Japan's war heroes have their shrine
by Geraldine Sherman

Stirring up memories of the country's military past provokes debate about how much should best be forgotten

(The Globe and Mail, December 7, 1991)

The Japanese word yasukuni means peaceful country, but do not let that fool you.

Peace is not the first word that comes to mind when strolling through Yasukuni Park, just north of the Imperial Palace in the Kudan district of Tokyo.

Following the gravel road surrounded by ginko trees and ornamental cherries and after passing under two immense torii gates, you arrive at Yasukuni Shrine, a war memorial and museum built in 1869. It is one of the few Tokyo structures that survived both the devastating earthquake of 1923 and the firebombing by the U.S. Air Force in the Second World War.

The souls of 2.4 million Japanese soldiers killed in the service of their emperor since the beginning of the modern era in 1867 are said to rest within Yasukuni Shrine. Almost all belong to servicemen who fought in what we call the Second World War and the Japanese call the Great East Asian War or simply the Pacific War.

The physical remains of several warriors have come home to Yasukuni as well, among them those of Hideki Tojo, general and wartime prime minister of Japan, who was hanged by the U.S. Army of Occupation in 1948 for war crimes.

Thirty years later, the urn containing his ashes was secretly transported to Yasukuni and housed, discreetly, in a part of the building known as the inner sanctum. "By this act of burial," the Tokyo Baedeker says, "Tojo has acquired the status of hotoke, beings who are godlike and deserving of reverence."

Being an intensely practical people, most Japanese choose not to dwell on the past. In fact, they ignore it.

They might attend one of the two festivals which take place each year at Yasukuni, one in late April, the other in mid-October. These celebrate the changing seasons and, although there are demonstrations of ancient martial arts, the emphasis is on the present more than the past. Most Japanese would say the country's economic miracle is sufficient incentive to forget the losses of the war. But not everyone, not all the time.

For thirty-three years after the war, no Japanese prime minister entered Yasukuni. In 1978, on the anniversary of his country's surrender, prime minister Takeo Fukuda came to mark the occasion. He said he was there only as a private citizen.

In 1985, half-way through his five-year term, the supremely confident and abrasive prime minister of the day arrived and signed the Book of Worshippers "prime minister Yasukiro Nakasone," thereby declaring his visit official.

The visit caused a public outcry. Old enemies like China and Korea had believed all along that Japan's apologies were too muted and its reparations too stingy. At home, there was anger as well from Buddhists and Christians, many of them pacifists who were persecuted during the war when no opposition was tolerated. In those days it was considered a crime not to bow your head as your bus passed Yasukuni.

Besides being a war memorial, Yasukuni is dedicated to the Shinto code of bushido, with its absolute obedience to the emperor; since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1867) the emperor has had the status of a god. This state Shintoism was at the heart of Japan's fiery nationalism, the antecedent of its reckless incursions into Asia, and, ultimately, its attack on Pearl Harbor.

When the war ended, the United States spared Emperor Hirohito but stripped him of his divinity, hoping to separate, forever, religion and the state.

In 1986, Nakasone cancelled what would have been his second official visit to Yasukuni. Further antagonism was unnecessary. He had made his point: the past was reclaimed and no longer disavowed.

"America," he had said earlier, "has its Arlington Cemetery. The Russians and many other people have their tombs to the unknown soldier, places for people to give thanks to those who died in battle. If there is no such place, who will be prepared to give his life for his country?"

If the memorial museum at Hiroshima tells us something about Japan the Victim, then Yasukuni should tell us something about Japan the Warrior. However, as with all things Japanese, or perhaps all things which pretend to define War and Peace, an observant visitor, even a gaijin (foreigner), will take away from Yasukuni some terrible lies as well as shocking truths.

The museum itself is rock-solid, with a few windows and a Japanese tiled roof with overextending eaves. The colours are earth-tones, browns and greys, with none of the reds or yellows found in more elaborate temples. Inside the museum the displays are equally restrained - solid oak cases crammed with swords, medals and maps.

On the days when I was there, I saw only a few other visitors, mostly old men with ribbons on their lapels. Not surprising when you consider that, in a recent survey, the majority of Japanese said their most memorable cultural experience was a trip to Tokyo's Disneyland.

