Feb 6, 2009

At Yasukuni

Last weekend, I finally made my way to the Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine dedicated to memorializing and deifying those who have died in the name of the Emperor. It was an absolutely pleasant day in Tokyo, and I met up with two of my friends for a fine day of gallivanting around town. Our first stop was Yasukuni, the most controversial place in Japan.

The central walk of the shrine was fairly nice, a broad avenue under a pair of fairly impressive and iron torii, one of which is the largest such arch in Japan. I was surprised to see a bunch of food stalls and a flea market off to one side. I really didn't expect a ramen shop and flea market at such a place, but it lent the shrine a certain approachability I wasn't expecting. There was also an old guy playing the shamisen, lending the morning strummy soundtrack.

The outside of the shrine features the oldest Western-style bronze in Japan, much to the delight of one of my friends who is something of an art geek. "Hey, never mind the politics," she said, "that's the oldest Western-style bronze in Japan!" It's quite nice seeing smart people get excited about their areas of expertise.

We strolled around the central area, but refrained from directly approaching the altar. I've done so at other Shinto shrines, and have no problem with Buddhist temples, but here I felt that it would be a bit ideologically weird to go up to the main site at such a place, to become a participant rather than an observer. I left the wooden steps untrod.

The shrine has a fair bit of statuary in it, most notably that of a kamikaze pilot. Also depicted are a military dog, horse, and a carrier pigeon. I was most fascinated, though, by this portrayal of a warship, lording itself over a stone map of Asia. It seemed imposing and, despite the shrine's reputation, brutal and artistically honest. But who knows? I couldn't read the inscription. It might be about how cuddly warships were, for all I know.

Before going to the museum, I'd mentally prepared myself for the worst sort of revisionism so as not to turn into some rage-spouting history geek decrying the lack of truth upon my exit. I didn't get angry or have much in the way of emotional responses to much of what was in there other than a weird sort of amusement. Many of the historical lies were so downright bullshit-laden that I found them hard to take seriously. For instance, there was an item about how Manchukuo was apparently formed by five of China's northern ethnic groups coming together of their own accord to form a new nation, with the administrative help and support of Japan. Also, according to the Yasukuni museum, Korea was an independent state after the first Sino-Japanese war. I'm sure that's news to a lot of Koreans. Japan was also forced into WWII. I was expecting that bit, though.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The early parts of the museum were all about early Japanese warfare- samurai and such. I and my companion spent a fair amount of time looking at the various swords, naginatas, old style guns, and other sundry implements of destruction. It was a fairly kickass panoply of lethal shit, to be perfectly honest. "Hell yeah!" said a certain part of my brain, "motherfuckin' GUNS 'N SWORDS! Rock!"

The various labels and whatnot all extolled how glorious it was to die in battle for the Emperor and such, with various poetical odes to mortal selflessness and anologies of slain warriors falling like a thousand sakura petals. It reminded me a lot of 300, to be honest. Sure, it was a bit more subtle (and a lot less homoerotic) than that movie, but it had the same general ethos: "Isn't this all great and glorious? Isn't it great to utterly abandon yourself and give yourself over to death and battle and blood? Doesn't it sound absolutely glorious to go and kill a bunch of dudes and then eventually get killed by some other dude? Awesome, Right? SPAAAARTAaaa... I mean... JAAAAPAAAN!"

Basically it was kitschy death porn, and I'm sure it would have given Yukio Mishima a raging erection. This sort of militaristic ideology is indeed dangerous and in reality does inspire people blow themselves up on a fairly regular basis, but in sunny Tokyo I found it hard accept as very real. I had much the same attitude through the more contemporary exhibits. "Does anyone," I thought to myself, "actually take this stuff seriously?" I knew the answer was yes, but I wondered anyways.

To be fair, not all of the exhibits were complete bollocks. There war just a significant percentage of bollocks. The museum's biggest flaw was that it often said that certain things happened, but didn't say why. Many of the timelines and displays made mention of the movements of Japanese troops and ships in various parts of Asia, but it didn't say what, for instance, the Japanese military was doing in the Philippines. (Answer: Invading and setting up a puppet government.) It just mentioned that they were there. There was a lot of facts, but a dearth of analysis.

