Monday, August 26, 2013

The Problem With Yasukuni - From A Company Man

All the brave soldiers
That cannot get older
Been asking after you.

- Stephen Stills, "Daylight Again/Find The Cost of Freedom" (1982)
I have been thinking for the past week about the controversies that rage over Yasukuni, of how the inclusion of the 14 Class A war criminals taints the place, or as Shigeru Shino of Katsushika City, Tokyo Metropolitan District wryly remarked in a senryu published in the Tokyo Shimbun of August 17:

Eiyu to
“A”yu ga sumu
Hitotsu no yane

The Spirits of Heroes (eiyu) and
the spirits of Class A war criminals (eiyu) dwell
under a single roof
Through the blunt pun the poet offers the conventional criticism toward paying one's respects at Yasukuni -- that while it is right to pay respect to those who heroically made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, the simultaneous presence of the kami of the Class A war criminals muddles the message, making a Yasukuni visit a protest against the judgment of the International Military Tribunal of the Far East (a.k.a, "the Tokyo Trials"), the acceptance of which is demanded in the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty. Politicians, by their visits are issuing an implicit challenge to the underpinning to the postwar order and/or are revealing a wish to revive elements of the pre-1945 order.

The surreptitious enshrinement of the 14 Class A war criminals in 1978 is not what is wrong with Yasukuni, though. The Unforgivable Fourteen are a side show -- a profitable, cynical and self-perpetuating sideshow. The governments and civil society of China and South Korea -- and to a lesser extent counterparts in the United States -- work themselves into self-righteous, indignant lather over Japanese politicians directly or indirectly paying respect to the Unforgivable Fourteen. This festival of outrage in its flaming hypocrisy (the governments of all three countries having been involved in the killing millions, mostly civilians, in the period since 1945) in turns empowers self-righteous Japanese right wing, which harrumphs, not without reason, about Japan's innocuousness in security affairs over the last six decades.

Each side, after a florid show of umbrage, marches back to cheers and applause from their benighted and shallowly patriotic supporters.

"No!" I have wanted to say, "What is REALLY WRONG WITH YASUKUNI IS..."

...and had to stop for over a week now, since my visit to the shrine on the 15th.

One of the seductions of writing about policies and politics is a pretension of esoteric knowledge -- of becoming so confident about a country's culture and quirks as to presume to know what the real story is, or worse, what the story should be.

I confess I am not always successful at avoiding the pitfall of prescription. I do offer advice -- mostly of the trivial kind, such as suggesting to Finance Minister Aso Taro it is time to stop dyeing his hair black.

Jumping up and down as to what is really wrong with Yasukuni, beyond the 14 Class war criminals, seemed beyond the pale -- or at least beyond this pale's bailiwick.

However, on Saturday (August 24) my local newspaper published a letter to the editor (in a special box, so as to attract the eye) by a reader who shared the main elements of my disquiet, one who took issue with the whole concept of heroes being enshrined at Yasukuni:
[Dear Editor]

Last year my grandfather passed away. He served in the war as a merchant marine sailor. The story is that the ship that my grandfather was on was attacked by Americans and sunk. My grandfather, in the confusion inside the ship, grabbed ahold of a door. By holding tight to the floating door, he survived to be picked up by another merchant marine vessel, thereby escaping the fate of losing his life in the battle zone.

Many times did my grandfather say to me, "Had I died then, your father, and of course you, Tetsu, would never had been born." However, never did anything like "Ah, to fight for one's country is a glorious thing!" come to his lips.

Those wishing to legitimize Yasukuni or the Great War always talk about "heroes (eiyu) who died fighting for their country" or some such thing. But to make it sound like a Hollywood movie where alien life forms were coming to our land to unilaterally to attack us -- this is mistaken. Those whose lives were sacrificed in that war were sacrificed for the idiotic lusts and policy failures of the military leaders and the politicians, and the capitalists who insinuated themselves into their company.

