The curious case of the Yasukuni-jinja

It is a cold November afternoon in Chiyoda, and a steady breeze is beginning to rise, sending leaves fluttering across the pavement. All around salarymen and women go about their lives as if they were in any other area of Tokyo, seemingly oblivious to the walled complex they stroll past. And why shouldn’t this be the case? The Yasukuni is, after all, just one of many such shrines all over Tokyo, and the country itself. Yet more than any other landmark in Japan, it has become the source of intrigue and contention.

Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the Yasukuni was to function as a memorial to those who perished in the Boshin wars, which paved the way for his dynasty’s restoration; as such it maintains an intrinsic link to the imperial family. Like many such memorials, all over the world, its scope has grown over the years to encompass the lives lost in more modern conflicts. However, it differs from other institutions in one fundamental way: it is not simply a monument to the dead, but the spirits of the dead are actually enshrined within, becoming themselves deities and subjects of worship. It should be further noted that that no tomb exists here in the material sense; there are no graves nor bodies. It is simply the case that their souls have been brought here, in perpetuity, wherever their bodies may lie.

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In practice the Yasukuni amounts to a somewhat contentious point of union between the church and the state; though this is by no means the sole, or even principle source of enmity surrounding it. For of the 2,660,000 souls enshrined, a large number, if not in fact the lions share, are casualties in Japan’s wars of conquest and occupation—particularly the Sino-Japanese and World Wars. Of that number 14 have been designated as ‘class A war criminals’, a further 1,068 were accused and convicted of war crimes general. For their sacrifice they have achieved martyr status, and are honoured as eirei—or hero spirit. That this tribute should be considered ignominious to those nations who suffered under Japanese occupation goes without saying; as, too, does the Japanese insistence on observing a tradition of war memorial.

What does require some further explanation, perhaps, is how this relates to a broader political (and particularly international) context. Whilst the brutal occupation of Manchuria undoubtably carries a heavy burden on the Chinese collective consciousness to this day, it is worth considering this (rather visceral) snapshot of Sino-Japanese relations as part of a wider, contemporary struggle between two states in both the political, cultural and territorial spheres. The inexorable rise of China has unseated Japan as both the dominant regional power, and the second largest economy in the world—this has undoubtably caused some instability in the regional power balance. Sensitive issues such as those surrounding the Yasukuni then form flashpoints in a much more complex state of interaction between two regional superpowers.

Such being the case, the ‘Yasukuni Question’ (and all its connotations) has become a useful tool for political demagogues, both in Japan and across the region. The Japanese far right activist group, known as the Uyoku Dantai, frequently stage events at the Yasukuni, an institution they see as under threat—though this can never be separated from wider issues, such as immigration, identity and sovereignty. Japanese government officials, and even heads of state, are also not above playing the Yasukuni card, where necessary. Conversely, in China, one can always count on reference, from some party mouthpiece, whenever public support requires galvanisation, over diplomatic and territorial disputes; such nationalist sentiment also serves as a distraction, from domestic scandal and mismanagement, and can therefore be cynically applied. This is often low hanging fruit, considering that there are many still in living memory of the Japanese invasion and occupation.

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Man praying at the Yasukuni.

Passing beneath the great Torii gates, and into the courtyard, I take stock of the surroundings. The Sakura trees for which it is famed have now shed their blossom, replaced by a rusty brown foliage. Though the Yasukuni seldom draws the crowds of it larger and more well-known contemporaries, it is unusually quiet today. A couple pose for pictures in front of the main hall, its doorway draped with the crest of the imperial family (the Chrysanthemum blossom), as nearby a groundsman sweeps dead leaves from the courtyard. The hall is flanked by an assembly, a reception and the shrine itself, all constructed in the archetypal Shinto style. I find much of the actual shrine to be typical, with only oblique reference to the War or those consecrated within. Those overt mentions are of an altogether mournful tone. For example in front of the main hall, where inscribed is the last letter of Takashi Yamaguchi Mikoto, a young Corporal slain in the last days of the Burma campaign. Haunting in both its poignance and poetry, I have transcribed it below for the readers’ convenience:

Emiko, Junko, Older Brother will go to the battlefield of a land of everlasting summer.

This is my last letter from the mainland.                                                                            

For Older Brother, there is no greater joy as a man than this.

Our meeting on January 3rd might have been our last. I do not believe that I will return alive.                                                                                                                                                

I will simply trust in the precious power of the people in the home front, which overflows in my thousand-stitch belt, and the power of my amulet and work in high   spirits.

I had done nothing until now and was undutiful.

Older Brother now goes to die.

Long live the Great Japanese Empire and His Majesty the Emperor.

While I am away, in place of older brother, please be dutiful to our parents together with older brother, Mitsuru.

And please get along well with your older brother and younger sister.

Well then, goodbye. I pray for your health and happiness.

