Anger Over a Symbol

The Prime Minister of Japan exits the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. CBS

I'm Barry Petersen, and this Letter From Asia comes from Tokyo.

I can't decide if this is a story about the clashing interest of two nations or the stubbornness of one man. What I can say for sure is that it's got all Asia nervous over the potential for confrontation between China and Japan.

It starts at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine. It is said to be where the souls of all Japan's war dead reside. Catch is – that includes men convicted of war crimes after World War Two.

To Asia –Yasukuni is a symbol of Japan's militaristic war time past.

Enter Japan's prime minister, who visited the shrine early in his tenure. For this, he was soundly criticized by China….and that got his dander up.

"At this point he's just trying to make a point," said Gerry Curtis. "No on is going to tell him where he is going to go pay his respects to those who died in the war."

Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis is a highly respected expert on Japan.

"Now, if he doesn't go to Yasakuni, it just sends a message to the Chinese that putting pressure on Japan works."

In China, angry words and angry demonstrations followed the most recent shrine visit. The Chinese felt the sting of Japan's atrocities when their country was occupied during world war two.

And become furious when some Japanese dispute the rape of Nanjing by suggesting it may never have happened. The Chinese say 300-thousand were massacred.

"Half the problem, at least, is on the China side," said Curtis. "They have to realize that if they continue to play the so-called history card against Japan, it's only going to exacerbate this anti-Chinese nationalist backlash in Japan."

And it's the US caught between strong ally Japan and major trading partner China.

"The US doesn't want to be in the position of having to take sides," explained Curtis. "There's not going to be war, but this becomes more and more tense than Japan will obviously look to the US for support."

World War II ended 60 years ago…and yet, across Asia, other countries nervously watch this escalating battle of wills between a Japanese prime minister who won't give in…and a China that can't forget. And there is every sign this will not end well.
by Barry Petersen

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