Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine

To set a point straight: In my opinion, the Yushukan museum (the propaganda zoo situated next to the Yasukuni shrine) is an atrocity all unto itself. True, the Japanese have their own side of the story of what happened during WW2, but the stuff in that museum is exactly what the propaganda of the day was saying "it's all for the benefit of Asia, freeing it from colonialism!"... Ridiculous. The idea that promising young people here in Japan are falling for the exact same propaganda that cost so many young lives just a few decades ago is sickening.

Anyway, lets continue. Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni war shrine.

If I (or the state, for that matter) was to visit a war-grave in the UK, noone would think a thing of it, I think. Somewhere (I assume) there are graves for the people that gave the go-ahead for the bombing of various cities in Germany, Japan, and a whole host of other cities across Europe that were under axis control. I imagine people still visit the cemeteries housing those graves, and I never heard of anyone complaining about it.

Yasukuni is a bit more complicated because the war-criminals and soldiers are all at the same complex. I'm not sure about the exact layout of the shrine, but needless to say, if you want to pay your respects to your war-dead, you might have your prayers overheard by a war-criminal or two. Evidently, if you're the leader of a country surrounded by past victims of said war-criminals, this is going to cause problems.

However, is this really a problem with the Japanese side? Or is this as much to do with our failure to understand what is going through the Japanese heads?

Freedom of religion is something we of the West are supposed to be pretty big on (not a fan of religion myself, but lets not go there today), and to tell anyone they cant worship somewhere because of events come and gone is supposedly amoral. But religion is just an obfuscation of what is really happening. The real reason Yasukuni has become such a controversy is because it has become a political tool. If the Japanese don't visit the shrine, domestically speaking they might look cowardly, and the government will weaken as a result. If they do visit the shrine, the surrounding countries will look cowardly if they don't protest. Its a horrible balancing act between Japanese public opinion and international politics, with religion acting as a pivot. If everyone just stood back and acknowledged the situation, and then moved on to the next issue, then the problem would disappear entirely. Unfortunately world politics always plays out like school-ground arguments.

Looking at the Japanese newspapers, it doesn't seem this latest visit the shrine went down too well on the Japanese side either, and perhaps this is a sign that visiting the shrine is no longer a viable way of increasing opinion poll ratings. If that is the case, then visits to the shrine by state officials might die off.

EDIT: Lets ignore the fact that Shinzo Abe is a Right-winger for the purposes of this discussion. It undoubtedly played a part in this, lets not kid ourselves that it wasn't desire for political support that really made him go, but his ideology. That isn't how most democracy works*.

EDIT2: Lets also ignore Shinzo Abe's possible ambition of nullifying the peace consitution. That is speculation, interesting and well-informed speculation, and possibly true. But for him to ever succeed he needs to come out of this affair with better public opinion than when he went in, which frankly doesn't look so certain.

*I say this with some considerable degree of hesitation.. Would love to discuss that with a politics graduate.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this. One thing I wanted to add that I thing is also important to consider is that Japan lost the war. You never really hear of war criminals who are on the winning side (will George W. Bush go down as a war criminal?). My history knowledge is not great but I'm pretty sure The Great Alexander slaughtered thousands in his passage of spreading the great Macedonian civilization. He is not labelled as a war criminal. Perhaps these things are not comparable, however war is an ugly thing. The tendency is that all the horrible things that arise are from the losing side while the winner gets away with it and in some cases takes the role of a hero or a liberator. Sure the things imperial Japan did were horrible. Many of the stories might be true, others fabricated, but I don't get why one cannot go pay their respect to the fallen of their country in peace without all the drama. I really liked how you described the entire thing as "childish". Perhaps there is a political game within Japan as well, it just annoys me to see the reaction of the surrounding countries each time there is a visit.

  2. I'm glad you liked it!
    War is an ugly business indeed, and neither side is particularly up-front about the nastier things they did. Personally, I feel Japan is decidedly less up-front about it than most countries (compare with Germany, who are outstanding in how they handle their history, certainly less delusional than in England, anyway).
    Then again, it's easy (when one's wife is Japanese) to lean too far in support of Japan, I think. I wonder how much one can blame the other countries, at the end of the day, I suspect a good deal of this is the governments reacting to appease domestic right-wingers, which perhaps has more to do with the problems of politics in general than this particular situation.

  3. Yes. I think the cause of most of these problems is politics. It is a rather long discussion I'm happy to have one day. Maybe over some nice Japanese food and sake.
    Personally I make the best effort to remain as unbiased as I can. There is always two sides in a story and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In my view it all boils down to politics and personal interests, even Germany's stance...