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Legacies of War: Yasukuni Shrine

Personal Reflections on a Visit
20 August 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

A room of the Yasukuni Shrine museum featuring photographs of the enshrined (Tokyo, August 2010)

This past Sunday, August 15th, was the 65th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War II, in which tens of millions perished, from Europe and North Africa through Russia to Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, and the United States. In a departure from my usual blogging style, I want to share some more personal reflections on one of the historical legacies that continues to haunt Northeast Asia.

On a trip to the region earlier this month, I met with scholars from Japan, China, and Korea, in part to explore the ways the United States and those three countries can overcome the region’s painful history. And I also visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for the first time.

For any readers not familiar with recent controversies, Yasukuni is a Shinto memorial to the soldiers and civil servants who fought on behalf of Japan’s emperor in the 19th and 20th centuries, in which the souls of 2.5 million are said to be enshrined–including fourteen of Japan’s Class A war criminals. In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking then as South Korea’s foreign minister, the shrine is seen as “a symbol of colonial Japan, a time which caused Korea and other Asian nations indescribable pain.”

Visits to the shrine by Japanese prime ministers have therefore produced major political backlashes in Seoul and Beijing. And I found the shrine disturbing, too, but perhaps for different reasons. As an American–coming from a country that both liberated concentration camps and atom-bombed cities in the same war–I am acutely aware of the moral ambiguities of World War II. Yet the shrine made me uncomfortable because it glorifies colonialism, and–just as importantly–it fails to replace the mentality of empire with a different, more productive, ethical foundation.

The main issue is this: nothing in the shrine or the shrine museum suggests that actions performed in service of Japan’s emperor can ever be morally wrong. To the contrary, the shrine glorifies complete, selfless, uncritical service. While Germans and Israelis frequently hail the examples of courageous Germans who worked to save Jews, no similar examples are raised here. Were there Japanese guards who said ‘no’ when asked to kill civilians? Were there some who understood that sometimes true service to country actually means refusing to follow immoral orders? Do Japanese people believe that today?

A group gathers around suicide notes from a Japanese soldier on display at Yasukuni Shrine (August 2010)

I came across the shrine’s board of suicide notes on my way in. This month’s selection was written by Iwao Kondo, a sergeant who killed himself days after Japan’s surrender in what is labeled “suicide from a sense of responsibility.” One of his notes reads, in part: “What could I possibly say to you, the Divine souls of Yasukuni, who believed in the certain victory of the Empire and thoroughly carried out your important duty of defending it? I simply regret that I was unable to fulfill my obligations to the Empire and I apologize through my own death.”

The shrine’s museum portrays World War II as a war of Asian liberation from Western colonialism: a map near the end of the permanent exhibit displays flags and names of key figures involved in Asian liberation movements after the war. But most troubling, perhaps, is the museum’s inattention to war crimes, even as some of Japan’s worst war criminals are memorialized. Look at the contrast between a couple museum captions. The first is the only caption in the Yasukuni Shrine museum referring to Japan’s occupation of Nanjing, and the second is one of the captions at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum, which I photographed in Nanjing, China, in November 2008:

Top: caption at Yasukuni Shrine museum (August 2010); bottom: caption at Nanjing Massacre museum (November 2008)

Yasukuni’s museum, which presents itself as a comprehensive history of the Asian portion of World War II, also includes no acknowledgment of Unit 731, an elite Japanese military germ warfare factory near Harbin, in northeast China, which released diseases into the local populations and engaged in medical experiments that rivaled Nazi equivalents in their brutality.

On a future visit to Tokyo, it would be lovely to see Yasukuni Shrine, and especially the Yasukuni Shrine museum, reflecting a new Japanese ethic, one based on a truthful acknowledgment of the past–and a vision for the future in which honorable service to the Japanese nation also reflects the individual’s responsibility to other people regardless of their nationality. This requires an acknowledgment that moral responsibilities are as salient in wartime as in peacetime. And in one of the exhibition rooms, it would be entirely appropriate to display some of the numerous positive examples of Japanese service to the Japanese nation and the world since World War II, in areas like foreign assistance and disaster relief. That should be way Japan presents itself to the rest of Asia–not by whitewashing the past and glorifying blind worship of governmental authority.

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