OSAKA — Every Aug. 15, all manner of people gather at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. But often lost among the parade of rightwing loudspeaker trucks, leftwing protesters and formally attired senior political figures swarmed by the press are the veterans themselves.
They begin gathering under the trees approaching the shrine in the early morning in the leadup to paying their respects to the war dead. Some wear their old uniforms. They bring a lot of sake and beer, and it isn’t long before some are drunk.
Other veterans, as well as friends and relatives, are close by, wearing headbands and carrying banners that read “Eirei ni kotaeru kai” (Group that honors the war dead) and chatting amiably with passersby.
When some young Americans asked the men what they were doing, they said they were on a mission to turn Yasukuni Shrine into a Japanese version of Arlington National Cemetery — they want a place where Japan’s war-dead can be honored by all, especially government figures.
“There are no public places where veterans can go and feel comfortable, share their war stories and honor the dead. Most Japanese don’t want to hear about what we went through, and couldn’t understand even if they did. Yasukuni is the place where we don’t have to feel ashamed,” said Hiroyuki Suzuki, an army veteran from Osaka who travels to Yasukuni each Aug. 15.
Yasukuni-as-Arlington has long been a favorite theme for Japanese veterans and relatives who seek a more formal, public display of honor — and grief — toward the war dead and who admire the way the U.S. has taken care of and publicly honored its veterans.
A prominent organization in the U.S. is the 1.8 million-strong Veterans of Foreign Wars. VFW halls can be found nationwide. They not only serve as social venues but also clearinghouses for tips on government benefits and how to apply for them, and advice and assistance regarding financial and job issues.
“The No. 1 priority of the VFW is veterans’ health care, followed by national security and foreign affairs,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the VFW in Washington, D.C.
The existence of both the VFW and the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs — staffed by roughly 235,000 people to deal with veterans issues — marks a sharp contrast with Japan.
The VFW has a highly visible office in Washington that lobbies the veterans affairs committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, while the secretary of Veterans Affairs is appointed by and reports directly to the president.
There is no consolidated Cabinet-level organization in Japan comparable with the Veterans Affairs Department.
Today, the Personal Pension Bureau of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry handles pension payments to about 323,000 veterans and about 880,000 relatives of former soldiers and the war dead.
Veterans groups in Japan also tend to be small and specialized. Instead of large gatherings at prominent halls, Japanese vets tend to meet in small groups at favored hot springs resorts, “izakaya” pubs or other venues that offer privacy.
One of the most closely knit veterans groups is Tokko Zaidan (Special Attack Forces Memorial Association), which consists of former kamikaze pilots, according to M.G. Sheftall, an American professor at Shizuoka University and author of “Blossoms in the Wind” — the story of some of these pilots.
Sheftall noted their social activities, while private, do include remembering the dead in a public way.
“Tokko Zaidan administers memorial chapels at Setagaya Kannon in Shimouma, Tokyo, and at the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots near Kagoshima,” he said.
But in Japan, it is the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association (Nippon Izokukai) that most closely approximates the broad political and social role of the VFW.
Like the VFW, the association, with around 1 million members, has a long history of working to secure not only government benefits and pensions for veterans but also for their next of kin.
And like the VFW, which is active politically, especially in its push to make it illegal to desecrate the American flag and to instill patriotism in America’s youth, Izokukai is also a major political force, serving as a key vote-organizer for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Izokukai traces its roots to the war years, when a group was established to provide financial assistance to those whose husbands or sons were killed in battle.
That changed with the end of the war. On Nov. 24, 1945, the Occupation stopped pension payments to Japan’s veterans, saying such payments promoted militarism.
In response, veterans and next of kin met in Tokyo in 1947 to form the Japan Bereaved Families Welfare Federation. The main office was in Kanagawa Prefecture, but there was a separate office on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine and it did what it could to provide help to veterans and relatives of the war dead.
On Nov. 6, 1952, with the end of the Occupation near, the federation became overtly political, calling for central and local government funds to be used for enshrinement ceremonies for the war dead at Yasukuni.
Earlier that year, the group opened up membership to relatives of executed war criminals, and called for a national “Veterans Day” to remember the dead. Thirty years later, the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared each Aug. 15 to be the day to “remember the war dead and pray for peace.”
With the end of the Occupation, the federation was renamed Nippon Izokukai and fought hard for benefits for both veterans and their kin.
A turning point came in 1962, when Okinori Kaya, a senior LDP politician, became chairman. Kaya was a Class-A war criminal initially sentenced to life in prison, but he was paroled in 1955 and later pardoned.
He was instrumental in getting a bill to the Diet in 1969 that, if passed, would have turned Yasukuni into a national shrine. He kept the bill alive through five rejections until finally giving up in 1974.
But in the meantime, 14 Class-A war criminals were officially enshrined at Yasukuni in 1978, and Nakasone paid an official visit there in 1985.
Unlike their Japanese counterparts, support programs for World War II veterans in the U.S. began right after the war. They were entitled to the G.I. Bill of Rights, which gave them government money to buy houses, start businesses and go to college, creating a huge middle class.
U.S. veterans have also promoted education. In 2004, the VFW provided more than $2.5 million in college scholarships. And individual members have long been invited to public schools to speak on their war experiences and to encourage patriotism.
“A major part of our responsibility as military veterans is to ensure our children know of the service and sacrifice that’s required when America calls upon its military,” VFW spokesman Davis said.
Japanese veterans and their families, in contrast, are rarely invited to lecture at schools on their experiences.
Fumitake Hiroshima is a senior member of Tokko Zaidan and a Tokyo-area veterinarian whose kamikaze pilot brother, Tadao, never returned from a suicide mission in the closing days of the war.
He speaks to schoolchildren about animals, but he also has a strong desire to tell them about his war experiences, and about his brother. But he doesn’t get many chances.
“Teachers and administrators at Japanese schools are still heavily influenced by leftist thinking . . . and the system doesn’t want us in front of the kids speaking about our experiences. I’m happy to speak at schools if invited, and have spoken at one school in the Tokyo area, but only after I’d first spoken to kids about taking care of animals,” he said.
Tsuguo Morita, vice president of Nippon Izokukai, said his group does little in the way of charity work or local public education programs, although he, like Hiroshima, noted the association would welcome the opportunity to have its members speak before schoolchildren.
It is the battle over historical views where both American and Japanese veterans, and their relatives, are most active. But in the case of Japan, many veterans as well as relatives of the war dead are still struggling to write their own historical narratives.
Sheftall noted that America went through something similar in the 19th century.
“Japan’s experience with the humiliation and self-doubt of utter defeat and long occupation has parallels with the century-long soul-searching of the American South after the Civil War. Japan is only 60 years into its postwar healing process, and the old veterans and war-bereaved will fight any interpretation of their war that questions the ideological party line for which their comrades and loved ones died,” he said.