Yasukuni Shrine- History and Mythology

Recently, I made a trip to Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, famous for enshrining Japan’s war dead, but infamous for mixing war criminals up with them. The shrine itself, from the outside at least, looks just like any other one in Japan and surprisingly for me, so did the visitors- at least when I went, there were none of the loony right-wingers to be seen there. Going to the museum is where you start to get a sense of just why this is such a controversial and emotionally-charged place. In a sense this makes it the polar opposite of the often praised memorial at Hiroshima, with it’s compassion for the victims of ware, including Japan’s militarism, whatever their background and it’s multi-coloured origami cranes.

If nothing else, the museum helps you understand the point of view of those who pit themselves against the ‘rational’, international system, with all it’s compromises. The museum goes from the birth of Japan and the ‘samurai spirit’ of dedication and bravery. The whole rise of the samurai has an irony to me, as they claimed to follow Buddhism, which is pretty explicit in it’s non-violent message, but I suppose religion often contains such paradoxes, such as a fight for peace or a just war. This train of thought is very much it’s apologetic tone in looking at Japan’s military history, right up to the modern era, when they tried to take on (or at least scare off) the USA and the rest of the free world- a world they have since fortunately joined.

In the present context of the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan, I found the exhibits of suicide weaponry, such as kamikaze bombers and torpedoes almost poignantly relevant. I can’t justify their use, especially against civilians, or the ideologies of the type of people who resort to them, but vastly outgunned by a superior army, they must have seemed a logical tactic. To challenge the fallacies that lead to their use though, it helps to see clearly- no-one has a right to encourage this kind of thing. Perhaps, losing their access to oil and not knowing a fair peace was in store for them, such desperate measures seemed like the only thing for Japan to do at the time. Apparently the government misinformation at the time claimed Americans would rape and murder civilians when they arrived- but in actual fact, they treated them much better than the Imperial authorities had.

I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but the museum even uses the same language as radical Islamists, talking of ‘martyrs’ who died for the Emperor, sometimes fighting against the civil authorities, even killing innocent people. It made me wander if sometime in the future, when there’s peace in Iraq, there’ll be a similar museum there. There are many different people’s histories ‘his stories’- the real challenge being to understand them and avoid making the same mistakes now.  Just as they say, “Those that forget their history are doomed to repeat it”.

Unlike anywhere else I’ve been, this museum attempts to presents the “other side’s” viewpoint. Where its value as a history museum falls apart is in failing to mention the actions of war criminals, whose remains have sadly been kept alongside the others. The often ranting and raving commentary talks of struggles to ‘subdue’ China and to ‘liberate’ (where have we heard that before?) Korea; without going into exactly what this involved. Of course, other countries have also done bad things, the problem here is the attempt to gloss over and justify them. As you may or may not know, this has spilled over into the issue of history textbooks, which are heavily censored in Japan, to cover up all the atrocities committed in the past. What remains is a kind of mythology, of samurai-like fighting in a noble defence of the realm. The problem is, that when young Japanese people go abroad they are often shocked by the hostility other Asians have for their country, as from what they have been told in school, Japan never did any bad things to them! Once they do find out, (often on trips to America), they wonder why they were never told.

Since long ago, though, there has been a tradition of laying all soldiers to rest in Yasukuni and it has been a focus for war memorial services. and each time a prime minister goes there, however much he says it is in the name of reconciliation, there are protests around Asia about it (especially in China, a fact exploited no end by the government there). Of course, Japan has as much a right as any other country to remember their war dead, most of whom were just people innocently following their orders and not involved in the atrocities, so there’s a lot of pressure for Prime Ministers to keep going there (even if they do so unofficially, due to the separation of church and state in Japan). Most of the population co-operated with the war-time government, as it was their culture to do so, though there were some Christians who were imprisoned for their passive resistance (and in my view, they were the real ‘martyrs’). The main issue here is the blurring of boundaries between the actions of individual soldiers and of those in the military who ordered what can only be called crimes against humanity. How does Japan do the natural thing of remembering the war dead whilst not seeming to justify such people? It is high time for reconciliation, for mutual understanding. The war’s over- there’s no need to fight it again with words!

So my advice? Either find a face-saving way to move the war criminal’s remains to another site or move the memorial services to another place without the same associations. If Germany can do this, there’s no reason why Japan can’t… and personally I believe they will. What is making this harder is that Japanese people generally resent the idea of being ‘told what to do’ by others and politicians are similarly shy of seeming to cave in to foreign pressure, for fear of being branded disloyal. You can see the same attitudes coming across in the issue of whaling. A mixture of xenophobia, Japan’s natural isolation, a religion of ancestor-worship; along with the censored history books, all make it a much more difficult to make progress than it might at first seem. But just as Japan abandoned its militarism for economic growth and democracy, I’m sure they’ll find a way to come to terms with their history. It will be a Japanese way, in harmony with their traditions, but it will have to be found. In the meantime, it’s just going to continue to damage the very national image they are trying to protect, by hiding from the past. As a people who value peace and serenity so highly, I think they deserve better leadership on this issue, so they can get back to friendship with their neighbours and I just hope they get it sooner, rather than later.

For myself, remembering the tragedies of the past helps me realise how much we’ve achieved in the (relatively!) peaceful years since and to see just how important that peace is.


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