Abe’s Yasukuni-Arlington comparison draws mixed reaction in U.S.

WASHINGTON — Tucked away in a secluded corner of the most sacred U.S. military burial ground, a small monument stands in a clearing surrounded by a copse of trees. Encircling it are rows of simple marble headstones marking the graves of 482 people including soldiers and their families.

Although there is no discernible difference between these and the other 400,000 plots located throughout the sprawling shrine, this small area serves as the final resting place for soldiers who fought against the federal government during the U.S. Civil War.

In February 2013, newly re-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects at Arlington National Cemetery, located in a Virginia suburb just across the Potomac River from Washington.

Later that year, as the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender approached, speculation grew that Abe would make his first official pilgrimage as prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Tokyo shrine built for the war dead.

Abe drew a comparison between Arlington and Yasukuni in an attempt to contextualize the intent behind his impending visit in an interview with U.S. publication Foreign Affairs the same year. 

Abe pointed out that Confederate soldiers who fought for the South’s right to maintain the institution of slavery are interred at Arlington alongside American soldiers and statesmen, including President John F. Kennedy.

Asserting his view that a visit to the cemetery does not constitute an endorsement of slavery, Abe stated that a “similar argument” can be made about Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine regarded by many other Asian countries as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.

As Yasukuni honors 14 Class-A war criminals, 12 of whom were convicted at the Allied forces-led military tribunal in Tokyo, along with some 2.5 million war dead, visits by Japanese leaders continue to draw the ire of countries affected by Japanese militarism during the war, such as China and South Korea.

Kevin Doak, a professor at Georgetown University, believes criticism of visits to Yasukuni by Japanese prime ministers is “unjustified.”

“Yes, one can make a similar argument about Yasukuni and Arlington,” Doak said in an interview, affirming 

Abe’s position.

“Certainly a fear of … Japanese military expansion and war mongering is unfounded in Japan today,” he added.

However, Richard Bush of The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, finds flaws in the Yasukuni-Arlington comparison.

“The main difference is that Japan (was) subject to an international judicial process to hold it to account for what its military and government did during the war years,” he argued, stating that that process is what makes Class A war criminals “such a point of contention.”

“Confederate soldiers rose in rebellion against their own government,” he said, stressing that any crimes they may have been responsible for “were against fellow Americans, not against foreigners.”

To qualify for burial at Arlington, applicants must have served on active duty in the U.S. military for at least one day and have been honorably discharged at the culmination of their service. 

However, under U.S. law, those found guilty of a capital crime are ineligible.

Soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War — despite having rebelled against the federal government — are not considered to be guilty of such an offense.

Burials at Arlington Cemetery began in 1864 — four years into the Civil War when Washington was overflowing with war dead from both sides. Due to lack of space elsewhere in the area, Confederate soldiers were interred alongside their Northern counterparts.

In 1900, however, Congress authorized the creation of section 16, otherwise known as the Confederate section. Soldiers who died fighting for the South or who served in the Confederate army honorably now had the option to choose to be buried alongside their Northern counterparts.

“This was a powerful symbol of reconciliation in our nation,” explained Stephen Carney, the cemetery’s historian. “Coming into the 20th century, there was the strong desire to … forget, or to forgive, all that had occurred” during the Civil War, he added.

Today, visitors to section 16 are scarce. According to Carney, there has not been any controversy surrounding the Confederate soldiers’ burial.

Visitors come to Arlington “to render their honors, their respect, to those who served our country and sacrificed for our country. I believe that’s been true since the very beginning,” he said.

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