"I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino." – the Meiji Emperor, 1874
"No matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan's history of aggression through militarism." – Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 2013
Into a leafy, unassuming six hectares in Tokyo's Chiyoda ward, is concentrated Japan's bitterest, most explosive cocktail of history, religion and politics.
The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the souls of two and a half million people – deified as kami, as is the custom – who died in service of Japan since the shrine's establishment by the Meiji Emperor in 1869, particularly in the catalogue of conflicts Japan was involved in since: those being the Boshin War, Satsuma Rebellion, First Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, WWI, invasion of Manchuria, Second Sino-Japanese War, and of course the Greater East Asian War (WWII). In other words, a memorial to war dead, grounded in cultural and religious commemoration – as is common in many countries.
It is also, more infamously, the focus of an seething international controversy. This is because as far as the last of those wars is concerned, the souls esnshrined include among them fourteen officials convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-8) of class-A war crimes, and a further thousand similarly implicated in Japanese atrocities during what was assuredly a rampage of aggression and bloodthirst across East and Southeast Asia.
The controversy arises from the miring of this matter in today's morass of confrontational regional politics, swaggering nationalisms, and painful histories improperly learnt from and now bent in service of agendas in today's contestations, whether on what kind of country Japan should be, or in its relationships with its neighbours, particularly China and Korea. With the protests that flare up each time Japanese politicians – including Prime Ministers – visit Yasukuni, its name frequently become synonymous with the unapologetic, right-wing uyoku dantai that would rewrite Japan's wartime madnesses out of history books and substitute shame for pride, and even now parade through the streets of Tokyo in dark cars festooned with imperial banners, speakers blaring patriotic nostalgia, and banners calling for the expulsion of foreigners, murder of Koreans, or other miscellaneous exhortations to ethno-national supremacist pride.
Japan's part in the great mid-twentieth century cataclysm is a subject I have discussed on this blog before, and return to here. On a matter obscured from informed inquiry by the explosiveness of extreme positions on all sides, I set out to examine Yasukuni myself – and its attached war museum – so as to develop my own conclusions.
Let's start with this, because this is where Yasukuni presents its take on the events at issue.
The Yūshūkan (遊就館) exhibits the history of Japan across that list of conflicts within the shrine's purview, with an emphasis on political and military history, Japan's relationships with its neighbours and foreign powers, and the relics and effects of the individuals whose service unto death merited them divine reverence at Yasukuni.
That reverence, they take pains to stress, is not limited to soldiers. A range of civilian staff also feature, and indeed, even before entering the building one finds statues commemorating other animals such as dogs, horses and carrier pigeons.
As well as a monument to a certain Indian character called Radha Binod Pal – more on him later.
The museum's exhibits, of which photos are not allowed except in the entrance area, seem to fall into three categories:
a) The historical narrative, arranged chronologically on the upper floor and illustrated through countless maps and artifacts;
b) A more personal record of Japan's war dead, on the lower floor, with their photos along the walls and their belongings and writings in display cases;
c) And salvaged pieces of military hardware – planes, artillery and the like – on show in the large central hall on the lower floor, as well as in the entrance hall (below).
Oh, incidentally, "Yasukuni" translates as "peaceful country". Well then.
As far as the history is concerned, it starts innocuously enough. Some credit, at least, is warranted for the detailed look the museum offers into Japan's internal turmoil as the European colonial powers encroached in the nineteenth century, the arrival of the Americans threw Japan into desperate strife and civil war, and the new Meiji order searched for the ways to equip Japan – in mindset as much as material – to stand its ground as those Western empires carved up its neighbours. And on those civil conflicts as well as the turn-of-the-century wars with China (1894-5) and Russia (1904-5), the displays lay out how those wars unfolded, both in battles and perspectives from Japan's political and social contexts, to a level of detail most accounts gloss over for brevity.
However it is there, specifically once China and Korea get involved in the story, that the trouble begins – and shreds forth like a sabre trap concealed behind the displays, as you reach the Yūshūkan's version of Japan's expanding military exploits. To summarize the recurring themes of this rendition:
- Japan was not, as has otherwise been established, an aggressive power laying waste to its neighbours, slaughtering their inhabitants and plundering their resources; but rather a concerned, peace-loving people devoted to their nation, intent on doing everything necessary to protect it, dragged into an escalating conflict they did not want, and their every action motivated only to prevent or mitigate further bloodshed.