 Reading this is enough to make one feel deeply and painfully for those who offered up their lives, many willingly, in the service of what might be termed ‘king and country’—to use a British idiom. This mournful tone is very much in line with the general national attitude towards war, of ‘never again’. It also illustrates well a certain character exemplified in the Yasukuni: pertaining to duty and sacrifice, not just of the departed, but of citizens in paying respect to their ancestors. The sun is now beginning its descent, casting an orange hue over the wooden structures, and it is growing colder.

The Yasukuni Museum, or Yushukan as it has come to be known, was first established in 1882, as an accompaniment to the shrine. It was originally intended to curate and exhibit Meiji artefacts, though this was extended to include artefacts from all successive conflicts; as such it forms the contextual foundation for the Yasukuni, and outlines the principal Japanese narrative on its military history. In many ways it has become the main attraction, due to its hands on, albeit contentious and revisionist interpretation of history.

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Memorial to Dr. Radhabinod Pal, jurist at the ‘Tokyo Trials’.
Upon reaching the museum entrance, I am met by a large, rather austere memorial to the Bengali Judge, Dr. Radhabinod Pal, one of the jurists at the Tokyo Trials. Well regarded for his dissenting opinion of the trial, he has become something of a hero in Japan, and in no place more so than here. Inscribed reads the following:

“When time shall have softened passion and prejudice, when Reason shall have stripped the mask from misrepresentation, then Justice, holding evenly her scales, will require much of past censure and praise to change places,”

Very interesting. And I think it can be said that this is where the tone becomes less oblique, and much more proactive. This quote might well be considered a sort of  hors d’oeuvre to the museum experience; and it does well to take it as such, adjusting ones palate to the atmosphere in which the subsequent exhibitions are to be consumed. It is unclear to me that this statement was to absolve those on trial of war crimes, though it seems intended to be taken in that spirit.

Entering the Yushukan, it is a spic and span little number. In the foyer, clinically arranged, a tank, plane and steam engine are positioned to give the impression of advancing upon you. At one time, the Yushukan was state owned, though following its closure in the post war years, it reopened as a private enterprise. As I mill around, flicking through brochures, it feels more akin to a theme park, than a museum—much less one of such scandalous repute. At the counter I purchase my ticket, the price of which is Y800, and enter the exhibition through the electronic turnstiles.

It is said that the museum provides alternative descriptions in English for all its displays. This is quite untrue in my experience. Though some have been translated into English, and other languages, these appear sporadic (or perhaps selective) in their application; nevertheless, this does not impinge the narrative and general thrust, which remains palpable throughout: that of the downtrodden, misunderstood empire, a once great power now hostage to the praxis of western powers. The scholars of the Yushukan appear to  have gone to great pains to emphasise this, and at points one is inclined to feel some sympathy. An overture to the ‘Opening of Japan’ begins with an unflattering block print of Commodore Perry, the American naval commander who lead the assault on Tokyo Harbour. The previous year Perry had been given what amounted to carte blanche in the task of opening trade and diplomatic relations with the isolationist Japanese Empire; by whatever means necessary. Inclined to leave no hostage to fortune, this is exactly what he did, in what was to become a rather shameful example of gunboat diplomacy. This historical condition sits heavily on the Japanese consciousness, a nation dragged into the modern world by point of a gun. The argument put forward, though implicit, seems to be: if Japan was coerced into modernity by western military powers, why then should the west be surprised that Japan would develop into a modern, military power, with ambitions of its own. This of course makes some logical sense, though as an apologia for the brutal expansionism that would come to define its ambitions, it falls short of what one might call ‘good taste’.

Nevertheless, the Yushukan is a forum for celebrating, as well as mourning, the Imperial Japanese Empire. As such a veritable feast is laid out, of artwork, artefacts, and replicas, showcasing the prowess and ingenuity of its armed forces. Particularly interesting is a documentary, screened in the on-site theatre, showcasing the development made possible in European colonies like Burma, as a result of Japanese occupation—you would have a hard time gathering this if you did not speak Japanese however, as the film is without any kind of translation. This seems to me somewhat common apologia for imperialism, one I have heard countless times before, in many countries, including my own—whether referring to the introduction of railways, bureaucracy or language to name a few. Yet there is another dimension here, one that goes beyond presenting imperial colonisation in a favourable way, but also to distinguish Japanese colonialism as superlative in contrast to western exploits in the region—which is to say that Western imperialism came at the expense of the subjugated, whereas Japanese imperialism was by comparison more benevolent, and perhaps even emancipatory. This extends itself to the battlefield, too. Emphasised beautifully by a painting of Japanese soldiers, resting on the roadside, as they wave cordially to a stream of Indian POWs as they are lead past. Whether this exchange would have been quite so frivolous, had those prisoners (or indeed their Japanese captors) known what awaited at the internment camps to which they were destined, one can only guess; though I suspect not.

