And so the summer of 2019 reaches its peak: another humid, overbearing ordeal in Tokyo, and one which I could quite easily do without.
Truth be told, I have always disliked summer, and sitting in a poorly air-conditioned café, somewhere amongst the concrete mess of Shibuya, does little to change that opinion.
Nevertheless, I am not immune to some of the charm that this season brings. It is, after all, a time when things become obvious. The skies grow clearer, the grass greener, wildlife more abundant; even people are free to expose more of themselves, though this does present something of a ‘mixed bag’.
In case you hadn’t caught it, this is also intended as an analogy more generally speaking, for just as the pondlife rises to the surface, for all to see, so to must other things. This week it is history.
For once again, from the swamp, comes a sordid artefact of the Nixon years, in the form of a taped phone conversation, this time between the man himself (Nixon) and darling of the neoliberal right, Ronald Reagan (then Gov. of California).
The United States, which had thrown its diplomatic weight behind Taiwan, for nearly three decades, was (to say the least) invested in that particular status quo, and not at all pleased about having its strategic ally unseated—least of all in favour of its communist antithesis.
To add insult to injury, the vote on Chinas recognition was perceived to have been carried by ‘the Third World’: newly independent, developing nations; largely African and largely sympathetic towards the political struggle of the PRC.
In hindsight, that this was considered a slight to both the vanity and competence of Richard Nixon, his administration, as well as US realpolitik generally speaking, perhaps goes without saying. And, knowing what we know about these two men, so too does their subsequent reaction to it.
Richard Nixon’s grotesque anti-Semitism and bigotry have been common knowledge for decades now, his very name becoming synonymous with political corruption. In fact, when measured against the vulgarity of his pre-existing recorded legacy, this conversation pales in comparison.
Likewise that Ronald Reagan, patron of white racism in southern Africa, scourge of Latin American democracy, might have harboured disdain towards the self-determination of newly independent African states, seems a revelation equally uninteresting.
So what is it that we are really surprised about here? What is it that we think these tapes reveal that is so shocking to us? Surely it is not that two men, both with a fairly well-documented history of such attitudes, had such a conversation, some 50 years ago.
No. Rather it is what we think this recording tells us about the present times, or, more specifically, the president: Donald Trump.
This angle has been fairly clear throughout reporting, though usually oblique, and rarely substantial, to the degree that I am often left wondering precisely who Donald Trump is being compared to, Nixon or Reagan—surely he cannot encapsulate both simultaneously.
Naftil, writing in the Atlantic, makes the connection somewhat clearer for us, suggesting that the relevance of these tapes to Donald Trump, is as a reminder that previous American Presidents have been racist—and more generally to race as a prevailing issue in American politics.
Well, if it took the haunting cackle of Richard Nixon, from beyond the grave, to remind you of either of those things, you may not be competent as a voice of reason on the issue; nor well equipped for the eventuality that the president may, in fact, be an ideological racist.
Of course, the true value is only ever implicitly stated, though well understood by those with an ear for it: if Reagan spoke like this on the phone, imagine what Trump says in private. The wider implications of this reasoning should, I hope, be equally understood.
I do not particularly like Donald Trump. I find him boorish, often ill-informed, his positions on international relations antiquated – as well as those on many other things. It strikes me that there are many reasons to dislike the man, and his presidency, without slavishly grasping at straws in a kind of historical kangaroo court.
Trump may be a racist; I do not know. He may be a racist, a sexual predator, a wife abuser, or any other variety of miscreant. He may be all of these things at once, even, yet it would remain beyond the relevance or indictment of a conversation between two separate individuals, recorded half a century earlier.
To assume otherwise is to say that all bad things are essentially alike, in so far as they sound and look alike to me, which in itself produces a kind of tyranny. A tyranny which is both pervasive and seductive in its simplicity.
There is certainly something attractive in doing this. If you simply lump all the people you don’t like together, as a sort of homogenous, albeit multi-headed, creature, you can make a number of broad assumptions, predictions and strategies.
This is, above all, a symptom of lazy thinking: the type which has seen the decay of the intellectual left in the western hemisphere. Yet it is also a precursor to something much more sinister if left unchecked, or even encouraged, as it has been.
Trump is not Nixon, nor is he Reagan, and the political environment he inhabits is a world apart from that of either. The sooner people start understanding Trump as an entity in himself, they may start to understand the reasons why he was elected in the first place, and contest him from that position—rather than assuming some common strain of evil.
Finally, If this tape is to remind us of anything, it is first and foremost the odious legacy Nixonism and its continued stain on the American political psyche; secondly, to contextualise the barbarous campaigns waged by Reagan and Nixon both against the developing world in the name of American self-interest.
