Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s controversial remark that Japan is “a divine nation centering on the Emperor” reminded me of a group of people I saw at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to Japan’s war dead. As a veteran who survived the battle of Iwo Jima, I occasionally visit the shrine with relatives of fellow Japanese reserve officers who died in the battle.

On that day, I saw a large group of white-robed men and women carrying rightist signs and banners. I vaguely remember their slogans that called for efforts to “protect Yasukuni Shrine and uphold the national polity” and to “preserve the spirits of fallen heroes.” I do not recall seeing signs for Shinto Seiji Renmei (the Association of Shinto Shrines), the political group to whom Mori made his questionable remarks. I was dismayed by the bizarre atmosphere and left quickly.

Mori’s statement also made me think of the remarks wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo made at Tokyo’s Yoyogi drilling ground at a departure ceremony for university and college students who were to go to war. While I was not there to hear the remarks because I had earlier joined the Navy as a reserve officer, the records show Tojo told the students of the “spirit of the divine land.” In those days, most Japanese called Japan the “divine nation.” Emperor Showa regularly attended the ceremonies held at Yasukuni Shrine, as well those held at the Grand Shrines of Ise.

Mori caused an uproar when he said that Japan is a divine nation centering on the Emperor and that the Japanese public should firmly embrace the idea. For a moment, I thought that the prime minister might have made a slip of the tongue while trying to seek help from Shinto priests in the coming general election. Mori later apologized for “causing misunderstanding” but refused to retract his statement. I believe that the statement reflected Mori’s true belief. If so, it contravened the Constitution, betrayed his anachronistic outlook and raised doubts about his fitness as prime minister.

The Meiji Constitution stipulated that a line of Emperors ruled the Japanese empire as head of state for ages eternal. It also said the emperor was “sacred and inviolable.” The Japanese people were led to believe that Japan was a divine nation. The military bureaucrats who started World War II placed the Emperor at the head of the nation’s war effort. Japanese military personnel believed the “divine nation” would eventually win the “holy war”; many of them died.

Soon after the war ended, Emperor Showa explicitly denied his own divinity. Under the postwar Constitution, sovereignty was vested in the people rather than the Emperor, who became a symbol of the nation.

Democratic Japan has recovered from its wartime devastation, and the vast majority of Japanese do not accept Prime Minister Mori’s sentiment that Japan is “a divine nation centering on the Emperor.”

At the time he made his controversial statement, Mori’s judgment might have been impaired because he was excited by his unexpected rise to power following the collapse of his predecessor, the late Keizo Obuchi. But if his remark reflected his firm opinion, he should consider resigning.

I hope that Mori, the leader of a conservative lawmakers’ group that included such luminaries as the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda and the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, is not a bigot.

Toward the end of the war, I was part of a Japanese Imperial Navy pilots’ group, whose members plunged their planes into enemy warships on suicide missions. They wore headbands that said the “divine land is invincible.” In peacetime Japan, 50 years later, the gods should not be exploited for political purposes.

Several years ago, the Emperor and the Empress visited the former battlefield on Iwo Jima to pay respects to those who died there. As the author of a book on the battle of Iwo Jima and reserve officers who fought the battle, I had an opportunity to talk to the Imperial couple. Both were intelligent and frank. I was a little tense, however, and failed to explain the battle in detail. Naturally, the Emperor is unlikely to comment on the controversy surrounding Mori’s statement. I presume, however, that he too was puzzled by the remark.

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