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Fighting to Enter the Country of Peace

November 16, 2009

By Keiko Andress

The Haiden at Yasukuni Jinja

While in Japan, I visited Yasukuni Jinja, an infamous Shinto Shrine in the heart of Tokyo, and the Yushukan War Museum adjacent to the shrine.

Two stone lions sit on either side of the massive torii gate which symbolically separates the sacred from the profane.  I entered through the gate and walked up the path leading to the courtyard of the shrine.  Thousands of bright yellow paper lanterns were strung up along the sides of the path in preparation of the upcoming Mitama Matsuri, a summer festival that celebrates the spirits of the dead.

Passing through a second gate I entered the courtyard, an oasis of calm inside the inner-city chaos of 8 a.m. rush-hour traffic crawling between towering skyscrapers.  The courtyard was quiet and nearly empty.  A light breeze blew.  A couple of old men sat smoking cigarettes and sipping tea in small kiosks selling good-luck charms and snacks.  A lone janitor swept dust and debris.  Birds pecked at food scraps under gingko trees.

I sat down under a gingko tree to wait for the museum to open and watch the few people who wandered into the courtyard.  Some were tourists with cameras, others were worshippers.  The worshippers washed their hands, dropped coins into the offering box, clapped in front of the haiden (the main prayer hall), bowed reverently, clapped again, then left quietly.  I wondered what one prays for at a shrine that arguably celebrates violence and emperor-worship and jingoism.

A signboard in the courtyard displayed the letter of a WWII soldier to his mother.  In it 26-year-old Shintaro consoled his mother, reminding her, “There are many [other] people who also gave up their only son for their country.”  Though the young lieutenant seemed to know he would die in battle (and he did) he was certain Japan would be victorious and closed his letter, “Long live the Japanese Empire!  Long live His Majesty the Emperor!”

The souls of over 2.4 million Japanese who sacrificed their lives for the sake of their country rest enshrined at Yasukuni, absolved of any and all sins.  Visits to Yasukuni by various Japanese leaders have angered Japan’s Asian neighbors, particularly China and Korea, who harbor memories of Japan’s horrendous war crimes.  Many Japanese too have expressed anger towards the political figures who offer prayers at a religious site that elevates war criminals to godhood.

But every country has its hardcore right-wing zealots with their own version of history.  Beliefs that died to the mainstream with Japan’s defeat in WWII survive inside the Yushukan.  There the Emperor still traces his lineage to Japan’s Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.  There ancient poet Mitsui Koushi’s lines about “[the] painful lives of those who cared for their country – [that] piled up and up and up, protecting the land of Yamato [Japan]” reverberate to celebrate Japan’s martyrs.

I was primarily interested in the WWII section.  Walking through the museum, it was easy to understand why the shrine and museum elicited so much criticism from the public, and why, especially, it would strain Sino-Japanese relations.   The horrendous Rape of Nanking, wherein hundreds of thousands of persons were ruthlessly murdered and countless women were brutally raped, is all but ignored as it is blithely dismissed as the “Nanking Incident.”

Invasions into neighboring countries are characterized as Japan’s attempts to support surrounding countries as freedom-fighters against the tyranny of the West’s colonization.  No mention is made of the comfort women forced into sexual servitude in Asian cities from Shanghai to Manila to Seoul.  No mention is made of the cruel biological experiments conducted on POWs in China.

As for Pearl Harbor, well, that was clearly America’s fault.  Roosevelt practically forced Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor by imposing economic sanctions against Japan.  FDR dragged Japan into WWII by placing such heavy embargos on Japan so that Japan was in such desperate need of oil and coal and metals that they had no choice but to fight back.

The gist of the museum’s message was that the Japanese were the victims/heroes of WWII.  Japan should have been lauded, applauded, thanked by its Asian neighbors for its role as a bastion of independence against the colonization of the West.  (I couldn’t help but think how the museum’s version of history is echoed by flag-waving patriots on this side of the Pacific who can’t understand why the world at large doesn’t appreciate oh-so-altruistic attempts to bring democracy to the oppressed.)

The Japanese military believed Japan was bringing freedom to Asia; Japan was destined for victory; Japan was on god’s side.  They believed that there was no greater shame than surrender and no greater honor than to give up one’s life for sake of the emperor.  What’s more, kamikaze (“god’s wind”) pilots apparently made pacts to reunite with each other at Yasukuni (which, incidentally, means “the Country of Peace”) in the afterlife where their families too might come to visit their spirits.

It was noon when I finally exited the Yushukan.  The world outside was gray and drizzly.  I exited the torii gates back into the secular world a little sickened by all the propaganda I’d ingested but mostly sobered by the thought of the depravity and humanity of masses of young men killing and dying by the thousands in hope and desperation, courage and cowardice; killing and dying for lies, for honor, for family, for love of country, for god, and, ultimately, maybe for nothing less than the only ticket to the only heaven they were ever offered.

Keiko Andress spent part of summer, 2009 in Japan with her Japanese grandmother and aunt. She is currently undertaking a law degree at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

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