I have a number of issues with the modern ‘anti-imperialist’ movement, upon which I have written to some extent, though some brief thoughts are as follows:
It seems to me that in trying to ferret out crypto-imperialists within the circles of western power, they have themselves started to adopt colonial patterns of thinking, with their subsequent theories therefore to some degree tainted by that which they so vehemently oppose.
For example, the idea that the modern developing world, and its many hardships, are defined principally by Europe’s imperial legacy therein; or even that the international system itself is shaped by imperialism (past or present). To me this is a notion of extreme arrogance and solipsism, which rivals in essence any put forward by a neo-imperialist.
To suggest that the difficulties faced by developing nations are fundamentally the cause and responsibility of the West is to remove responsibility from those indigenous people in their own affairs. This is an incredibly pernicious concept, not least in that it systematically undermines the agency of people in shaping their own society (for better or worse) and therefore their ability to improve it. Furthermore, by placing such a rigid emphasis on hierarchies and colonialism one condemns the developing world to colonialism in perpetuity. Afterall, how can one escape a state of abjection, when its very rasion d’tre is at the will of the rich and powerful?
Much like the theories it attempts to critique, it is an overly ‘western centric’ attempt to diagnose the problems faced by subject countries. It is also based in part on a misunderstanding or dismissal of the concerns relevant to individuals of those countries. It is difficult to argue these days that colonialism is a prominent or relatively important concern to citizens of, say, the Philippines—the object of Kipling’s infamous call to empire, ‘the white man’s burden’—but rather a host of logical concerns surrounding crime, governance and livelihood, much as would be the case for anyone, regardless of their citizenship or historical condition.
Equally troubling is the tendency for this narrative to create intellectual union with some rather unsavoury and reactionary (to say the least) forces around the world, which has done little to alleviate the conditions of the deprived, and for the most part only served to make them worse—again, this is not at all dissimilar from the dialectic used by imperialists, in supporting strongmen and dictators, albeit to different ends.
Of course, I do not discount the hideous legacy of imperialism, and the impact it has undoubtably had on many countries throughout the world; nor that an anti-imperialist critique is no longer important or necessary. However, a continuous and slavish focus on American foreign policy for example, at the expense of more pressing and relevant examples, has in many ways undermined it as a serious or reasonable critique.
There are a great many more points I would like to address on this subject, and I shall do so over the coming weeks, in a number of more specific articles and essays.
I have to confess, whenever I hear some discussion of the ‘Third World’ I can’t help but release a large, inward sigh (or potentially a small outward one, situation and company dependent), as the conversation follows its predictable tropes—who or what constitutes the Third World these days? Etc, etc.
I’ll start by laying my cards on the table. The distinction between First and ‘Third World’ is over, and it has been for some time now. This is to say that: the concept ceases to describe the international system in any kind of meaningful way, and as such is defunct, often posing more questions than it is capable of answering.
The expression itself has its genesis in the 1950s, being first coined by French intellectual Alfred Sauvy, in his ‘Three Worlds’ theory. The purpose of this was to map the post war ideological landscape. The First World was identified as the developed, capitalist west; the Second World consisted of the developing and semi-developed socialist states; and the Third World, the non-aligned, developing world, primarily relating to Asia, Africa and South America. It is worth emphasising the power dynamic here, the First and Second Worlds were in competition for influence over the Third.
If all of this is starting to sound fairly contrived, then you may just be on to something.
With the end of the Cold War, the ‘Second World’ ceased to exist as an ideological entity, its sub units to merging with the ‘Third’ world, leaving the system much like a two-legged milk stool. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to shoehorn this system solely into the context of development. Though as growth began to migrate further east, into the ‘Third World’, this economic dimension no longer made sense either, and only confused things further. Scholars have tried to establish a new dictionary, that better explains the modern world, though the translation into common sense has been, how shall we say, slow.
Regardless, the expression remains in common, albeit increasingly informal, usage. So the question I have been asking myself is, why? The need for humans to categorise as a means of simplification is well documented, but why in terms that are so obviously complicated? That people need to ask, for example, whether India, China or Russia are ‘Third World’ or not, displays how little utility this concept has in the first place; yet something about it remains irresistible. It occurs to me, perhaps, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ has some value in itself, greater than its ability to describe anything tangible
Back in early January, during a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, President Trump was alleged to have made loose reference to a number of ‘shithole countries’. Quite whether this was said or not remains to be seen, though I was not intrigued by the claim itself, so much as the general response to its verisimilitude. Typically, there was outrage for some, whilst for others it was greeted with a sort of ‘nudge-nudge, wink-wink’. Once again, the Donald appeared to be exercising his skill, in articulating that which was on everyone’s mind, but dare not be said.
