Ben Hills

I can hear their voices,” says the priest, cocking his head as a flight of white doves clatters over the towering torii arch. “The spirits of those who died in the war … they are calling to me ‘What did I die for? Why are you now calling me an aggressor?’ “

Kazuho Kuno, a 27th-generation Shinto priest, is an acolyte at the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese come to honour their war-dead – and, say their critics in Japan and abroad, celebrate the triumphal militarism that led to the conquest of half of Asia, Pearl Harbour, and ultimately the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sunday marks the 48th anniversary of the end of that war, when, with Japan lying in ruins, Emperor Hirohito went on the radio to tell the 40 million survivors that they must “bear the unbearable” and surrender. Many of his soldiers committed ritual seppuku, disembowelling themselves, rather than obey.

Fifty thousand people from all over Japan will make a pilgrimage here on Sunday. To Kazuho Kuno they are coming to “commemorate the spirits of the dead” – but for many Japanese, watching on TV as the old soldiers and the young right-wingers bow with arms stretched over their heads and cry “banzai”, the scene will stir dark memories of the march to war.

Yasukuni is Japan’s cenotaph where the names of the soldiers who have died in Japan’s wars of the past century are preserved on an honour roll. But, to Japan and the world, it is also the symbol of a great deal more.

The shrine itself, a massive structure of cypress wood embellished with the gilded imperial chrysanthemums, sits in a park 15 minutes’ subway ride from the Ginza. It was established in 1869 as a memorial to those who were killed in the civil war fought to restore the Meiji Emperor (says a sign) and exists”to worship the divine spirits of those who gave their lives in defence of the empire of Japan”.

But the grounds also contain what amounts to Japan’s national military museum. Sitting in the shade of the ginkgo trees is some of the massive material Japan used to wage its war on the world – giant field guns recovered from the bloody conquest of Manchuria (referred to in the guidebook as “The Chinese Incident”), shells weighing a tonne or more from long-sunk battleships, the Kaiten human torpedoes, iron coffins packed with explosives which were to be Japan’s last-ditch defence against the invading Allies.

Inside the museum, a painted panorama depicts the last attack of the Thunderbolt Corps at Okinawa – the kamikaze pilots depicted in a hundred Japanese movies crashing their planes into American warships and dying with the words “Tenno heika banzai” (may the Emperor live 10,000 years) on their lips.

There are pictures and the personal possessions of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who commanded the carrier fleet that attacked Pearl Harbour, rusty weapons recovered from the Kokoda Trail, a Japanese flag and characters painted with human blood.

But, more than a memorial, more than a war museum, Yasukuni symbolises the militaristic theology of State Shinto, where to die for the Emperor meant to become a “divine spirit” – in effect a god. Kamikaze pilots barely old enough to shave would beg for the chance to die.

This weekend, cherry blossoms preserved in perspex are on sale at kiosks at Yasukuni, the potent symbol of life’s evanescence turned into a tourist gee-gaw.

To Takashi Ikagawa, all this is profoundly disturbing. Ikagawa is an organiser of a group called the Citizens’ Federation for the Protection of the Constitution, which has been fighting against government involvement in the August 15 ceremony at the shrine.

“The people who died during the war are victims,” says Ikagawa. “Yasukuni Shrine makes them into heroes. (World War II) was a war of aggression by Japan which murdered many innocent people here as well as abroad … yet this ceremony glorifies that war.”

This is the way Japan’s Asian neighbours see things, too. North and South Korea, Russia, China, and South-East Asia – all of which were invaded by Japan with enormous loss of life – regularly protest in the strongest terms against government support for the ceremony at the shrine.

What is particularly jolting is that on the honour list of the dead are the names of several score of war criminals, generals, admirals, and diplomats -most notably General Hideki Tojo, Japan’s Prime Minister for most of the war, and the man who many Japanese still believe “took the rap” to save Emperor Hirohito from the gallows.

Only in 1979 was it revealed that the names of Tojo and six other “Class A”war criminals (the worst sort) – who were hanged for their crimes in 1948 -had been secretly added to the roll by the Yasukuni priests.

There would be little controversy if Yasukuni was merely the place where the families of the war dead came to pray – although many question why there is no recognition of the millions of civilians who were killed, nor even of those soldiers who have died since the war, most notably earlier this year when Japan sent troops to serve with the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Cambodia.