This happens in the U.S. too, though. I recognized a lot of the sins commited by textbooks and national monuments as described by James Lowen in Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America. A lot of it was the same sort of revision and omission that one can find in the good 'ol U.S. of A. I'm pissed off by such behavior in the U.S., and pissed off by it in Japan as well, but such symmetry engenders a kind of understanding.

The last part of the museum was a fairly impressive display of military hardware, which, again, tapped into that part of my brain that actually likes looking at guns 'n swords. It was diverting enough.

Japan has every right to memorialize it's war dead, and private organizations, such as the Shinto group that runs the Yasukuni shrine, have every right to practice their religion. As a foreigner and one who has not extensively studied this matter, I'm not in an expert position to offer recommendations. But, here's my unsoliscited advice.

-The most obvious objection is the inclusion of 14 class A war criminals in in shrine's register of names. The people memorialized in the shrine are considered not only fallen, but deities of a sort. A good solution would be to simply strike the name of the 14 offenders.

-Likewise, there are several people, particularly those of Korean descent, whose relatives object to their inclusion. Inclusion in the Shrine should be with the consent of the family of the deceased. That way, it would be a voluntary honor, rather than something foisted upon people who have ideological issues with the place. An option for de-listing should also be included.

-Yasukuni specifically enshrines those who have died in the name of the Emperor. Since WWII, several members of Japan's Self Defense Forces have died in international conflicts, and they are not included in the Shrine. If Yasukuni were to change it's criteria from those who died for the Emperor to those who died for the people and nation of Japan, contemporary members of the armed forces could also be honored, thus secularizing and modernizing the place.

-Lastly, at a certain point China and Korea really ought to stop complaining. Yes, Japan did absolutely horrific things to them, but that was a generation ago. Nearly all of those people are dead, and arguing over who did what to whose parents and grandparents is something of a childish exercise. Of course Japan should apologize, but as wronged parties China and Korea can't just bring up wartime atrocities whenever it's convenient. Such complaining does not effective diplomatic relations make.

Not that any of those are realistic. More realistically, the veterans and their children will someday all be dead, and hopefully it will all be an unemotional historical abstraction.

Yasukuni did not offend me, nor did it make me angry. I don't think it's a symbol of hate or aggression. More than that, I think its inaccuracies represent a certain immature desire to believe that our forbears were better than they really were. Columbus was a geographically incorrect murdering jackass and the U.S. committed genocide on the native population, yet we still have a national holiday commemorating those three ships landing on Hispanola and romaticize western expansion. There is a compulsion to apologize, to pretend that there was neither sin nor unwarranted blood. Such historical revisions can't, to borrow a phrase, handle the truth. They suffer a poverty of ideas because they feel people can only be inspired by a sanitized version of history, even though the flawed and tragic truth is often more fascinating.


Seph said...

Isn't the deal with that shrine that people can't be removed from it after they've been enshrined? Or something silly like that?

SonicLlama said...

Yes, the organization that maintains the shrine has said as much. Once a name is registered there, it merges with the other divinities to become part of the whole.

However, I'm sure that a clever priest could find some kind of suitably hand-waving theological explanation to justify erasing names. Historically, religious types have done that a lot.

Daniel said...

Your last comment is spoken like a true recovering Catholic! Does Shintoism allow for revisionism?
I see that you still have much Americanism in you, too: Your comments about Korea and China ceasing their complaining reflects your limited 200+ year history. If the Chinese and Koreans are anything like the Spanish in their view of history, then forgetfulness will not follow the deaths of the veterans and their children. The Spanish still refer to the British (and by extension, us) as los putos Ingleses. This continues as a result of the 1715 Treaty of Utrecht in which Gibraltar was ceded to the UK. I assure you, all those veterans and their children are dead (barring the fact that Adrian Paul is British). Even Americans have not been able to forget Slavery, native American issues, and the prospect of the South rising again. Complaints will continue, Americans have the rare blessing among countries to be able to minimize the effect that history has on current affairs.