This is interesting to me in a number of ways. Firstly, that the idea of a ‘Third World’ is ingrained on some level beyond its direct reference. Secondly, to note the particular ease with which such an idea gravitates between a categorisation and a pejorative. Thirdly, (and perhaps most importantly) the degree to which this ‘Third World’ exists in the collective imagination across the political spectrum.
Clearly, whether on the left or right, the ‘Third World’ is an important concept, even if only as a point of conflict upon which to diverge, to contrast their different ideas on the international. The left have traditionally seen themselves as its champion and protector; some of those on the right, in what might be termed pragmatism, are both the benefactors of and protectors from this prospective Third World. Yet a thick streak of patronage runs through both camps, which is clear in their response to it.
For example, if any notion of mutual respect existed, between the developing world and the left, it was to be shattered with the complete indignation shown by the left wing media circuit, after Trump’s attempt at describing the United States as ‘like a third world country’. Rather than contesting the use of a vague, out of date concept, or worse yet insulting their comrades overseas, offence was instead taken at being compared to them. If the United States was becoming like the Third World, they sneered, then it was only as a result of his policies. Of course, trading blows in such terms, however unpleasant, is not new; though it is quite out of sync with the enlightened language those same institutions usually favour.
It seems to me that the Third World will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who find some utility in its existence, whether it exists in reality or not. Quite where the Third World is located is harder to define, its borders nebulous as the concept itself. China, once the sick man of Asia, is now no longer; far from it. Likewise, for India, Brazil, Taiwan, South Korea; the African states, and many of the hurdles they face, are far more diverse than that of the 1980s ‘live aid’ conception that still prevails to this day. The world is changing, or, past tense, has changed. It remains fascinating to me, that language is amongst both the first and last things to change, or be affected by change. In each instance there is always a reason why; we ought to think about that.
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.
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.
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.
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
The ancient city of Nara, an experiment in technological and spiritual innovation. The watermark of a nation in bloom, and a defining point in the portrait of a culture.
I had developed an interest in Nara soon after arriving in Japan, following an encounter with an old friend. We were having lunch, discussing the trials and tribulations of rural Japan, when the subject came up—she had just returned from there on business, and said it had been an altogether pleasant trip. Though I had some knowledge of the city and prefecture beforehand, I had never been, nor had I made any plans to do so; however, after our conversation I became increasingly taken by the idea of visiting. I am fortunate to be spending a few days in Nabari, in neighbouring Mie prefecture (some 65km from Nara City) making the journey convenient if nothing else.
The City of Nara lies in the mountainous Yamato Basin, close to the Kyoto border, where she has done for some 1300 years. Built in the 8th century, the city was modelled on the ancient city of Ch’ang in the hope that it might emulate the splendour of the Tang Dynasty. It became the home of the Imperial Court and capital of Japan, and lends its name to the subsequent period (Nara-jidai) from 710 – 794. These days however Nara makes do with the title of prefectural capital, and is home to some 350,000 people, who live and work throughout the city and its suburbs. Though modestly sized (at least by Japanese standards) the city retains a historical and cultural significance that rivals even the largest of its contemporaries—the prefecture hosts more UNESCO heritage sites than any other.
The drive from Mie to Nara is in itself an experience worth writing about: up through the forests and winding roads, into the mountains; and then down, into the basin itself, where you are met by a panoramic view of the sprawling suburbs, the lights of commerce sparkling throughout. A sight for sore eyes. When travelling through the Japanese countryside, I am often astonished by the volume of undisturbed woodland. In fact some 67% of Japans land mass is accounted for by trees—to put that in context the UN average is 29%, with England retaining around 10%—making it one of the most densely forested countries in the world. Nara is no exception, its sloping, wooded hills giving shelter to one of the city’s most prized treasures: the Sika.
Just as one cannot mention Venice without gondolas, nor Prague without Kafka, a discussion on Nara seems incomplete without some reference to deer. The Sika, or Japanese Spotted Deer, are ubiquitous throughout the prefecture, though most notably in the city itself, where approximately 1200 Sika (as of 2015) coexist alongside their two-legged counterparts. A particularly interesting phenomenon, given that deer are so renowned for the shyness, and I’m sure one could spend a whole day studying their interactions with the environment and never tire of it—this can make for many a fascinating, and often amusing spectacle. For example, the deer have adopted certain idiosyncrasies specific to the urban setting, such as bowing to receive food, and waiting with pedestrians at traffic lights. The level to which they seem to have integrated into society is also noteworthy. For many Narans the Sika are a central feature of everyday life. I speak to a café owner, who tells me that one particular deer has been coming to her store since a young fawn, and now brings his family to receive scraps.