- All this also apparently applies, to what limited extent it is mentioned, to the Kwantung Army and proxy Japanese regime in occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo), which was supposedly an attempt to unite multiple ethnic groups into a model nation, built on East Asian civilizational cooperation and progress.
- It didn't explicitly state that the outbreaks of the First Sino-Japanese War, the landgrabs on Chinese territories, the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, the occupation of Manchuria, the Second Sino-Japanese War etc. were 'all China's fault' – but from the way it sets up each of these with stories of uncontrolled Chinese agitation or terrorism provoking a justified Japanese response, you'd be forgiven for taking that away as the message.
- That last conflict, incidentally a decade-long bloodbath across the massive length and breadth of eastern China, was apparently not a war but an 'Incident'. The 'China Incident' is the name the museum prefers, citing grounds that war was never declared by either party.
- And of course: no mention of Japanese abuses or atrocities. At all. No massacres of civilian populations across occupied territories, no 三光作戦 ("three alls"), no forced labour or sexual slavery, no abuses of prisoners of war, no Sook Ching Massacre or Bataan Death Marches, no Unit 731; and perhaps most notoriously, no Rape of Nanjing. On that last, the only comment on offer was that 'the Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely punished'.
- Oh, and if you thought that this "creativity" in the narrative ends with the end of the war, the Yūshūkan throws in one last surprise. Again, it doesn't quite state outright that Japan could claim credit for the raft of independence movements that kicked the European colonial empires out of Asia and Africa in the post-war decades, by inspiring the people of those lands to rise up against the imperialists Japan had helped defeat; but let's just say it's not far off. Again, the behaviour by the Japanese occupiers which was typically no better than that of the European ones is not referred to.
Feel free to stop for some deep breaths if you need to.
How Not to Do History
I believe it is not unreasonable to suggest that there are problems here. Problems which may readily be traumatic, incendiary or downright hurtful through the eyes of anyone who suffered on account of Japanese militarism, or whose relatives, friends or loved ones did. And as a citizen of the world, who represents no nation, no culture, no religion, no interest group, who can criticize them all (and has done so, and will continue to do so) to the end of shaking humanity out of the ludicrousness of its afflictions of violence and prejudice, I must now – sadly but without apology – deal that criticism where it is due to the country whose strengths and splendid eccentricites I have much documented here over the last year and a half.
In all seriousness, yes, alright, you were under unbearable pressure from greedy, shameless, and utterly reprehensible empires. Alright, you were (and are) a narrow archipelago with few natural resources besides what you can stir up from your own hearts and sinews – or acquire from others. Alright, your civilization and entire part of the world was drowning in racist contempt from peoples far away whose dominant elements never understood you and wished you'd just lie down and accept your inferiority. But, (and do not click if you are having a meal right now or cannot abide the essential gruesomeness of the issues at hand here,) nothing – justifies – This.
There comes a point where nothing more can be said; where any cause invoked, any necessity, any excuse, only completes the human dereliction of the one who utters it.
Now history is both art and science. Art, because it is always interpreted through the senses, experiences and character of the person looking at it, so there's always some subjectiveness and imagination involved. But science, because plain integrity requires an honest intent beneath those subjectivities to discover, and acknowledge, the facts. Often the facts elude us, or are easily distorted. But be that as it may, as far as these events are concerned, the unbearable mass of evidence puts it beyond question that Japan experienced a descent through which it visited unconscionable, bloodcurdling horrors on humankind.
Though these should have been beyond the universe's capacity to tolerate without a critical failure of its own fabric, it happened. And to piece those shards back together, to build this corner of the universe back better so that episodes like those can never happen again, we have to recognize they happened in the first place.
Japan, you can do better than this. You can do better than count the purveyors of national ego, the jingoists and inciters, the applicants to pride in wilful bloodlust, as part of the substance of what it means to be of your nation. To acknowledge your historical failings for its own sake, as a matter of conscience, should be reason enough; but even through the most selfish of perspectives, it is in the national interest to acknowledge what was done and establish eternal, wholehearted contrition.