In this museum there is much history and little show business - no dioramas, no life-size reconstructions, no microchips or lasers, not a single invitation for audience participation. All anyone can do is walk and look and read.

Each war since the beginning of imperial Japan has its own display - the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5); the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5); First World War, when it seized German territories in Southeast Asia; the invasion of Manchuria (1931) and of China (1937); and finally the war that began for Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. Only four years later, Japan suffered her first defeat at the hands of an outside foreign power.

Once before in Japan's long history, it had looked as if all was lost. In 1281, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan had an army of more than 120,000 men approaching the coast of Kyushu, Japan's southern island, in boats. Across the land, Buddhist priests gathered in their temples to pray for divine intervention.

As the enemy prepared to land, a typhoon swept in, drowning most of the invaders and saving the nation. The Japanese called this kamikaze, divine wind.

In the dying days of the Second World War, when it looked, once more, as if Japan would be invaded, her leaders sought another miracle, this time in the self-sacrifice of thousands of young men - kamikaze of flesh and blood - suicide bombers. At Yasukuni, two rooms are devoted to these doomed heroes. Only these two rooms have some of the information is in English, a recognition, perhaps, that Westerners see in this singular form of devotion a key to the Japanese psyche.

The first exhibit is sponsored by the survivors of the 721st Naval Task Force, the Jinrai Butai or Divine Thunderbolt Corps. They flew the OKHA, or Cherry Blossom gliders which were towed aloft and released within striking distance of the U.S. fleet. Each aircraft held a single pilot, three minutes worth of propellent in the tail, and a 1,200-kilogram bomb in the nose cone.

A notice on the wall says that, when every member of the corps was asked individually whether he would undertake a fatal mission, 100 per cent replied yes. True, perhaps, as far as it goes.

Group pressure in Japan is always intense; one can imagine the consequences in wartime of saying no. Kamikaze pilots often gathered outside Hiroshima, near Itsikushi or Shrine Island with its famous floating vermilion torii, to muster their courage before their final duty. If, at the last minute, the spirit of bravery eluded them, a small concrete bunker was provided for seppuku - ritual self-disembowelment - as a solution to the risk of disgrace.

In the next room at Yasukuni, we are told that 6,000 young men between the ages of 17 and 30 found the courage to crash their planes and manned torpedoes into the U.S. fleet. As they boarded their death machines they vowed to meet again when the cherries blossomed at Yasukuni; as they plunged into their targets they are said to have cried out: "Mother."

On display are several tinted photographs of these young men on their last visits home. They stand with their parents and stare straight ahead, knowing they will never stand together again, that this moment is already a memory.

On the far side of the room is a black marble slab, engraved with a description in English of the deeds of these suicide squads: "Their devotion will remain in the hearts of the Japanese as an expression of patriotism in its noblest and purest form. . . . This spirit has laid the groundwork for the peace and prosperity of our nation today and in the future. May their remarkable achievements inspire us for generation after generation."

The plaque was dedicated on Dec. 8, 1985, the year of prime minister Nakasone's visit.

Arguments over the true causes of the war, the role of the emperor, the relationship between the state and Shintoism, and the continued prominence of former war leaders in peacetime Japan remain unresolved. Negative accounts of Japan's activities during the war are not found in school textbooks which are heavily edited by the ministry of education. Disagreements continue over whether Japan should allocate more than 1 per cent of its gross national product for defense. Until recently, there was controversy every time a Japanese prime minister wanted to visit Yasukuni.

This Sept. 25 (1991), the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that these state visits are illegal. It is unconstitutional for government officials to appear at Yasukuni or for public bodies to donate money to it, since the constitution requires separation of politics and religion. This is unlikely to be the final word on the subject.

Yasukuni remains one of the most important shrines in the Shinto hierarchy, along with the Great Shrine at Ise, which houses the sacred objects of royalty, and the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, where the present emperor was crowned last year in a ceremony rich with Shinto ritual, proof that the old ways are far from dead.

In many ways in Japan, the Second World War is not yet over. At the centre of the debate stands Yasukuni Shrine, symbol of the country's unresolved feelings about its military past and its desires for a peaceful future.

The Yasukuni Shrine Museum is at 3-1-1 Kudan-kita. Chiyoda-ku, 10 minutes from Ichigaya Station on the Chuo Line. Telephone 261-8326.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1991

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