Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Japanese Peace Movements #10: A Shrine of Forgetting

Yesterday I spent the day at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It was a very surreal experience. On the surface it appears like many other shrines or places or worship or reflection in Japan, but it was an incredibly militaristic space. It featured museums dedicated to a whitewashed military history of Japan, thousands of letters from soldiers writing home about how happy they were to die for Japan, and statues for the courage of war widows. The shrine is meant to serve the more than two million souls who have died as soldiers for Japan over the past century, so the militaristic and warmongering tone makes sense, but given what I know of Japanese history it was still shocking to see the way things were twisted in order to create a sense of sinlessness and honor in the midst of a very blatantly imperial period of their history. The shrine reminded me that if you win your wars, you can always explain and justify the deaths involved as heroic, as necessary, as part of a teleology of greatness. But if you lose, more effort is required in order to give those deaths social meaning that doesn't call into question the nation or the government. 

It was insane walking through room after room where Japan's imperials wars were transformed in text and image to wars of self-defense, where Japan was just protecting itself from Russia, from Korea, from China, from the US, perhaps even from Chamorros in the Marianas.

 Before leaving the shrine I wrote the following haiku: 
A priest is sweeping
At a shrine of forgetting
The dust hits my feet.

I'm sure I'll be writing more about this shrine in the coming weeks. But in the meantime here are some articles about it in relation to recent Japanese politics and also memory dynamics.


 "Japan's Shinzo Abe angers neighbors and US by visiting war dead shrine"
Justin McCurry
The Guardian/UK
December 26, 2013

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has made a visit to a controversial war shrine in Tokyo, prompting a furious response from China and concern in the US.

Abe, who became prime minister for a second time exactly a year ago, is the first Japanese leader to have visited the Yasu­kuni shrine since Junichiro Koizumi just over seven years ago.

A conservative who has spoken of the need for Japan to end its “masochistic” feelings of guilt over its wartime conduct in Asia, Abe had voiced regret that he did not make the pilgrimage during his first, year-long term as prime minister from September 2006.
Thursday’s visit sparked predictable outrage from China and South Korea, which view Yasukuni as a potent symbol of Japanese militarism, and visits by politicians as evidence that Japan has yet to atone for atrocities committed in parts of China and on the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
“The Chinese government expresses strong indignation at the Japanese leader’s trampling on the feelings of the people of China and the other war victim nations, and the open challenge to historical justice … and expresses strong protest and serious condemnation to Japan,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Qin Gang, a foreign ministry spokesman, added: “We strongly protest and seriously condemn the Japanese leader’s acts. The essence of Japanese leaders’ visits to Yasukuni shrine is to beautify Japan’s history of militaristic aggression and colonial rule.”
China later stepped up its response by summoning Japan’s ambassador in Beijing, Masato Kitera, to lodge a “strong protest”.
South Korea’s culture minister, Yoo Jin-ryong, said Abe’s visit was “an anachronistic act” that “hurts not only the ties between South Korea and Japan, but also fundamentally damages the stability and co-operation in north-east Asia.”

“We can’t help deploring and expressing anger at the prime minister’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine … despite concerns and warnings by neighbouring countries,” Yoo said.
Yasukuni honours about 2.5 million Japanese who have died in wars since the late 19th century, including several wartime leaders convicted as class-A war criminals by the allied tribunal.
Abe insisted he had “no intention” of hurting the feelings of the Chinese or South Korean people.
“There is criticism based on the misconception that this is an act to worship war criminals, but I visited Yasukuni shrine to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and to convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,” he told reporters.
“I prayed to pay respect for the war dead who sacrificed their precious lives and hoped that they rest in peace. Unfortunately, a Yasukuni visit has largely turned into a political and diplomatic issue. I have no intention to neglect the feelings of the people in China and South Korea.”
He attempted to strike a conciliatory note, saying his pilgrimage had been made in light of his “severe remorse” over the past, although he did not make specific mention of Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China and the Korean peninsula.
“Japan must never wage war again,” he said. “This is my conviction based on severe remorse for the past.”
Abe would have expected strong words from Beijing and Seoul, but not the US’s rare public expression of concern.
In a statement carried on the website of the US embassy in Tokyo, the state department said: “Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbours.