My tour comes to a close on a sombre note, upon entering a hall, its walls plastered lengthwise with the monochrome portraits of men. The exhibition is titled ‘mementos to those enshrined’, and is a tribute to some of those martyred in the defence of the Japanese Empire. Emotive though such a display is, this exhibition is interesting in more ways than one. Each individual exists upon this wall nameless, and therefore essentially without identity, other than that assigned by collective association in martyrdom. Scattered throughout this innocuous collage of young men, are the images of rather more notorious figures, such a Hideki Tojo (who can be discerned if one has the time and inclination to do so). This suggests the irrelevance of the rank, status, social class and even nationality for those enshrined, having received that most honourable title eirei. Of course this in itself is not without controversy. It is estimated that some 20,000 Koreans have received posthumous, and in some cases ante-mortem, inclusion into the Yasukuni, without any form of consent; what is more, many of that number were conscripted into the Japanese armed service, and forced labour units, whilst under occupation. This is an added burden for those surviving relatives, who already carry the burden of history. Nevertheless, the Tokyo District Court has dismissed calls to excommunicate those deceased from the Shinto shrine, on three separate occasions, citing ‘religious tolerance’. That one of the appellants was a survivor, in effect contesting his own obituary, does not seem to pose a contradiction significant enough to undermine the court’s ruling.

Before making my exit, I wander through the giftshop, amongst the assorted trinkets’ and souvenirs. On offer there one can find model ships, tea, candy, and nationalist literature. Outside it is growing dark, and the grounds are in the process of closing. Leaving the complex, it strikes me that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth; one of bitterness, and abjection. Perhaps this intentional. A means of stirring visitors into action. Yasukuni should be seen then, not just as an apologia, or a revisionism, but an attempt at mobilisation. A battle over history, fought in the present, in aid of the future.

I suspect the thrall of the Yasukuni (though more specifically the Yushukan) for tourists lies in its perceived ‘un-pc’ portrayal of history, and the subsequent controversy that this stirs. It should be emphasised, however, that whilst this historical narrative is certainly a faux pas in the eyes of many foreign visitors, this is very much politically correct in Japan, and conforms largely to the state position. As such the Yushukan caters almost exclusively to the Japanese audience, with the purpose of instilling national pride in the country’s imperial past, and the sacrifice of those who fought in its name. The attempt to reinterpret imperial history is not just a contest over the past, but in effect an attempt to shape the future generations. The education system has formed an integral part of this mission. Though there are some high profile ‘traditionalist’ schools, where the nationalist doctrine is taught openly, for the most part the Japanese mainstream curriculum avoids the topic as much as possible—save for some reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the renewal of mainstream Japanese nationalism in the 1990s, topics such as those concerning national identity and patriotism have become increasingly prominent. The Yasukuni has often been the material focus of this movement. In 2001 Japanese premier Koizumi Junichiro recommenced the practice of official state visiting of the Yasukuni, which had been abandoned since 1985, prompting widespread chagrin internationally. This tradition has been supported and continued, at least in an unofficial capacity, by serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, most notably in 2013. For Mr. Abe however this is something more than a matter of conscience over the future of the Japanese identity. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was accused of, and imprisoned for, war crimes, due to his role in governing the puppet state of Manchuko. Though Kishi was absolved of all charges, and subsequently released, the stigma of this ordeal went on to impact Abe throughout his childhood, shaping his conservatism in the process. This little tale of abjection-cum-vindication is, ironically, quite in tune with the narrative espoused by the Yasukuni; it is perhaps unsurprising then, that Mr Abe has decided to make this one of his personal hobby horses

In many ways, the narrative put forward by the Yasukuni is actually in conflict with that of the post war commitment to peace, as enshrined in both the Kyoto and Hiroshima museums. This peace consensus remains dominant in public opinion, and it is no wonder then that Shinzo Abe chose to articulate his visit to the Yasukuni in these terms—as a part of a commitment to peace. However contradictory this statement may seem, its necessity shows that nationalist and militarist sentiment are not as buoyant as one might perceive. Further to this, both the renegotiate Japans military constitution, and the (scandalous) patronage of nationalist faith schools by senior officials, including Abe himself, have been met with widespread hostility. The omission of unfavourable history from the curricula has also proved to be a double edged sword: whilst it prevents open discussion and questioning, this extends itself to the principle itself, to the degree that many young Japanese are simply disinterested in this vision of nationalist revival, other than in the most perfunctory way. Even on the far right of Japanese politics, in fact, this vision is deemed too wishy washy. The idea that you can create national pride and strength, through cultivating a state of victimhood, seems to me destined for failure. Furthermore such machinations expose a distinct lack of strength and unity, by their very necessity. With the numerous economic and social problems facing Japan, such vanity projects seem to me a fruitless and destructive use of time. This is not to undermine the principal of war memorial, however, though the monetization for political purposes of those lives lost, seems to me a perversion of that same principle.

Further reading: https://apjjf.org/-Hong-KAL/2880/article.html

 

1 Comment

  1. An intelligent and eloquently written post Ben, which makes for fascinating reading. Controversial but thought provoking with great insight into a country you obviously know very well.

    Like

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