This arrangement of cohabitation seems, at least at first glance, to be one of mutual benefit. Tourists flock in to see the deer, which has spawned an industry in Shika-senbei (or ‘deer snacks’) that can be purchased and fed to them; the deer have in turn been allowed some degree of autonomy, being left to roam the city and Nara Park—where they are predominantly found. There are however some, perhaps unsurprising, problems that arise from cohabitation. The deer population has been steadily rising over the years, and with incidence of deer attacks on the rise, as well as a general strain on the local environment and infrastructure, it has prompted a question of ‘how many deer are too many’, and what should be done about it? There have been talks of a cull within local government, though this has (at least for the meantime) been shelved in favour of a relocation programme—largely due to public outcry.
This is more than an issue of animal rights, or protecting the tourism economy, however. Equally significant is the importance of the Sika to Nara’s culture and identity on an esoteric level. Legend has it that the Shinto thunder deity takemikazuchi-no-mikoto rode into Nara atop a white deer, where he was summoned to guard the Kasuga Taisha shrine; as such the Sika were for many years considered sacred and protected under pain of death. Whilst the scope of Japanese religious observance may have changed in the years between then and now, deer are still revered throughout the country; which is perhaps a good example of how certain values become entrenched over time, transcending the esoteric into common sense—that is to say, religion influences culture (and vica-versa).
Upon entering the Tōdai-ji, one cannot help but reach for the word ‘magnitude’. The sprawling complex is in itself a tremendous achievement both in size and engineering, though it is perhaps theDaibutsu (or bronze Buddha ornament) that is most exceptional. Standing at nearly 50 feet in height, it is the largest statue of its kind, and is housed in the Daibutsu-den (or Great Buddha Hall) which until the 90s was the largest wooden building in the world. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, but suffice to say, when it comes to Buddhism in Nara, size matters; and perhaps that is only right, Nara is after all Japan’s first quintessentially Buddhist city and template for the subsequent Heian Kyo—modern day Kyoto.
Standing in the courtyard, on a gravelled path leading to the Daibutsu-den, it is grey and overcast. Whilst I’m sure a bright, autumnal sky would make for a stunning picture, perhaps the clouds and drizzle lend to the conservative splendour of the place—much as a foggy day in London is almost a prerequisite to experiencing the city. The romantic in me tries to imagine the place as it was 1200 years ago, with the crowds of tourists replaced by monks and worshippers, though I’m not sure how helpful this is as the complex has been renovated numerous times since its inception. Inside the enclosure the Daibutsu cuts an imposing figure, and one can see how such a structure would inspire reverence in the hearts of all who came to supplicate before it. It is said that the amount of bronze used alone nearly bankrupted the nation, and took multiple attempts to cast. Nevertheless, it remains awe inspiring both in size and presence, and one cannot help feeling humbled before it.
Outside it is growing dark, though I decide to take a final stroll through Nara Park before departing. Nara Park is in fact one of the oldest parks in Japan, having been built towards the end of the 19th century during the Meiji restoration; and like so much in Nara, it is also beautiful. The leaves are turning as autumn sets in, in a spectacular canopy of green, orange and brown. Couples walk hand in hand along the pathways and stag joust with one another nearby. I have always felt autumn to be my favourite season, and this is especially true in Japan—something about the oak and maple in particular. The atmosphere there is one that I feel resonates with Nara as a whole: peaceful and understated.
I decide to visit the KasugaTaisha, a Shinto shrine tucked away in Nara park, before making the journey home. Built in 768 it was dedicated to the illustrious Fujiwara clan, who rose to prominence under the enigmatic Fujiwara Kamitari, and remained the de-facto rulers of Japan throughout much of the Nara and following Heian period. The family name remains a significant one, and the FujiwaraKamon (depicting a wisteria vine) is not an uncommon sight—especially in Nara and Kyoto, where the clan exercised considerable power. The shrine is noted for its collection of stone lanterns adorning the grounds and those of the park in which it is situated, of which there are some 3000. Each one is said to have been donated by a worshipper, in an act of devotion that seems almost banal by this point in my trip. The shrine also hosts the Kasuga Wakamiya on-Matsuri, a festival and celebration of feudal Japanese culture (particularly the Heian era), though I am visiting at the wrong time of day and year to experience this first hand. Instead I content myself with wandering through the shrine, enjoying its ambience as the light slowly fades.
There is much to be said about Nara, indeed much more than I can articulate in these brief paragraphs. In finality, It is clear that Buddhism (and to some extent Shinto) has played an important part in Nara’s identity and Raison-d’etre; whilst Nara itself has contributed towards shaping the Japanese identity, at least in the historical sense. It is then somewhat like a brush mark, on a historical canvas, giving definition to a national portrait. There are indeed many such brush marks, though it is only by studying these indentations that we can seek to comprehend the broader picture, which is itself an ever growing ‘work in progress’.