Rugby, War memories and Defence diplomacy – own goal, or shot at a conversion?

British Military Rugby team in front of Yasukuni Shrine, published in The Times 18 September 2019

While in Japan for the The Rugby World Cup, the British Military Rugby team triggered controversy by visiting Yasukuni Jinja, the Shinto shrine that is the focal point for Japanese war remembrance. Those who see Yasukuni as a rallying point for right wing revisionist views of Japan’s history are offended at the insensitivity this implied. Those who take the opposite view, and see Yasukuni as a proper site of remembrance for Japan’s war dead (dating back long before WWII), are offended that the British response appears to take the other side. The handling of the visit left no-one happy.

At a time when the UK and Japanese military and defence communities are moving ever closer in a quasi alliance, it is a regrettable that this kind of diplomatic fumble is still even possible. However tempting it might be to brush it under the carpet, would the UK-Japan relationship actually be better served by taking this as a prompt to think creatively about how War remembrance can be a very strong positive in the relationship between theUK and Japan in future?

The answer is yes. But first, what actually happened?

When the Rugby team posted the above photograph on Twitter showing the team posing in front of the shrine, the publicity this drew a range of responses. As noted in the piece from ABC News, some were favorable, thanking the team for visiting the shrine. Others negative, emphasizing that Yasukuni Jinja is the focus for debate in Japan and the wider region about Japan’s war history. For many, a visit implies an endorsement of revisionist history.

A third take was puzzlement and perhaps disappointment that a UK military team had got into this position without having been made aware of the inevitable reaction. An article in The Times concluded that it was the result of an innocent misunderstanding, quoting UK officials involved in organizing the visit who seemed to confirm this version.

Ensuing coverage referred to it as a ‘gaffe’, ‘very, very naive’, even a ‘diplomatic incident’ and described the UK Ambassador in Japan as giving the team a ‘dressing down’ for their mistake.

The Times: UK military rugby team visit shrine for war criminals in Japan Sept. 18 2019

Daily Mail: UK Armed Forces team makes awkward gaffe by visiting Japanese war criminals shrine 18 Sept. 2019

China Daily : UK military rugby team criticized for visiting Japanese shrine Sept. 20 2019

ABC News: British military rugby team apologizes after visiting controversial shrine for war criminals in Japan Sept. 20 2019

The unfortunate RN Officer involved in organizing the visit is quoted as follows:

It was very, very naive,” Commander Arty Shaw, who organized the visit, told the Times. “The ambassador had a word or two, so we’ve been told not to visit any more shrines, just in case.

What the museum can offer on a personal level is a fascinating journey from their military history to where they are now,” Commander Shaw told the Times. “But we didn’t realize the sensitivity [for] specific nations in particular. We know now.

Apparently sensitive to misunderstandings that might result from this, the website of the UK Embassy in Tokyo then tweeted out (in Japanese) short messages clarifying the following points –

    To date the UK Ambassador in Japan has not directed anyone against visiting shrines.
    In fact, the UK Ambassador himself recently visited Meiji Jingu Shrine with the visiting UK international trade minister, and regularly accompanies many British guests to visit shrines.
    The Embassy expects a lot of British sightseers in Japan for the Rugby World Cup to come into contact with many aspects of Japanese culture, including shrines.
    The UK respects the traditions and culture of Japan.
    The UK government understands that there are various attitudes about paying respects at Yasukuni Shrine.

Britain of all countries should be able to empathize on the delicate area of war memory, and its curdling mixture of guilt and pride. Winston Churchill himself acknowledged that some of the things he had done in war would have put him in a pickle had the result gone the other way. Our armies fighting the Japanese in Bruma took few prisoners, and the horrors of Dresden, Hamburg, and the Atom bomb decision stayed in Winstons thoughts to the end.

Yet today we are allies with Germany, and quasi allies with Japan. This is a pain from an old wound (or nostalgia as the Greeks would say) we can bear together.

What can be taken from this and applied to do better in future?

1. Rather than taking a defensive attitude towards war history, recognize its potential for strengthening the UK-Japan relationship. War memories can form deep emotional connections among veterans. Coming to terms with actions and policies that would be unacceptable today (and leave deep impressions on our relations with other peoples) is the common challenge of all former Imperial powers. Denial and subjective treatment of history widens divides in domestic and international politics. In short, convert a sense of awkwardness and controversy into as a asset in our relationship.

2. Put this into practice by bringing together veterans groups, historians and contemporary service personnel for commemorations, battlefield tours, visits to war memorials, etc., as part of our defence diplomacy. Bring the history into the light, recognizing what has changed, rather than allowing the issue to be twisted and turned to divisive purposes.

3. Get out in front of unnecessary controversies like this one described above and organize formal, contextualized and well communicated visits to sites of significance for visiting defence, sporting and diplomatic parties.

As Japan’s Ambassador to the UK Keiichi Hayashi put it in a speech several years ago:

By mentioning the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, I am not seeking merely to dwell on past glories. Surely we had the tragedy of another war which we fought against each other and have always to squarely face. However, we are now nurturing a new partnership in the defence and security areas, which perhaps we can call a new type of alliance

P.S. this article by Professor Earl Kinmonth (Taisho University) was published on the same story:

“Racist `The Times of London`Article Hits UK Military Rugby Team and RWC2019 Host Country Japan”.

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