A day at Yasukuni

The hall of worship of Yasukuni Shrine with torii, photo by Kakidai.

It must have been a cold and lonely, yet tense, autumn night when Lt. Uemura Masahisa wrote a long letter to her newborn daughter Motoko, which partly read: “if you want to see me, come to Yasukuni Shrine, pray sincerely in your mind and daddy will come to your mind.” Lt. Masahisa died later on October 26, 1944 on a kamikaze mission.

Thousands of Japanese visited Yasukuni on August 15 on the anniversary of Emperor Hirohito’s official surrender to the Allied powers at the end of World War II. Despite the 90% humidity that melted everyone like popsicles, the crowd that thronged the shrine was a hodgepodge of rightists, leftists, and those who simply came to honor the war dead.

But first, a bit of history. Originally known as the Tokyo Shokonsho, the shrine was founded in June 1869 at the upper part of Kudan slope. Today, its nearest station is Kudanshita (literally “below Kudan”) of the Shinjuku line. It was established to honor the “divine” spirits who sacrificed their lives for their country.

For since ancient times, the Japanese believe that their ancestors remained upon their place of birth to be celebrated by their descendants. The “mitama” or soul watches over the good fortune of their descendants, together with the ancestral Kami. For them, the “mitama” dwells in a quiet and lofty place where they can see their children and where they can respond if called upon.

According to literature, the word “Shokonsha” or “Shokonjo” means “the shrine to which the divine spirits who have made great sacrifice are invited.” Emperor Meiji changed the name to “Yasukuni Jinja” in 1879 to honor the efforts of the ancestors who are credited for the peace and security that the country enjoyed then.

Today, 2.5 million names are “worshipped” as “deities” in the shrine, complete with records of their native places as well as the date and localities of their death in battle. For about a hundred years–from the Meiji Restoration to the end of World War II–Yasukuni served as a memorial repository of the warriors that have shaped modern Japanese history.

It is therefore not surprising why Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni on August 13 generated so much uproar among Japan’s former war enemies, namely Korea and China. Many believe that an emperor’s or a prime minister’s visit to the Shinto shrine is a condoning of the Imperial Army’s war atrocities. In fact, due to pressure from China, the last time a prime minister visited Yasukuni was 16 years ago. Ironically, five cabinet ministers were at the shrine on August 15.

Our day at Yasukuni provided a glimpse of the forces that have tugged at certain aspects of Japanese foreign policy. There were the Koreans who engaged in a scuffle between right-wing elements who prevented them from entering the grounds. The former were demanding that their relatives be removed from a list of war dead honored at the shrine. While it was a day for honoring the ancestors, the ubiquity of riot police in full gear tampered on the solemnity of the occasion. Back in Korea, President Kim Dae-jung said, “How can we make good friends with people who try to forget the many pains they inflicted on us?”

It was amusing however to see the rightists marching around in their black uniforms while carrying Japan’s war flags. Reminiscent of Europe’s neo-Nazis, their “commander” sported a shaven head while barking incomprehensible orders to his seven “troops” who followed him sloppily through the thick crowd. If they craved for attention, they certainly got it, what with their unsynchronized marching that bordered in hilarity.

A thinner yet noisier force, on the other hand, was at the side entrance awaiting the five cabinet ministers who came and went to Yasukuni to honor the war dead. But as their jugulars streaked on their necks with every vociferous protest, the ministers proceeded with their business behind a phalanx of riot police and a swarm of journalists.

The war veterans, however, generated the most attention and applause. Never mind that their uniforms were already faded and their faces wrinkled as if etched with the horrors and pain of their war past. They were stiff and straight as ever, head up high, marching with their bayoneted rifles to the rhythmic beat of their leader’s staccato commands. I looked around and saw tears from a few women’s eyes, whose fathers or grandfathers must have died in action.

As quoted in the Japan Times, a 75-year-old veteran who visits the shrine every August 15 said, “I know we did terrible things to Chinese and Koreans during the war, and it is natural that they are hostile to Japanese.” But he added that he feels sorry for them and stressed that visiting Yasukuni should not be interpreted as ignoring the feelings of those who suffered.

On that same day at the nearby Nippon Budokan Hall, Prime Minister Koizumi said, “As the representative of the Japanese people, I would like once again to express my feelings of profound remorse and sincere condolences to all the people who became victims. I will pledge to etch the many lessons we have learned from the past war deeply in my heart, and to put all of my efforts into establishing enduring world peace.”

While December 7, 1941 forever lived in infamy as the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, August 15, 1945 was the day the world returned to lasting peace. Fifty-six years later, about 3,000 people commemorated this day at Yasukuni Shrine. While a few came to protest, the vast majority was there for simple reasons: to honor their relatives, fathers, grandfathers, former comrades-at-arms and most importantly, to pray for peace.

For in war, death is the price for peace, just like that of Lt. Masahisa’s, whose daughter Motoko can only come to Yasukuni to see him in her mind’s eye.

Originally published in Philippines Today.