Friday, May 09, 2014

At the Yasukuni Shrine

Unless you had read or heard about the controversies swirling around the Yasukuni Shrine, as a casual visitor you would be hard- pressed to understand what all of the fuss is about. It looks like a large but fairly conventional Shinto shrine, sort of like the Meiji Shrine in another part of Tokyo. Except that the Meiji Shrine honors one kami or spirit – the late emperor Meiji, the Yasukuni honors 2,466,532.
Located on about 25 acres on the north side of the Imperial Palace grounds, the long entry pathway up Kudan Hill is demarked by three large concrete torri gates leading to the main temple, with its heavy black tiled eaves and a striking white curtain with the 16-petal chrysanthemum imperial seals on it.

The main temple is in two parts, an inner and outer sanctuary. Visitors approach the outer shrine, clap their hand,s bow their heads and drop coins into the large wooden collection box and then leave. Behind the temple in the recesses of the inner sanctum, is where the kami is said to reside, in this case not one but the spirits of all the fallen soldiers and sailors in Japan’s wars.
The purpose of the Yasukuni is, of course, to honor the memories of these fallen soldiers and sailors, stretching back to the Boshin War fought between soldiers loyal to the Meiji emperor and those of the Tokugawa shogunate and other civil wars that marked the revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. It is this that draws the presence of such high-ranking public officials as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Although it has a well-deserved reputation as a citadel of conservative revisionism, there are no outward signs of ultra-nationalism - no right-wing groups blaring slogans from their sound trucks disturb the tranquility of the setting. There are no banners and few flags are flown. Perhaps the only evidence is a statue of Masajiro Omura, a now obscure Meiji reformer known as the “father” of the modern Japanese Army.
For a more chauvinistic take on Japan’s near history, one repairs to the Yushukan War Museum, discretely located off to the north side and housed in a large concrete modern building. I must admit that the museum was far larger and more sophisticated than I had imagined. I had a mental picture of perhaps a couple rooms with some military equipment and propaganda slogans.

The first thing one encounters on entering the museum is a hulking black steel locomotive. Which was the first to steam through the dense jungle of the Thai-Burma Railway. It is an immediate turnoff, I would surmise, for any British or Australian visitors, as thousands of their compatriots, not to mention other Asians, died in the making of the railroad ( a fact not mentioned at the Yushukan).

Pushing on, however, one navigates a maze of exhibition rooms, about a dozen in all I’d say, filled with soldiers’ paraphernalia and personal mementos as well as panels describing the Japan’s conflicts stretching back to the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 up through the Great East Asia War (World War II, to the rest of us).
The panels do have English translations of the text, but the day I visited, I must confess, I had too little time, and too little stamina, to read all of them and determine for myself whether there are as tendentious in their portrayal of the war as popularly imagined.

I have vague impressions of references to “Western demands,” and “unequal treaties”. One panel has a long time-line stretching down one wall and explaining how that wily Roosevelt deliberately gulled the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. That is a common conservative trope among many right-wing nationalists, including the cashiered former air force general, Toshio Tomagawa, whose DVD is on sale in the gift shop.
I was impressed that the museum had a description of the Nomonhan Incident, an obscure but historically significant battle on the Mongolian border with the Soviet Union in 1939. It was a humiliating defeat for Japanese arms that most Japanese would prefer to forget about it, indeed they have probably forgotten about it.

In general the museum struck me as being similar to the Imperial War Museum I visited once in London, and probably similar institutions around the world that represent their national causes as honorable and those who fought in them as being sacrificial heroes.   




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