“The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbours will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations, and to promote co-operation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability. We take note of [Abe’s] expression of remorse for the past and his reaffirmation of Japan’s commitment to peace.”
Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, later explained Abe’s reasoning for the visit in a telephone conversation with Washington’s new ambassador to Tokyo, Caroline Kennedy.
The visit is expected to inflict more damage on Japan’s ties with its neighbours. Japan is embroiled in a long-running standoff with China over a group of islands in a strategically important area of the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, and with South Korea over sovereignty of the Takeshima islands, known as Dokdo by South Koreans.
Some analysts believe Abe’s visit will add to concern overseas that he is a nationalist with revisionist views of history. “[Abe] probably thinks that it’s OK, that he’s relatively popular and it’s a matter of conviction,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “But everyone knew with Koizumi … he wasn’t a revisionist nationalist. But with Abe, that is precisely the question some people were asking. Now we know the answer.”


Agence France-PresseApril 22, 2015

Japanese parliamentarians on Wednesday paid homage at the Yasukuni war shrine, risking fresh anger from Asian neighbours that fell victim to the country’s aggression last century.
A cross-section of MPs, 106 in all, paid their respects at the shrine in central Tokyo as part of the spring festival. However, no cabinet ministers were seen among them.
The shrine honours those who fought and died for Japan, but also includes a number of senior military and political figures convicted of the most serious war crimes.
“I feel very grateful anew that we have maintained peace for 70 years,” said Hidehisa Otsuji, a member of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who lead the group. “The souls (of the dead) must also be pleased with this.”
China and South Korea see the shrine as a symbol of what they say is Japan’s unwillingness to repent for its military misdeeds. The US tries to discourage visits, which it views as unnecessarily provocative.
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, drew sharp rebukes from China and South Korea on Tuesday after sending a symbolic offering to the shrine. He has not visited since December 2013.
He has also said he may not repeat a formal apology for his country’s second world war transgressions in a forthcoming statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
Japan and China are reported to be arranging a meeting between Abe and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in Indonesia where the two men are attending an Asia-Africa conference. This could take place as early as Wednesday evening. The two men met briefly at the Apec summit in China last year, but have never held a formal sit-down meeting.

On Tuesday, Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, cautioned Abe over the symbolic importance of this year’s anniversary.
“The Japanese leader must take concrete steps to honour (the country’s) commitment of looking squarely at and reflecting upon its history of aggression, properly handle relevant issues, and win the trust of its neighbours and the international community,” Hong said.
Abe suggested in a TV interview broadcast late on Monday that provided he says he agrees with previous statements: “I don’t think I need to write it again.”
Beijing and Seoul argue that Tokyo has not properly atoned for its war crimes and insist that a landmark 1995 statement expressing deep remorse with an apology – which was repeated in 2005 – must stand.


Akie Abe pays visit to war-linked Yasukuni Shrine
by Reiji Yoshida
The Japan Times
May 22, 2015

Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, indicated Thursday that she had recently visited war-linked Yasukuni Shrine, a move that may rile China, South Korea and possibly the United States.
She posted two undated but recent photos of the visit on Facebook. In one, she stands in front of the shrine’s main structure, and in the other she poses with the Yushukan war museum in the background. Exhibits at the Yushukan, a facility adjacent to the shrine, are often criticized for glorifying Japan’s wars in the 1930s and 40s.
“I paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine for the first time in a long time. And I also entered Yushukan,” she wrote in a comment attached to the photos. Yushukan displays many mementos of dead Japanese soldiers, and other war-related items.
“I feel pain in my chest when I read letters and farewell notes (of soldiers) left for their families,” she wrote.
“I’m really thankful for being able to live in a peaceful, rich Japan, and again have come to feel I should do what I can do for world peace,” she wrote.
Yasukuni enshrines the souls of 2.47 million Japanese soldiers who “dedicated their lives to the state.” The enshrined, however, also include Japanese Class-A war criminals from World War II, most notably wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.
The Shinto facility is thus often regarded as a symbol of Japan’s militarism before and during World War II. Visits by top Japanese politicians, in particular the prime minister, have been criticized by China, South Korea and even the United States.
Shinzo Abe visited the shrine in December 2013, drawing condemnation both at home and abroad.
Abe insisted he was visiting as a private citizen, but signed the flowers he laid there as “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.”
His visit to the shrine, however, Which he said was to pay his respects to the soldiers who died for the state and not to glorify Japan’s wartime deeds, damaged Japan’s ties with China and South Korea, ties that have only recently begun showing signs of improving.
Chinese President Xi Jinping held a brief summit meeting with Shinzo Abe in November and April.
The Japanese leader, however, has been unable to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a formal one-on-one meeting.


