Returning to Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Series > Right Wingers > The Return

A healthy dose of nationalism never hurt anyone, the Captain once said. Of course at the time he was standing at the entrance to the Yankee Doodle hostess club in Kabukicho.

This week he's venturing to Yasukuni Shrine on the sixtieth anniversary of the conclusion of World War II. The songbooks are out and the uniforms pressed - the Captain is giving a photographic tour through one of Japan's symbols of its military past.

The crowds begin forming inside the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in the early hours. By midday, they number in the thousands, and in spite of the merciless summer sun, they keep coming - from backgrounds far and wide.

Former soldiers, decked out in military coats and hats, attract the cameras of journalists and tourists as they sit and swap war stories. On the surrounding streets, members of right-wing groups pour out of their large and colorful sound trucks. Families dutifully attired in suits and dresses get ready to pass through the shrine's gates and pay their respects to fallen relatives. The police, standing by, attempt to maintain some semblance of order.

On each August 15, the anniversary of the conclusion of World War II, great debate around the globe coincides with this unfolding scene at Yasukuni, a historical rallying point for Japanese militarism.

"It's a paradox," explained Hiroshi Yoshida, a Hitotsubashi University professor of modern Japanese history, during a recent lecture on the shrine. "The stance of the Japanese Government and the global view are opposite."

While governments across Asia squabble over whether it is appropriate for Japanese officials to pay respects to Japan's war dead at the Shinto shrine - which Prime Minister Koizumi did not do this year, at least not on the anniversary - the festival atmosphere makes it one of the summer's most colorful spectacles.

The rectangular site, centrally located in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, is like a fortress. Stone walls surround the grounds. Two large torii (gates) act as bookends for the walkway of granite blocks that are lined on both sides by a single row of identical stone lantern sculptures. Statues honoring the men who fought, including kamikaze pilots, are found throughout.

Yasukuni, constructed under the name Shokonsha in 1869 by the Meiji Emperor, enshrines roughly 2.5 million soldiers, airmen, and seamen, many of whom were inspired by the belief that their spirit be enshrined should they die in battle fighting heroically for the Emperor. More importantly to Korea and China, two countries that suffered the wrath of Japan's military might over a half-century ago, it also memorializes 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

The Yushukan Museum is one of the shrine's most controversial attractions. On display are thousands of bloodstained uniforms, artillery pieces, an engine from the Thai-Burma railway (for which the Japanese government enslaved 61,000 Allied POWs and 250,000 locals for construction purposes), a green Mitsubishi Zero fighter, and a kaiten human torpedo casing used for suicide missions.

The general message projected throughout the exhibits is that Japan's wars were fought for protection and not belligerence. "In achieving a free and egalitarian world where the color of one's skin is not important," reads one poster, "there were many unavoidable battles of self-defense. Those who sacrificed their lives are enshrined as the spirits of the dead soldiers whose service was virtuous."

On the 15th, the typically quiet complex, which routinely hosts cherry blossom parties and a flea market amid its ginkgo trees, turns into a blast-from-the-past frenzy. It's the one day of the year where it is as if the war never ended.

Aging veterans pile out of tour buses for perhaps one last march. Some arrive sporting military uniforms and brandishing weapons of the day. It doesn't take long for the songbooks and harmonicas to come out, with all ages bonding and reliving the squashing of the enemy. War documentary DVDs are sold at stands right alongside cold drinks and snacks.

Japan's right-wing groups, or uyoku dantai, are the most prominent presence. Known for everything from extortion to association with gangsters, each group's official motto typically includes staunch support of Japan's past militarism and the divinity of the emperor.

With some as big as campers or school buses and others as small as minivans, their vehicles are prominently painted with nationalist slogans written in Chinese characters. As they rumble through the city - many times ignoring traffic and parking laws - the exterior speakers crackle and pound out one of the Imperial Army's classic jingles at ear-splitting volumes. At Yasukuni, oftentimes drivers will engage in seemingly friendly conversations with police officers about appropriate parking locations. Orange parking cones are set to provide assistance.

Scowls and frowns are never exchanged for even a grin by these men on a mission, and certainly this was the case two years ago when former Prime Minister Koizumi's lack of a visit on the anniversary prompted one group to carry a banner depicting Koizumi with a forked serpent's tongue.

With cropped hair and impeccable uniforms (best described as a maintenance man's jumpsuit with armbands and boots), the members hoist flags and march around the grounds and go through maneuvers before paying respects at the shrine itself.

Even though the debate quieted slightly when the late Emperor Hirohito quit visiting Yasukuni following the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals in 1978, Hitotsubashi's Yoshida said that former Prime Minister Nakasone's visit in the mid-'80s began raising tensions, which have been further emboldened by Koizumi's recent trips. "The objection just gets bigger and bigger," he said.

The Yasukuni Series > Right Wingers > The Return

Note: Yoko Kobayashi contributed to this report from the Tokyo Bureau.

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