Friday, July 21, 2006

'The Peaceful Country'

The Yasukuni ('peaceful country') Shrine is located in Tokyo and is dedicated to the spirits of soldiers who died fighting for the Japanese emperor (english homepage here). It's essentially the Japanese version of a war memorial, and its Book of Souls contains the names of about two and a half million Japanese men and women who died in the service of their country. Anyone even passingly familiar with the current problems between Japan and its neighbors (most notably China and the Koreas) has likely heard of this place, and has possibly wondered what all the fuss is about. I mean, the leaders of Western nations (all nations?) pay annual homage to their war dead at war memorials, right? Well, yes, but...

In the Shinto tradition humans become deities (kami) when they die, so the "souls of the dead are worshipped rather than just remembered." Only the kami of 'remarkable' people are enshrined, and this is where things get sticky. In 1978, 14 Class A war criminals (including Hideki Tojo) were quietly enshrined as 'martyrs of Showa'. (When Emperor Hirohito, emperor of the Showa period, learned of this he stopped visiting the shrine altogether--more on this below.) Yasukuni also operates a museum which many believe offers a revisionist version of history. It claims that Japan's occupation of its neighbors was done to protect the region's independence from Western encroachment; it denies events like the Nanking Massacre; it says that the execution of convicted war criminals was "cruel" and "unjust"; etc. For Japan's war-time victims, and for many liberals within Japan itself, Yasukuni is a symbol of Japanese militarism and right-wing nationalism. Conversely, to many it is a symbol of patriotism.

The current controversy centers around annual visits to the shrine by recent Japaneser prime ministers, and whether these visits were done in an official or private capacity. Current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has visited the shrine four times since taking office in 2001. Not surprisingly, relations with China and South Korea have grown worse during his tenure. Koizumi will step down as prime minister later this year, and many see Yasukuni as a central issue in deciding his successor.

Today saw a surprise development in this story. From The Independent:
The bitter debate over the annual pilgrimage of Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, to the Yasukuni Shrine war memorial has been given a new twist by a beyond-the-grave intervention from an unusual critic: Emperor Hirohito.

A memo has been found claiming the wartime ruler expressed "strong displeasure"at Yasukuni enshrining 14 Class-A war criminals in 1978, and refused to visit the memorial, which also honours 2.5 million war dead, until his death a decade later.

As the story points out, this is a "severe embarrassment" for Mr. Koizumi. Personally, I would imagine that right-wing nationalists all over Japan are embarrassed by this revelation. They act and speak, after all, 'in the Emperor's name'. For his part, Mr. Koizumi said that he has not changed his views about the visits, calling it "an issue of the heart". But as the article points out,
[...] proof that the monarch in whose name millions of Japanese fought in the Second World War staunchly opposed official trips to the Tokyo shrine will put intense pressure on Mr Koizumi to call off a final, politically explosive visit before he leaves office in September.

Also of note here is the timing of the memo's release, which is seen by some as an attempt by business interests in Japan to "sabotage the election of Mr. Koizumi's successor" and restore good business relations with the rest of Asia.

The current Emperor, Akihiko, has never visited Yasukuni shrine, despite pressure to do so, and now it's clear that his father, who was emperor during World War II, disapproved of Yasukuni. If this isn't a slap in the face to right-wing nationalists in Japan, I don't know what is. (Imagine the Pope declaring he was an atheist...) I believe the Royal Palace has the hearts of many, if not most, Japanese. This could signal a change within Japan and between Japan and its neighbors. Assuming, of course, that the Japanese themselves are actually paying attention...


  1. Salamaat,
    very interesting. My political/otherwise knowledge of Japan is embarrassing...

    "Book of the souls" how poetic! Calling them "dead" or "heros" or a myriad other terms doesn't capture it as well as "Souls" does.

    Worshipping the'd be surprised that there is a strand within Islam that believes in the concept of praying to 'saints' for intercession. It's a very touchy subject. I can't pretend to understand.

    i love how those in power always get the privilege of re-writing his-story. I look at the Media spin today on world affairs; and think what Fox news claims today might end up in history books as the "official" version. That concept sends chills down my spine.

    Ever read the "The people's history" by Howard zinn?(or something to that effect? It's been on my list for a while but i haven't gotten a chance yet...

    I am the one that's always rooting for the underdog. Why do i set myself up for dissapointment i have no idea.

    sorry for my rambling..i know it has little to do you with your actual post:)

  2. Hi Maliha,
    Don't worry about not being expert on Japanese politics/religion/etc. I'm not either, by any stretch. My learning process is a big part of why I write this blog.
    I'm not really surprised by the concept of Muslim 'saints'(although I'm completely unfamiliar with it).
    The "Fox" version of history will only become "official" when people like us stop expressing our opinions.
    I don't know that book, but I will check it out... Hoping for the underdog is natural (and therefore good). It's irrelevant that we are often frustrated, this is part of nature's 'education' program.
    Rambling? Heh, all I do here is ramble (with links!)...

  3. This is a really interesting subject that seems to have been simmering away for a while. I read some things about Yukio Mishima years ago. He was quite a puzzle. He thought the emperor hadn't done enough or something.
    By the way, Kyklops, these posts are getting very polished and informative; publication? Elaboration?

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Pierre. I don't really have any kind of plan for this stuff, but I have found that the more I write the more interested I am in writing. I haven't written much since my university days, but blogging has stirred a desire to begin doing more of it...

  5. Speaking from the planned southern outpost of the Japanese Economic Prosperity Zone (ahem) I'm not surprised this shrine pisses neighbours off. The barbarity practised by the imperial army in WWII is a stain on all of Japan. It's always a bit dodgy to mentions Nazis but I have trouble seeing how this shrine is any different to a german shrine to Nazi war criminals. Imagine the chancellor going to visit that!