Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tokyo 2006 Part VI: Yasukuni Shrine

The South Gate of Yasukuni Shrine

As Prime Minister Koizumi keeps officially visiting it at the cost of deteriorating diplomatic relationships with South Korea and, especially, China (see a BBC article on this), Yasukuni Shrine is perhaps even known to those outside the Far East.

The whole problem is the fact that war criminals are enshrined here along with other Japanese war deads. I always thought, "Why don't you just separate war criminals from the Shrine?" I hadn't been there but, as a Japanese citizen, I needed to see what the Yasukuni Shrine is like.

It is a different world from the rest of Tokyo. There are a bunch of cherry blossoms (and some camellia bushes) inside the Shrine. Each tree has a small plastic board indicating that the tree was donated by a certain group of former soldiers who fought the Second World War. There are also a Japanese traditional garden (which claims to be one of the greatest in Japan though it didn't appeal to me at all), an outdoor nou stage (see the photo below), and the controversial Yushukan museum.

An outdoor nou stage with a branch of cherry blossom in full bloom in Yasukuni Shrine

The Yushukan museum introduces to its visitors the origin of the Yasukuni Shrine and the war history of Japan in the modern era. In front of the museum stands statues of a horse (for dead horses in wars), a dog (for dead dogs in wars), and Radha Binod Pal, an Indian judge who claimed at Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals (1946-8) that Japanese war criminals were innocent.

It first emphasizes the fact that worshipping war deads as gods is Japan's long-running tradition of Shinto (Japan's local religion, different from Buddhism). Those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the community they belong to were always worshipped as gods protecting the community in ancient Japan.

Then the exhibition goes on to Japan's modern military history. The Civil War (1868-9, known as Boshin Senso in Japanese), the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5, a war with China over the rule of Korea), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5, a war with Russia over the rule of Korea and northeastern China), and the "Greater East Asian War" (1941-5, this is how right-wing Japanese people call the Second World War).

The exhibition room for the Russo-Japanese War is enormously exaggerated. There is a panoramic video screen showing a documentary of the war. It excitedly explains how Japan defeated Russia. It also emphasizes that after each winning battle the Japanese army showed "samurai" spirits to Russian soldiers who surrendered, by helping their lives or by allowing them to carry swords to respect their pride, etc.

For the "Greater East Asian War", the exhibition explains why Japan was "forced to" wage a war against the United States. It says, "The United States wanted a war to break out in order to boost its ailing economy. By blocking its trade with Japan, which heavily depended on imports from the U.S., America forced Japan to seek natural resources in East and Southeast Asia..."

I was curious how this exhibition explained the failure of Japan's war efforts. Here's the museum's explanation: Initially, the Japanese forces seized the upper hand over the U.S. After such a success, the army generals advocated for taking a cautious approach to the subsequent war strategy while the navy admirals insisted on further aggressive campaigns. As a compromise, the Battle of Midway (June 1942) was planned in which the Japanese navy tried to lure the U.S. forces into a trap. But the Japanese navy made a sequence of mistakes in this plot and got defeated completely. The tide then turned against Japan, leading to the unconditional surrender in August 1945.

The last exhibition room in the World War II section is devoted to the whole plan of the Mainland Defense Campaign. The Japanese army generals were really serious about fighting back against the invasion of the Allied Forces into Japan's mainland...

The final four exhibition rooms are full of face photos (about 3,000 in total) of "Yasukuni Gods" (ie. war deads enshrined at Yasukuni). "Bridal dolls" which were offered by bereaved families of unmarried young soldiers are also on display.

Overall, the exhibition gives me an impression as a superficial (and flashy) account of the Japanese modern history. It doesn't show any historical documents and the like as evidence for their interpretation of history. It completely lacks the account of how the Japanese military ruled Taiwan, Korea, China, and other parts of Asia-Pacific region. I cannot believe that all the wars undertaken by Japan in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century were for the sake of Japanese people - they were all initiated by Japan; not a single war was a counter-attack against invading countries. So I didn't feel like worshipping war deads enshrined here because my happiness as a Japanese citizen today doesn't seem owed to their lost lives. I do feel sorry for them losing their lives in wars. But treating them as gods doesn't make sense to me.

To the south of Yasukuni Shrine, located along Chidorigafuchi footpath (famous for its cherry blossom views) is Chidorigafuchi cemetery for War Dead. Buried here are remains of war dead during the Second World War which no one claims. This is where we should pray.


Combined with my visit to Seoul (see this post), I really want to know what happened during the Second World War, what our ancestors did to other Asians. I realized that almost all historians in Japan were trapped in ideology. Left-wing historians believe that Japan was wrong in all aspects, interpreting historical documents only this way. Right-wing people defend the war efforts without learning the history seriously. It's not that we Japanese are lazy to learn the history. We simply have no way of learning the truth due to the laziness of historians. What the fxxk...

As for the Yasukuni Shrine problem, Ichiro Ozawa, a newly elected chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan - I'm writing this on 18th April - argues that enshrining war criminals is wrong because they didn't die in a battle field like other war deads enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine. He makes sense a lot.


Linus said...

The War Shrine gets many Asians upset as it distorts the truth - an equivalent would be a War Cemetery in Germany that had Gobbels, Mengele, Hitler and other convicted war crimninals "respected" as well as a musuem with a version of history that totally ignored the Holocaust. I will visit it the next time to see it for myself though.

Masayuki said...

Hi Linus. Thanks a lot for a Singaporean viewpoint on this. I'm curious about how Singaporeans learn about the war. Do you have your highschool textbook on history? As Japanese historians are useless, the only thing I can do to deepen my understanding of the war would be to read history textbooks used in other Asian countries...


Linus said...

Dear masa,
Its interesting that you ask me this question. There are several views on how we percieve the war.

Please take a look at this

1)Dont Know Dont Care
We often suffer from historical myopia in Singapore-due to the lack of historical conciousness in a young country. So yes our youth care more about Amuro Namie than Marshal Tojo.
Its a source of shame that the British lost their main base in the East so again that portion of history is often buried.There were no great battles to reclaim Singapore merely a withdrawal by the Allies.

I suspect during the growing years of independence , many of us ex-colonies had our compensation treaties signed by the Allied forces which decided that Communism was a greater threat postwar than Japan.

Singapore along with many other nations were offered ships and loans in return for no claims on Japan.

Only recently have we reopened the surrender site as a museum for YOung Singaporeans to know of the war.
Interestingly enough every Febuary 15th -we have one minute of Air Raid sirens being tested in Singapore - we call it Civil Defence Preperation day.

2)Hate the Japanese
I personally know older generation -who try their best not to buy Japanese products and not to use Mitsubishi (a war keiretsu). These are people who lost husbands, sons in the war.

3)Know your history and build for the future
This is my response to the war. I must know what my grandparents underwent so that we will not repeat our mistakes. I recognise that modern Japan is a different entity from the past and the answer lies in embracing Japan rather than ostracising it.

Kyle said...

Doug Campbell at Indiana has a post on this same sort of national historical bias at with regard to the American, Chinese and Russian versions of the Vietnam War.

I can tell you I have been quite surprised by the difference in teaching about the American Revolutionary War among British classmates. But then again, America was just another colony that broke off from the British Empire. Nothing for the UK to get excited about.

I also overestimated the degree to which Europe dislikes American policy. Most Europeans I meet are not unhappy with me as a American, but maybe just our current policymakers. This seems very logical in retrospect, but it's not what I expected. This is why I came to London. To learn these sorts of things about other cultures. It's a step in the right direction.