Summer for many Japanese is a time that conjures up bitter memories of the nation’s Aug. 15, 1945, defeat in the war — a conflict that claimed millions of lives and left a number of cities devastated.
But 58 years later, a national cemetery in central Tokyo holding the unidentified remains of as many as 350,000 Japanese war dead has yet to receive the respect it deserves.
The government is reluctant to arrange for foreign dignitaries to visit Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, and no official rites are held there on the surrender anniversary. Instead, dozens of lawmakers, including Cabinet members, pay contentious visits to nearby Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, as well as convicted war criminals.
Chidorigafuchi cemetery, built in 1959 just outside the Imperial Palace grounds in Chiyoda Ward, is one of only two national sites holding the cremated remains of Japanese service members and civilians who died overseas during and after the war. The other one is in Okinawa.
Records suggest conservative political forces endeavored in the 1950s to make sure Chidorigafuchi would not overshadow Yasukuni.
Retiree Koji Aoyagi, 70, was astounded a few years ago when he learned that the government had built an additional underground charnel house at Chidorigafuchi in 1990 — without informing relatives of the war dead — when the existing main charnel reached its capacity with the continuing arrival of newly found remains.
The roof of the new charnel house looked like just a gray concrete slab laid over grass behind a small hexagonal hall of the main charnel house, Aoyagi recalled.
“(Its surface) looked like a water-purification tank,” he said. “Some people sat on it to view the cherry blossoms in the spring without knowing there is a charnel house underneath it.”
Relatives of the war dead offered prayers toward the main charnel house, with their backs turned toward the new site, although it could contain their relatives’ ashes, he added.
Aoyagi leads a group of about 30 relatives who lost kin in the war and are demanding that the government take better care of the remains at Chidorigafuchi.
For many relatives, memories of the war remain vivid, and the more than 1,000 sets of remains brought to Japan each year serve as a reminder.
An estimated 2.4 million Japanese service members and civilians died overseas during and soon after the war, but the remains of only 1.24 million have been returned to Japan, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Every year since 1952, the government has dispatched missions overseas to retrieve remains. The teams have gone to Alaska’s Attu Island in the Aleutians, Iwojima Island, the Solomon Islands, Saipan, the Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific, the Philippines, Mongolia and former Soviet Union republics. The officials have searched jungles and cemeteries adjacent to former prison camps in cooperation with local authorities.
Most of the remains brought to Japan are unidentified and are buried at Chidorigafuchi in a ceremony held every May.
The health ministry, which manages the facility, apologized to Aoyagi and other families and finally completed remodeling the new charnel house in March by covering it with polished stones and signs to show it contains the remains of war dead.
But Aoyagi and other members of his group are far from satisfied.
The main charnel house, which measures 8.4 × 8.4 meters at its widest and 2 meters deep, holds the ashes of as many as 333,000 people. All of the bones were burned into fine ash by a high-powered burner.
Aoyagi said the government should create a cemetery with individual graves of the war dead as a show of respect. A nonreligious monument should also be erected so that all Japanese as well as foreigners can pay tribute, he added.
What Aoyagi wants may sound easy. But postwar efforts show that creating a monument to the war dead is an extremely sensitive issue, as well as a tall order.
Nobuto Hosaka, a member of the Social Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, claims the government has snubbed Chidorigafuchi cemetery for political reasons.
“Since the government came up with the plan to build Chidorigafuchi, it has been a point of contention vis-a-vis Yasukuni Shrine,” said Hosaka, who has studied decades-old documents on disputes involving the two sites.
Yasukuni, a Shinto shrine five minutes from Chidorigafuchi on foot, honors 2.46 million Japanese who fought and died for the country since the mid-19th century, as well as wartime leaders like Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo who were executed after being convicted as Class-A war criminals by the Allied-led International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
The shrine has always been a source of controversy. Conservative lawmakers consider it a symbol of patriotism to be bolstered, whereas other parts of Asia that suffered Japan’s wartime aggression and occupation, as well as Japanese antiwar activists, see it as a symbol of the nation’s past militarism.
Hosaka pointed out that Chidorigafuchi was intentionally given a low profile by the government and conservative political forces who feared it could upstage Yasukuni.
In 1956, then Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shigemasa Sunada and the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association exchanged a memorandum of understanding about the status of Chidorigafuchi cemetery, which was still in its planning stage, according to a book published by the association in 1976.
The association, the nation’s largest group of relatives of the war dead, was and still is one of the strongest pressure groups for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The body serves as a strong vote-gathering machine for conservative politicians, and advocates making the shrine once again the center of patriotism and giving more welfare benefits to surviving families.
The memorandum states that “the government will take measures to ensure that it will not damage the future and dignity of Yasukuni Shrine, and will not impose any adverse spiritual and economic effects on the shrine,” according to a book on the association’s history.
The memorandum also says the government, based on an understanding with the association, will not officially invite foreign guests to Chidorigafuchi cemetery, according to the book.
During a Dec. 3, 1956, question-and-answer session in the Lower House, the health and welfare minister confirmed similar government pledges, Diet interpellation records show.
Since then, raising the status of Chidorigafuchi cemetery has apparently been politically taboo, although the Cabinet Office claimed it cannot confirm whether this has been government policy.
Controversy arose when Queen Elizabeth II of Britain visited Japan in 1975. Her initial plan was to visit Yasukuni, which drew harsh protests from leftwing scholars and activists who wanted her to visit Chidorigafuchi instead.
The controversy eventually led to the queen visiting Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture.
Another row erupted in 1998 when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan. As a symbolic diplomatic response to Japanese prime ministers’ visits to war dead memorials in China in the past, Beijing had proposed that Jiang visit Chidorigafuchi during his stay in Tokyo, according to a report by the Mainichi Shimbun.
But Japan declined the offer because “it could send the political message of not recognizing Yasukuni Shrine,” the Mainichi quoted an anonymous senior Foreign Ministry official as saying.
A health ministry official said he cannot recall a visiting foreign dignitary ever paying tribute at Chidorigafuchi.
How the Japanese should pay their respects to the war dead is meanwhile still a political bone of contention.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni since taking office in 2001 have drawn strong protests from China and South Korea.
Last December, an advisory panel to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda proposed that the government, to avoid the repeated rows over Yasukuni, build a new nonreligious memorial site where both Japanese and foreign visitors can pay tribute to the war dead.
But Makoto Koga, an LDP heavyweight and chairman of the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, has exerted strong pressure on the government not to build such a facility, on grounds that it would undermine the role of Yasukuni Shrine.
With Koizumi not showing much interest in following up on the panel’s proposal, the project has since been effectively shelved, with little prospect of moving forward.