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Notes on Yasukuni and a week that will live in infamy

by Philip Brasor

Following his historic visit to Yasukuni Shrine last Tuesday on the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi spoke to the media. As usual, his comments had the bland quality of safely scripted pronouncements, but at one point he paused significantly: “I prayed for those who sacrificed for their country and . . . their families.” Koizumi, of course, was about to say “the Emperor,” since that is what Yasukuni is all about. It’s what it was built for, and in the context of the hackneyed phrase Koizumi was uttering, it makes more sense.

Even Koizumi can’t believe that all those soldiers thought they were dying for their families, since he also mentioned they probably didn’t want to go to war. They were sacrificed for the Emperor, the kokutai, the spirit of Yamato — whichever lofty abstraction you prefer. That’s why they’re enshrined in Yasukuni.

Yasuhiro Nakasone, the last Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15 (in 1985), told reporters that the prime minister’s job is not to pray at the shrine, but to make it possible for the Emperor to pray at the shrine. The Emperor, of course, never visits Yasukuni. On Aug. 15 he pays his respects to all the Japanese citizens who died in the war, soldiers and civilians alike, at the Zenkoku Senbotsusha Tsuito-shiki in Nihon Budokan Hall.

However, as writer Kazutoshi Hado points out in an editorial that appeared last week in the Asahi Shimbun, the word senbotsusha, or “war dead,” refers only to those killed in battle. Before the Pacific War, the only Japanese people killed in foreign wars were soldiers. Those conflicts never reached the Japanese archipelago. Yasukuni, since it enshrines only soldiers, represents this idea that civilians who die in a war don’t count as “war dead.” By the same token, civilians who died at the hands of Japanese are not acknowledged in any official capacity, but Korean and Chinese soldiers who were forced to fight for Japan are honored at Yasukuni, and even enemy combatants are honored at the Koa Kannon temple in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, which contains the ashes of seven of those infamous Class-A war criminals. Seventy percent of the 2.4 million Japanese soldiers who perished in the war did not die in battle, either. They starved to death or succumbed to disease. In other words, they were abandoned by their country — literally, in the case of the 1,245,000 soldiers whose remains have never been collected and returned to their families. The message that these statistics convey to Hado is that “the country doesn’t protect its soldiers, it only promises to worship them when they die.”

In July, an international symposium on the subject of Yasukuni Shrine was held in Seoul. Scholars from all over the world discussed the history of the shrine and its political significance for modern Japan and Asia. According to a report on the symposium published in the weekly magazine Kinyobi, the participants concluded that Yasukuni has, since the war, taken on a new function.

In essence, the Japanese government and rightwing interest groups have come to think that Japan’s current peace and prosperity was made possible by the sacrifice of all those Japanese killed in World War II. Their deaths are thus given some kind of meaning, and Yasukuni is the primary symbol of that idea.

Who gave them this idea? The symposium suggested it was the United States. American hegemony in the Pacific has always depended on a prosperous Japan, and if the Japanese people want to think that World War II had a silver lining then it’s better to encourage such self-delusion if that makes them accepting of U.S. bases and the like. The American government would never countenance monuments to fascist sacrifice in Germany or Italy, but they tolerate a monument to Imperial militarism in Japan as long as it goes through a makeover into some kind of “peace shrine,” which is what Koizumi seems to think it is.

All the media that editorialized about the comments made by the late Emperor Showa, regarding the reason he stopped visiting Yasukuni in the 1970s, assumed that what he meant when he expressed irritation over the shrine’s acceptance of convicted war criminals was that he didn’t want to honor such men. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which first printed the memo where the comment was recorded, said it showed “his sincere remorse for past wars.” The Asahi claimed that the Emperor believed enshrining the disgraced war leaders was “tantamount to rejecting the rebirth of Japan as a peace-loving nation.”

But there’s another way to interpret the comment. Writing in Kinyobi, journalist Masanori Yamaguchi analyzed comments that Emperor Hirohito made during his first-ever press conference in 1975. The late emperor was evasive and opaque when asked about his responsibility for the war, and as for the people of Hiroshima, he said he felt sorry for them, “but it couldn’t be helped.” Since the Emperor was the supreme military commander during the war, Yamaguchi finds his lack of forthrightness “arrogant and shameless.” Therefore, when he reads the memo, he picks up a totally different meaning than that which the rest of the media picked up. The 12 Class-A war criminals who were executed and the two who died awaiting trial were the Emperor’s subordinates during the war. They died for him. Yamaguchi thinks that when Yasukuni decided to accept their names, the Emperor became angry out of a feeling of “self-protection.” He was afraid that their enshrinement would “reignite” debate over his own responsibility for the war, which was glossed over when the Americans decided not to indict him.