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By C. B. Liddell

Valhalla of the Imperial Army

Yasukuni Shrine is an essential site of mourning and memory

C. B. Liddell is a writer, editor and occasional Viz cartoonist who teaches English to high school students as a hobby

Whether or not Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visits Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the 60th anniversary of the day Japan surrendered in World War II, it seems clear that this will be one of the defining issues of his premiership. But amid the rancor at home and abroad, one voice is notable in its silence. Surely it’s time Yasukuni had the last word.

Akio Saka is director of the Yushukan, the military museum adjacent to the shrine. He is a dignified man, stylishly attired in a traditional Japanese hakama and exuding a calm confidence.
“Nowadays, the economic links between Japan and China seem to have much more importance than the spiritual links between the Japanese people and the shrine,” he says.

Located near the Budokan, the home of judo, and within bowing distance of the Imperial Palace, Yasukuni is approached down a magnificent tree-lined avenue that passes through two giant concrete gates in the traditional mon style and around the statue of Masujiro Omura, the samurai who abolished the samurai system and founded the Imperial Japanese Army after the 1868 Meiji revolution. The grandeur accorded the site demonstrates an unashamed pride in the armed forces it celebrates.

Yasukuni is a spiritual home not only to the conscripted soldiers, sailors and airmen, but to anyone who died serving the emperor. So far the count is 2,460,000 men, women and children.
“We know all their names,” Saka says. “No matter where they died, this is their home. Unlike Christians, we don’t need to recover the bodies.”
Among the names are seven executed Class A war criminals, including General Hideki Tojo, prime minister from 1941-44, and General Haitaro Kimura, field commander in Burma. Both men were found guilty of the “ordering, authorizing or permitting of inhumane treatment to Prisoners of War and others.”

Others include 57,000 women, many of them battlefield nurses; 1,600 junior high school students from Okinawa killed defending the island; and 700 elementary school students who died evacuating the island when their ship was torpedoed by an American submarine.
With innocents sharing spiritual space with war criminals, Yasukuni embodies the contradictions of war. It is a relatively democratic establishment, open not only to the common man but even to non-Japanese, including 28,000 Taiwanese and 21,000 Koreans.

“At the time, they were Japanese citizens serving in the Imperial forces, so they are enshrined here,” Saka explains. “Recently people in those countries are demanding that we stop because they say it’s against their honor. But the basic idea of Yasukuni is that anybody who died fighting for the nation should be enshrined here.”

Enshrinement involves a Shinto ceremony in which the names of the souls of the dead are written down on a scroll placed ceremoniously in a palanquin. The ceremony has not occurred since the war, although Saka says that if members of the Japanese forces in Iraq are killed there is “a high possibility that they will get enshrined here.” Technically, the members of the Self Defense Force serve the nation and not the Emperor. Saka, however, says the distinction is artificial.

“Tenno banzai, dying for the emperor, means, and has always meant, dying for the nation,” he insists. “This idea might be different from Western monarchies, but the Japanese emperor represents the country, and dying for the emperor also represents dying for one’s hometown and family.”

The Japanese government is seen as increasingly sympathetic. “It is natural for Prime Minister Koizumi to visit Yasukuni,” he says. “Although the Chinese are angry at us, the shrine doesn’t return their anger or even try to change their view, but it would be better if Chinese people understood why Yasukuni Shrine was made. Those countries that oppose Yasukuni must have a similar feeling for their own people who died for their countries, so they should try to understand as people who believe in comforting the souls of the dead.”

Unlike some religions, Shinto doesn’t try to judge those souls, but seeks to keep them happy, regardless of whether they were good or evil. The museum rejects the whole idea of war criminals, whom it calls the “Martyrs of Showa” on its website.

“Yasukuni Shrine is suggesting that history education after the war is not correct,” Saka says. “The view presented is what Japanese people did to other countries—invading, subduing and colonizing. That’s what we’ve been taught. But Yasukuni rejects the idea that those who died in the war died in an aggressive expansionist war. Instead we think they died trying to save and protect Japan.”

The museum places emphasis on the supposed benefits that Asia derived from World War II—such as the accelerated independence of India, Indonesia and other countries—and downplays atrocities like the Nanking massacre.

“The Yushukan doesn’t focus on who did bad things individually but on how Japan fought as a country,” he says. “We don’t think focusing on a few bad things in history will make the country peaceful.”

The spirits may be at peace in this Valhalla of the Imperial Army, but the continued controversy surrounding the shrine suggests that the living never can be.

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