 Rewriting History at the Yasukuni Shrine
The European
The Yasukuni Shrine memorializes Japan’s war dead, including WWII-era war criminals. For this reason, it has always been a controversial memory site. A much greater problem than the shrine itself, however, is the revisionist museum attached to it.

On 29 April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed a joint session of the Senate and House during his official visit to the United States, the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so. A major distraction in the lead-up to his speech was a renewed debate on how Mr Abe would handle the issue of Japanese culpability and atonement for its role during World War II. China and South Korea continue to press Japan to apologise. South Korea also highlights Japan’s role as a colonial power and reminds the world of “comfort women”, a euphemism for sex slaves.
Back in Japan, Mr Abe’s ambivalence is supported by influential nationalists in his ruling Liberal Democratic Party who feel that China and South Korea are manipulating the history issue for cynical political advantage. They want to undermine Japan’s regional and global standing and seek perpetual apologies from Japan. In Washington, Mr Abe handled the issue delicately by visiting the World War II Memorial and mentioning his “remorse” and “repentance” in his congressional address. But the issue will not die.
Memorializing War Criminals
Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead since the Meiji Restoration, has emerged as a litmus test. It is seen by many as a reminder of Japanese World War II militarism. Although Mr Abe will not visit Yasukuni Shrine while he is Prime Minister, he will continue to send a ritual offering and senior LDP members will pay their respects on ritual holidays. China, South Korea and Taiwan will criticize these moves.
The criticism of visits follows the enshrining of 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine in 1978, without any public consultations. Japan’s emperors have not visited the shrine since then. The enshrining and the criticisms of Japan’s neighbours have reinforced the controversial image of Yasukuni Shrine.
I visited the shrine on a recent visit to Tokyo in an effort to understand the sentiments of Japanese and Chinese protagonists. The shrine had an air of tranquility, with older Japanese paying their respect to their ancestors as “guardian deities”. I felt that it was understandable that the Japanese people would commemorate the memories of their war dead.
A Revisionist View
The real problem is the museum attached to the shrine. It presents a revisionist view of World War II which draws attention to the perspective of the Shinto leadership responsible for the shrine.
As a Southeast Asian, I was shocked by the honoured place at the entrance to the museum of the original locomotive used during the opening of the Siam/Burma railway in 1943. The building of the “death railway” resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Southeast Asian forced labourers and 13,000 allied prisoners-of-war. There was no indication of the lives lost or the privations of the conscripted work force. The beautifully reconstructed Zero fighter and heavy artillery located near the locomotive paled in comparison.
Although there were a wide variety of displays, the highlight of the museum was the section on kamikaze suicide attacks. There were photographs of successful kamikaze air attacks on naval vessels. I should have been prepared for this as a statue honouring kamikaze suicide pilots was in the well-tended garden just before the entrance to the museum. But there was more to follow.
There were photos of those who had undertaken these attacks, including poems and letters they had written before they embarked on these acts. There was a display of a kamikaze mini-submarine torpedo and a piloted kamikaze glider with three rocket engines that fired for nine seconds each which would be released from an aircraft.
As someone familiar with the eulogies to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria suicide terrorists, I found this paean to Japanese suicide pilots a chilling reminder.
The stark revisionist message was dramatized in a 50 minute documentary film which highlighted that Japan was forced to go to war by the American oil embargo imposed to support American demands that Japan withdraw from China. The film denies the Nanjing Massacre and criticises the “wrongful” convictions in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.
Japanese Role Not Recognised
International attention has focused on the visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders. The displays in the museum are really more worrying. It reminds us of the lack of recognition in Japan of the Japanese role in World War II.
Stridently nationalistic views of history in China and Japan make peace-making between these Asian powers more difficult. This is the difference between East and Southeast Asia. Southeast Asians remember the past, face the present and hope for a better future. They are able to reconcile with Japan, just as they have reconciled with China, which has never acknowledged its role in supporting insurgencies in Southeast Asia after World War II. By contrast, historical memories shape Chinese and Japanese perceptions, preventing the building of bridges and risking future conflict.

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