Yasukuni, Four Years On

Much of the world may think of Japan today in terms of Hello Kitty, electronics and anime, but some of Japan’s neighbors haven’t gotten past World War II. Many people in these countries feel that Japan has not sufficiently faced up to atrocities before and during the war.

This makes Yasukuni Shrine, just north of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, a very controversial place. This very grand Shinto shrine is said to house the souls of Japan’s war dead. Since these include convicted war criminals, every visit by a major politician raises hackles from Manchuria to Korea to the Andaman Sea.

I visited the shrine while researching the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo published in 2006, in which I wrote:

“The source of the most controversy is the section of the [shrine’s] museum covering the ‘Greater East Asian War’, which you probably know as WWII. While there is undoubtedly value in offering the Japanese perspective, one can also understand the anger of Japan’s neighbours at the apparent watering down of the hardships they endured at Japan’s hands. Consider this gem about the Rape of Nanjing (here called the ‘Nanking Incident’) of December 1937: ‘The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.’ Or you might learn that Japan was forced into attacking Pearl Harbor due to American and British foreign policy of the time, or that ‘The US had no interest in bringing the war to an early end.’ If this strikes you as revisionism, many of Japan’s neighbours feel the same.”

Yesterday I returned to Yasukuni to fact check, and all of the phrases I noted had been replaced. The result is – somewhat – more balanced. The more egregious references to British and American foreign policy are gone. The new text about the Nanking Incident is more problematic. It reads: “[General] Matsui told [his soldiers] that they were to maintain strict military discipline and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished. The defeated Chinese…were completely destroyed.”

On the one hand, we are no longer told that all was peaceful in Nanjing. On the other hand, there’s still no mention of the death toll. Chinese estimates put it at 300,000, mainly civilians, but even if it’s as low as some Japanese estimates of 100,000, that’s a medium-sized city. How would you feel if you were Chinese? If you were Japanese, how would you understand Chinese resentment?

There’s a longstanding concept in Japanese sociology called gai-atsu: pressure from outside Japan that creates change within Japan. I’d like to think the book had something to do with creating this change, but I suspect we’ll never know for sure.

Another longstanding concept in Japan: revering one’s ancestors as gods. Yesterday I also visited another museum, Showa-kan, a few blocks from Yasukuni Shrine. It describes wartime Japan from a more individual perspective, chronicling daily life among the people of Tokyo. There’s a quote from one little boy that I can’t get out of my head. His father had perished in the war, and he was going to visit Yasukuni Shrine because that was his father’s home now.

Four years ago, I also wrote in the book: “The walls of the last few galleries of the [museum] are covered with seemingly endless photos of the dead, enough to leave a lump in many throats and make one wonder about the value of any war.”

That is still true.

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