Yasukuni is strictly for those who gave their lives for the Emperor, currently 2,460,000 men and women. The million or more Japanese civilians killed, and the unchronicled number of people from other countries – China alone claims to have lost three million soldiers and 22 million civilians during the war – receive not a mention.

What deeply divides Japan, however, is official support for the shrine and all it stands for. The current Emperor, Akihito, has not visited it since he was enthroned five years ago – although an official message from him is read out twice a year. But the Government has – and this is where the new Prime Minister faces his most decisive, and divisive, test.

Beginning in 1975 with Takeo Miki, successive Japanese Prime Ministers have made the trek to Yasukuni. The most recent, in 1985, was Yasuhiro Nakasone -his visit sparked off a storm of protest domestically, and an official complaint from China.

Since then, there have been a number of court challenges – some of them successful – to government participation in the Yasukuni ceremony, which various groups of socialists, peace activists, Christians and Buddhists have argued violate articles of the postwar Japanese Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, and separating Church and State.

In 1989 a district court held that the governor of Ehime Prefecture should not have used public money to pay for a $2,200 tree bough, a traditional offering at the shrine. Last year, the Osaka High Court ruled that Nakasone’s 1985 visit was “probably” unconstitutional.

In spite of this, 195 members of the Liberal Democratic Government, including 15 of the 20 members of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa’s Government, defied the court ruling and paid their respects at Yasukuni last year. Miyazawa himself, fearful of upsetting the Chinese before a planned visit by the Emperor, fudged it by visiting later, away from the TV cameras.

In recent years, government politicians have tried to have it both ways -claiming that they are visiting “in a private capacity”, declining to sign the visitors’ book, not praying in the inner sanctum of the shrine are among the ruses. They may save face, but they do not fool anyone.

This year it will be different. This year, for the first time since the war, Japan has a Government which says it is determined to own up to Japan’s wartime past. But will Japan’s new leaders – particularly those who, until just two months ago were stalwarts of the LDP – follow where Morihiro Hosokawa is trying to lead? On Monday, the day he was sworn in, Hosokawa declared: “(World War II) was a war of aggression and a wrongful war,” and said he would not be going to Yasukuni in any capacity. It was the most forthright declaration by any post-war leader, and it was a particularly poignant moment for those with a sense of history.

Hosokawa’s grandfather, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, was Prime Minister during the war, and killed himself with a cyanide pill the night before he was to be arrested as a suspected war criminal. “My grandfather failed to speak up when he should have,” Hosokawa has written.

His repudiation of the war was an attempt to set the stage for righting many wrongs that still rankle nearly 50 years after the war – Japanese history books which paper over aggression and atrocities with bland platitudes, surviving slave prostitutes who have been promised an apology but no settlement of their claims, thousands of kidnapped Koreans and Chinese who were irradiated during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but who are denied the free medical attention that Japanese victims are entitled to.

Japanese newspapers, mostly approvingly, have compared Hosokawa’s initiative with the historic speech by Germany’s President Richard von Weizsacker in 1985, when he apologised for the war and told his countrymen: “Those of us who close our eyes on the past do so on the present.”Nevertheless this week the 20 members of Hosokawa’s Cabinet were still agonising about whether they would follow his lead.

Apart from the symbolic significance, there is also a practical side to Yasukuni – the shrine is supported by Japan’s immensely powerful veterans’association, the 11 million families represented by the Japan War Bereaved Association, who are a major source of political funding and support.

The Socialists in the coalition will attend a rival secular service in a nearby memorial hall. But by yesterday it looked as though at least two ex-LDP members of Mr Hosokawa’s Cabinet would break ranks and attend the Yasukuni shrine.

The Agriculture Minister, Eijiro Hata, said that he would attend the ceremony – and, more importantly, so will Hosokawa’s deputy, the Foreign Minister, Tsutomu Hata, who in his days in the LDP was the leader of a parliamentary group which supported Yasukuni.

What kind of a signal this will send to Japan’s friends and neighbors -already nervous about the perceived nationalism of the new government’s powerbroker, Ichiro Ozawa – is anyone’s guess.

But Kazuho Kuno will still be one unhappy priest: “This new Government is violating the dead by calling them agressors. How can I explain this to the spirits?”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Friday 13 August 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 11
Word count: 1867
Keywords: Anniversaries
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: Yasukuni, a shrine to militarism and the Emperor’s men.