asia."

Proposed restoration of Japan's military power and removal of constitutional restraints on the exercise of that military power

Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni Shrine was not the act of a maverick neo-nationalist. He has powerful backing from within the Liberal Democratic Party to move Japan well to the right of centre. He has promised to find a way around clauses in Japan's postwar constitution that restrict Japan increasing its military strength and the manner in which its military power is used. A committee of the Japanese Diet is presently studying this problem.

Koizumi has also been embroiled in controversy over his support for covering up reference to Japan's war guilt and crimes in textbooks for schoolchildren.

Signs of reviving militarism in Japan appear to have been overlooked in Australia

From the absence of public expressions of concern by the Australian government about developments in Japan, it appears that the Australian government is either not troubled by these indications of reviving militarism or prefers not to raise an issue that might damage trade relations with Japan. The government may also view public comment as unnecessary on such a sensitive issue when Australia has the protection of its alliance with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty.

The silence of Australia's largest veteran body, the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), is less easy to understand. Under former RSL leaders, such as Major General W.B. Digger James, Major General Peter Phillips, and Victorian State President, Bruce Ruxton, any indications of reviving militarism in Japan would almost certainly have drawn critical public comment. Such comment would have accorded with the RSL's obligation to protect not only the welfare of its members, especially veterans, but also the welfare of Australia.

Perhaps the passage of time has softened the RSL . In 2003, some very senior members of the RSL were prepared to accept a Japanese government-sponsored good will tour of Japan, with no awkward questions being raised. Judging from the report of the Victorian State President and tour delegate, Major General David McLachlan, the members of the RSL delegation found nothing to concern them during the carefully orchestrated and chaperoned visit. It appears from the concluding summary to that report that the Victorian delegate was satisfied that the Japanese government no longer attempted to deny or conceal from schoolchildren Japan's war guilt or the full horror of the atrocities committed by the Japanese military. Major General McLachlan said:

"..all leaders that we met acknowledged the importance of understanding the past and the importance of ensuring that history was known to all generations. Above all, we were pleased to see and hear personally the significant efforts which are being introduced and undertaken to make this a reality."

From the point of view of the Japanese LDP government of Junichiro Koizumi, the RSL visit and its unstinting praise for Japan's newly found openness about its war guilt and war crimes were a public relations coup that must have exceeded the government's wildest expectations.

From the point of view of Australians, and the membership of the RSL, the trip and the tenor of the Victorian report may well cause unease. In the light of the material recorded above, and in the preceding pages, it is difficult to understand how Major General McLachlan could reach the conclusion (quoted above) that he did. It is not clear from his report whether the Japanese government or RSL members paid for the tour. The trip to and around Japan appears to have taken the character of a carefully managed good will visit that was enjoyed by all of the RSL tourists. There is no indication in the Victorian report that the tourists briefed themselves concerning, or raised with their generous Japanese hosts, any awkward issues such as Japan's continuing refusal to acknowledge its war guilt or war crimes; the continuing abrasive tug of war on the content of history books for Japanese schoolchildren; the proposed changes to Japan's postwar constitution that would permit Japan to become an Asia-Pacific military power with the capacity to project that power beyond Japan; or indications of reviving militarism in Japan.