Tamami Watanabe was 7 when her father died in 1945 in the Philippines while fighting for Japan, and her memories of him are fading.
As a child, Watanabe could remember her father’s face clearly and the clothes he wore. But now when she tries to recall his face, the only image she has is his photograph.
Her father, who ran a shipping business, was ordered by the state to deliver supplies to war zones overseas. When he arrived in the Philippines, he was mustered into an army unit and died only about three months later.
For Watanabe and many other Japanese whose loved ones are enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, is an important day of remembrance and prayer. But, sad to say, the day on which they most want tranquility is the day the Shinto shrine comes into the political spotlight, depriving them of the opportunity to quietly mourn.
On Aug. 15, right-wing groups blast their messages through loudspeakers into the streets in front of Yasukuni, which enshrines some 2.5 million war dead, as well as 14 Class-A war criminals. Reporters from home and abroad pack the premises to see which Cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, and lawmakers might show up at the contentious venue.
Considering the political environment, some of the relatives have mixed feelings about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s nationalistic remarks and right-leaning policies, which have heightened regional tensions.
China and South Korea have harshly criticized visits to the shrine by lawmakers and Cabinet ministers. Beijing has also been closely monitoring Japan’s plan to build up its military as well as Abe’s move to revise the war-renouncing Constitution.
Japan, too, has been strongly concerned over China’s military buildup, and its ever-confrontational provocations near the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets have the potential to be a flash point of hostilities in the future, as China expands its naval horizons.
“What we , the relatives of the dead, wish the most for now is peace. We absolutely don’t want another war,” said Watanabe, who is also a member of the Japan War-Bereaved Association’s Yokohama branch.
“I do hope the prime minister will visit Yasukuni. After all, they were sent to war on the country’s orders. The state has a responsibility. But what we, the relatives, want most is peace, and never to again wage war,” Watanabe said. “We must think whether (politicians’) visits truly benefit Japan.”
The Japan War-Bereaved Association, made up of thousands of relatives of the war dead, has urged the prime minister to regularly visit Yasukuni Shrine. Being a major vote-gathering machine for the Liberal Democratic Party, the party’s bigwigs have traditionally chaired the association.
But for Watanabe, that doesn’t mean she will blindly support everything that Abe and his LDP propose. In fact, she is alarmed by Abe’s right-leaning policies, such as the move to rebrand the Self-Defense Forces as Kokubo-Gun, or the National Defense Force, in other words a standing military.
“Why does he have to name it this? Why does he have to use such a term? He should have easily guessed some may link it to militarism,” Watanabe said.
Members of the Japan War-Bereaved Association may not all support Abe’s defense policies, but they are of one voice on one topic — that Japan should never again wage war.
The relatives know best about the pain of losing loved ones in war.
“We should remember that there are families behind soldiers on both sides, there are children,” Watanabe said. “War means killing each other and that should not happen. It leaves scars on both sides.”
It was a hard time for many Japanese, recalled Watanabe, who survived a series of air raids on the city of Okayama in June 1945.
After her father’s death, her mother went to a dressmaking school in the prefecture and started her own business. Watanabe still remembers her mother sewing late into the night to earn enough to feed her and an aged father-in-law.
Children raised by a single mother in the postwar period faced discrimination. It was difficult to get even a decent job as the child of a single parent, Watanabe said.
“I’ve wished so many times in my life that my father had survived,” she said.
Watanabe’s despair and strong anti-war feelings are shared by others in the association.
Hatsumi Ogawa, 71, vividly remembers her mother’s grief-stricken cries when, a few years after Japan’s surrender in World War II, she finally received official notice of her husband’s death.
“My mother rushed to our backyard and broke down crying under a persimmon tree. She was crying so hard, saying my father won’t be coming back. Even though I didn’t know what was going on, I stood there behind her and we cried together,” Ogawa, who was only 3 when the war ended, told The Japan Times.
Her father, according to the notice, died in western New Guinea in the closing days of the war, three years after the Ogawa family said farewell to him in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. All the family received of his remains was a nail in a small box that the local government said was his.
“I had sleepless days after receiving the notice and suffered from pneumonia,” said Yoshie Ogawa, 92, Hatsumi’s mother, who lost her husband at age 23. “We must never engage in war again. Whatever the reason is, if we go into another one, mankind will be destroyed.”
Since Japan’s guns fell silent in 1945, the nation has been at peace, and the kin of the war dead surely hopes it stays this way.