Why? Because your country continues to seek its meaning in the post-war era, to forge its identity amidst enduring uncertainties and neighbours which, just as their historical grievances against you are valid, now burn within their national engines all manner of atrocities against their people and unresolved pains of their modern heritage. They too have aggressed their neighbours, or brutalized their own citizens, or doctored the history they feed to their children; in many ways their problems are the same as yours, and that is what has given rise to the clashing national egos of this age that promise only misery for all people, whether Japanese or Chinese or Korean. The situation in contemporary East Asia is one which requires calm deliberation, cool heads, compassionate hearts, and minds that are sharp, informed, and open to all the perspectives – not calculated hatred, not incitements to violence, and least of all confrontations more pointless even than before.
I do not suggest coming to terms with that history is easy. But to love your nation is not to unquestioningly adore it and seek its aggrandisement at the expense of all around it: the Yūshūkan is a monument to the folly of that path, if anything. Unquestioning worship is not love; is so far from love that once you are there love is too far to see or to know, because the light that love emits cannot reach you even in fifty trillion years. To love your nation is to want it to be something good: for everyone in it, and everyone out of it – for humanity and the world.
There was at least one moment – and perhaps others too – when the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, understood the difference, when in 1945 he gave the decision for Japan to surrender, a genuinely tough and agonizing decision, rather than allow the senseless bloodshed to continue. For so many across the country, that was excruciating; but few might argue that it wasn't the best thing for everyone in it, however contentiously Japan has now been reshaped. For the nationalists today, would the decision to come to terms with your history and say sorry, for your own legacy as much as for those who suffered, be nearly as painful?
Japan is not alone in having trouble with this. And that's where, Radha Binod Pal, the fellow who got his own monument outside the Yūshūkan, comes in.
Justice Pal was one of the judges at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which oversaw the trials of Japanese war criminals after the war's end. He is remembered, and honoured by Yasukuni, for being the only judge to assert that all defendents should be found not guilty and acquitted of all charges – on the grounds that only the losing side was on trial, which was little more than the victorious Allies exercising 'a sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge'. There were no Allied defendents, for example, not even for the firebombings of Japanese cities or the use of the atom bombs; nor were there any judges from the defeated nations at the tribunal. In short, "victors' justice".
The thing is, if we can get past the political ghastlinesses and nationalisms and throwing of flames, the man has a point. Though perhaps the manner of Pal's commemoration squanders that point, and opts instead for the nationalism:
What should be taken instead is as follows. One can emphasize Japan's problems in coming to terms with history as especially appalling. But the fact remains that most, perhaps all countries have the same problems. We've dealt with this before, but the other powers in that war committed hellish atrocities too. Factor in the atrocities of colonialism, and the records of Britain, France, Belgium, the US, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and so on and so forth, easily compare with the horrors wrought by the Japanese in the lands they took over (many of which were the same colonies) – and where, we should add, those countries also have arrogant nationalism problems of their own in accepting their criminality, and downright repeated those horrors in neo-colonial "development" maneuvers and Cold War military misadventures. The Yūshūkan's narrative, of Japan seeking to act only for the welfare and good prospects of the "lesser" peoples under its tutelage, mirrors in all too many respects the narratives by which Europeans justified (and often still try to justify) their colonial record, or the US justified supporting the likes of Pinochet or Mobutu, or the IMF justified structural adjustment. And let's not even get into the abuses of authoritarian rule in Korea, or Chinese approaches to how the CCP's half-century trail of bodies and broken bones is taught.
Which does not, of course, absolve Japan from its responsibilities. What it does do is give no nation a right to a moral high horse over any other. And the thing is, if the Japanese right-wing were able to get down from their own, shed their scoffing denialisms and inflammatory provocations, and argue instead on the basis of factual integrity and reasoned critique, then they might, just might, actually get people of other countries to stop and think more reflectively, more critically, about their own histories too. It's never been needed more than now – the recognition that national egos and the doctoring of history to support present malice, are universal human problems; and a universal human problem.
I thus recommend the Yūshūkan to go back through that list of distortions and omissions, and fix the damn thing. To those who teach history, here in Japan or anywhere else in the world: for goodness's sake, teach your country's WRONGS.
...As for the rest of the museum, it is as sobering as any war memorial. The lower floor consists mostly of the personal effects of people enshrined at Yasukuni. Their innumerable faces stare out from the walls, while a glimpse of their personal stories is afforded from letters they wrote home to partners, parents, children; typically before heading out to die on one of the East Asia War's many pitiless battlefronts. A common theme, emphasized deliberately on the museum's part or not, is their selfless loyalty, their genuine belief that they were fighting to protect their homeland from destruction.