In the first place, as was written in the Sanmen no kakushin article "Thinking about visiting Yasukuni" (Yasukuni sanpai o kangaeru) published in this newspaper on the 14th [of August], how much value should we be assigning Yasukuni? The shrine was built to honor the battle dead of imperial forces, those who died in the Meiji Restoration and other conflicts of the time, using Japan's tradition of imperial rule to political ends.*

If there are those who wish to believe that the spirits of their ancestors, who, unlike my grandfather, did indeed die on the battlefield, are honored at this shrine, fine -- I have no problem with that. However, the statement "They died fighting for their country" -- that I want revised. At the very least, it was not for these chest-thumpers in the present day who say "the honored dead (eiyu) are the pride of Japanese people and the State (kokka)" that those who sacrificed their bodies and lost their lives on the field of battle did what they did.

Kameda Tetsu
Age: 35
Occupation: company employee
Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture

Thank you Mr. Kameda.

At some point I will have to write about the kind of persons I saw at Yasukuni on the 15th. Someday also I should examine the Prime Minister's assertion in Diet session in April this year that visits to Yasukuni by Japan's leaders should not be framed as excusing the pre-1945 order because visits to Arlington National Cemetery, where Confederate soldiers are buried, does not result in U.S. presidents being accused of honoring slavery. (Link - J)

But that will be for another day.

As for that purported rightward shift in public attitudes, it seems as though the wave has not swallowed up quite everybody just yet...


* The implication being that far from being a place for honoring those who fought for the protection of Japan, Yasukuni was at its origins a shrine tasked with the placation of the spirits of those who lost their lives in domestic political violence.


SJM said...

My grandfather died in the war while a captain of an Imperial Japanese Navy escort ship. Various stories say his ship was struck either by a submarine or a diver-bomber after having escorted Yamato (大和)to another port; . While I don't think he was an ardent opponent of the war, he wasn't exactly an enthusiast of that endeavor, having been a merchant mariner sailing the Yokohama-Seattle route on the Hikawa-maru (氷川丸). As a frequent visitor of the U.S., he brought home American chocolates to my grandmother, who became quite an afficionado (we buried her with Hershey's kisses when she passed). Yet sometime around 1942 or 1943 the Imperial Navy pulled him into service considering his maritime training.

As a Japanese-American who dearly loves what America stands for, I've always had conflicted feelings towards my grandfather's role in the war. My grandmother and my parents told me he rarely spoke his own mind and never said much about what he thought about the war; that they didn't recall him eihter volunteering or making any effort to evade the draft. He was a quiet man who liked being a mariner. I suppose he just did what he thought he was supposed to do given his place in society. Either way, I like to think that he was not an ardent imperialist having had such frequent connections with the U.S. (perhaps China and Korea too, before joining the crew of the Hikawa-maru). Yet the people at Yasukuni never asked my grandmother or my parents when they claimed to honor the war dead. We always paid homage at our family grave, which also has nearby a cenotaph to the war dead. Apparently, my parents and grandmother never went to Yasukuni and felt it was rather unsettling, especially considering the pro-war elements that the shrine attracts (and does nothing to dissuade). I guess I don't have much of a voice in these matters, but as a grandson of someone who loves the country my grandfather fought against for whatever reason, I wish dearly that Yasukuni would stop claiming the spirits of all war dead. I'd rather see a public, non-sectarian cemetary, or a memorial much like the one for unidentified war dead at Chidorigafuchi but for all war dead. Perhaps the Japanese government can erect a peace monument as well as a cenotaph to the war dead bereft of the religious and militaristic tones of Yasukuni.

MTC said...


Your thoughts are much appreciated.

My sense upon visiting Yasukuni is that awe and respect are mislocated. The focus should be on the deaths of young men and women who were carrying out the orders of governments unworthy of the sacrifices made (there is the prescriptive "should" I try to avoid). Instead, modern Yasukuni ideology remains focused on the nation and the state, on how military service for each -- up to and including death -- enobled those enshrined.

Jon Reinsch said...

Thanks for a very fine post, much of which bears in equal measure on other countries' state-sanctioned honors for soldiers sacrificed on the altar of politicians' vanity, and which strive only to make mass death palatable.

Hitokiri1989 said...

Essentially Yasukuni is a shrine that honors soldiers that died for the Emperor. I think its defenders are mistaken to refer to it as a "national" shrine as the view one gets from going through the Yushukan is that soldiers gloriously died for their Emperor. In a sense it is a mistake to compare it to other remembrance "shrines" such as Arlington who honor Confederate soldiers as well where as Yasukuni to my knowledge does not honor Bakufu or Aizu soldiers from the Restoration era.