This, one can respect – just as one can respect the same sentiment, so far as it is authentic, in those who fight out of any kind of love regardless of their flag. All nations have sent countless numbers of their men and women to meaningless deaths, often in the prime of their youths; and even if we abhor the decisions of those nations to do so, we can raise our hats to those who fought to the death, with honour, for those they loved.
Caution is nonetheless due towards any hint of that sentiment being wielded to political ends, especially to stir up outrage against those who question them. This is something on which I speak as much out of British experiences as Japanese ones – whether over the war in Iraq, or the uproars surrouding poppy-wearing, or the lack of regard for the deaths of foreign soldiers compared to one's own, as much in the likes of World War I, where all participating powers absoluetly were collectively in the wrong, as in conflicts conducted nowadays and often live on TV. No nation has a monopoly on courage; and in no nation more than any other is informed and critical loyalty to making it a good place more commendable, nor unquestioning loyalty to the national ego more disastrous.
So in sum, this museum is worth a visit. It and the shrine are a few minutes' walk from several stations in central Tokyo (Kudanshita, Iidabashi, Ichigaya), it costs 800 yen to enter (500 yen for students), and is open almost every day of the year from 9am to 4:30pm. Explore it with a critical eye – indeed, it is a perfect exercise for drawing a balanced understanding out of a loaded account; so sacrifice neither valuable alternative perspectives on account of horrors unacknowledged, nor acknowledgement of those horrors for the novelty of the alternative perspectives. To do this with integrity is a challenging – but immensely valuable – task.
For all that, there's not much more to say about the Yasukuni Shrine itself. Perhaps it is obvious why Chinese and Koreans take to the streets when Japanese Prime Ministers bow before the spirits enshrined there.
If there is an additional complication, it is the relationship between religion and state in Yasukuni's significance – forcefully separated, for that matter, by the post-war American occupation, so as to sever the Shinto religion from its perceived role in driving Japanese wartime aggression. As a Shinto shrine, Yasukuni is like any other: and asserts to uphold the conventional Shinto practice of housing deceased ancestors as guardian deities, who watch over the living, receive their worship, and are absolved of misdeeds upon death.
As not nearly all those so enshrined at Yasukuni are necessarily criminals, it may be expected that plenty of those who come to pray there are doing so for generic commemoration of war dead, much as is routine in other countries; or otherwise are honouring their own fallen relatives or ancestors. On the other hand, it is a sure thing that the politicians making high-profile visits are well aware of the symbolism they afford to the shrine as a provocative icon of unrepentant nationalism. The spirituality and the politics, while separate on paper, have become inseparable.
Because of religious custom, the shrine may find it a challenge to make a pragmatic rearrangement, such as, say, expelling the war criminals from the list: enshrinement, they insist, is an irreversible spiritual process. And because of the formal separation of religion and politics, even politicians with a more balanced view of history would have no authority over the shrine to get it to do such a thing, even if they wanted to.
But perhaps the Yasukuni controversy is not the point. The real problem is not the shrine, just as it is not the Senkaku Islands. Rather it is the hostility and turbulence in the relationship between the Japanese and their neighbours, or at least the self-aggrandising and confrontational factors therein who generate the greatest heat and receive the most publicity.
That is what needs to be resolved – and perhaps when it is, tough questions like that of Yasukuni will solve themselves. Surely, most people, in Japan or Korea or China or wherever, want it resolved, want to come to terms with the agonies of recent generations and build a better future based on the lessons thereof. But it will not be resolved so long as people in those countries are brought up on a diet of twisted historical narratives, bent to serve the inflated hubris of ideologues, the arrogance of self-supremacists, and the calculations of myopic or plutocratic political elites. It falls to everyone to break the cycle.
One Japanese acquaintance of mine – who shall remain unnamed – lamented, in looking at how these countries accuse and bark at each other, that "East Asians are less mature than Europeans", at least compared to how the latter address their own wartime record. I do of course reject this conclusion completely – maturity is a subjective and politically loaded concept, and one must never generalize about entire peoples. But I can acknowledge the shame and resultant disdain that underlies that sentiment – just as much as take concern that the narratives of civilizational comparisons, the essentialistic hierarchies, that infused Japan and produced all its twentieth-century hells in the first place, have still not gone away.