Short excerpt from Chapter 6 of my book. 

By Sylvia Yu Friedman

Yasukuni

The outline of the Daiichi Torii, or the first shrine gate, at twenty-five meters tall, looks even more imposing against the azure sky and signals that one is entering a sacred space. Trees line the meticulously groomed grounds. Yasukuni Shrine sits in Chiyoda district, at the very heart of central Tokyo. It is where the seat of government rests in the Diet building and where the location of the Supreme Court and Prime Minister’s residence. The long concrete walkway to Yasukuni seems haunted in an otherwise serene atmosphere.

I was with Judy, a Chinese-American documentary filmmaker, and Tim, a Tokyo-based Canadian journalist, to explore this place that was at the center of heated debates and controversy in Asia. This controversial shrine is regarded by many in Asia as a terrible symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Whenever the prime minister and top officials visited Yasukuni, they paid homage to their military casualties, including Class A war criminals, those who committed war crimes in Asia such as genocide or the mistreatment of prisoners of war, violent riots erupted in Asia.

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

One can feel conflicted before walking into the Yasukuni Shrine, called the “Ground Zero” for ultranationalists because of the trifecta of the shrine, the smaller secular memorial, and the ‘Families of the War Bereaved Society Office’[i]. I was eager to find and interview a former soldier. The shrine is dedicated to Japan’s two million five hundred thousand war casualties which include women, children, soldiers, nurses, and young people from wars such as the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars to the twentieth century wars. Since the main wars that are memorialized are those with China and other Allied nations, some see this shrine as symbolizing foreign invasions.

To many right-wing conservatives in Japan, Yasukuni is a symbol of nationalism, worship of the emperor as a deity, and love for their motherland. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Japan visit the shrine to honor those who died in war. In 1869, Emperor Meiji[ii] ordered that a place be established to enshrine the souls of men who have sacrificed their lives for their country. The shrine’s name is ironic and confusing. Yasukuni literally means ‘peaceful country.’ Its very existence, as a staunch nationalistic symbol, is jarring to see in the midst of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and tech-savvy society. Everything about it points out that there was no change in Japanese society after the war ended in 1945. There should have been a regime change like there was in Germany. The Nazis were no longer in power, and today neo-Nazism is seen as a marginalized group. 

The most controversial souls at Yasukuni are fourteen convicted, Class-A war criminals, including Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui who were sentenced to death at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) for their responsibility for the Nanking massacre in 1937. These war criminals, along with millions of others, are not merely honored, but they are worshipped as kami (gods). War banners and military regalia surround the kami and wartime military relics are commemorated at the shrine.

This deep reverence and worship of the dead is part of the Shinto faith in which it is most honorable to treat the dead as if they were still living. Shintoism is a spiritualized form of nationalism. Deceased ancestors are considered as “guardian deities” who watch over living family members. Daily rituals of meal offerings and words to the dead are offered up twice a year, and the most important rituals take place which include offerings from the Emperor, and members of the Imperial family attend.

In 2001, Japan’s then Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine strained Japan’s relations with Seoul and Beijing. Both Korea and China had expressed concern over Koizumi’s proposed visit on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. One writer likened the Japanese shrine to a memorial of Adolf Hitler. Twenty South Korean men draped in Korean flags chopped off their pinky fingers to show their extreme displeasure, the news media reported dozens of emotional rallies that happened all over Asia, and lawsuits by the hundreds were filed against Koizumi—the plaintiffs calling his visit unconstitutional.[iii]  

On December 26, 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni as an anti-war gesture, infuriating China and Korea. On October 17, 2014, Abe sent a ritual (symbolic) offering to Yasukuni Shrine, instead of visiting. However, at least one hundred ten Diet members from across party lines visited Yasukuni, including Yasuhiro Ozato, a senior vice environment minister, and a parliamentary vice-minister in the education ministry[iv]. And on February 18, 2015, Abe defended his visit in 2013 to Yasukuni by saying it was natural for Japan’s leaders to honor their war dead.

The book link: Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women

At Yasukuni, there is a table of ultranationalists passing out literature in Japanese that spreads their belief that the surviving military sex slaves are liars and that other so-called atrocities committed by Japanese military were fabricated. It is known that these right-wingers are sometimes violent. Our raised eyebrows at their literature probably gave us away that we were on the other end of the spectrum. They quickly deduced that we were activists for victims of military human rights abuses. One young Japanese man began to circle us with a video camera. I shielded my face. Three more including a young woman began to descend closer on us. We managed to get away.

At every turn in the shrine, the monuments confirm the discriminatory attitudes towards other ethnic groups and affirm that the war was a good war. Statues of a bronze horse, a German Shepherd, and carrier pigeons, that were messengers, honor the roles these animals played in wartime. Taiwanese and Korean people died as Japanese. Therefore their nationalities are not recognized, as they are still considered colonial subjects in this shrine, even though the colonial period ended in 1945. A monument was added in 2005 to the memory of Dr. Radha Binod Pal of India, who was one of the judges at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The official Yasukuni website says, “Among all the judges of the tribunal, he was the only one who submitted judgment which insisted all defendants were not guilty.”

To many Asians, the shrine represents a painful past inflicted by the Japanese military and colonial rule. How they feel would be akin to how Jewish people would feel if top Germans leaders were worshipping Nazi war criminals and those who orchestrated the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The matter of Yasukuni is a further humiliation and a slap in the face of the elderly sex slavery survivors and all former victims of Japanese wartime atrocities. It evokes the same horror as if hypothetically, the German president and parliament members still visited and worshipped at Hitler’s grave and even marked it as a national memorial.

Compare the Japanese leaders to former German chancellor Willy Brandt. The black and white photo[v] of Brandt during an official visit in Poland as chancellor of West Germany in 1971 shows him kneeling in front of the monument that honored Jewish Poles who had been executed by the Nazis.

The mesmerizing photo became an iconic image, symbolizing reconciliation between nations in the twentieth century, and won Brandt the admiration of the world. How uncharacteristic of a world leader to be showing that depth of humility and repentance. Would it be possible for the prime minister of Japan to kneel down at the site of a monument built to the memory of former military sex slaves and visibly show deep contrition for the military sex slavery and other wartime atrocities?

That day would bring healing.

My First Encounter with a Former Soldier

At Yasukuni, in the military and war museum, we ran into a slight man with a baseball cap on top of his speckled grey hair and silver rimmed glasses. He was a former soldier who appeared to be in his eighties. He first tapped me on the shoulder and proudly pointed to the black and white photograph of the soldiers in Nanking–soldiers with guns–and he said slowly with a firm tone and deliberately, facing me with shoulders back and with a glint in his eyes, that he was there.

When asked about ianfu (comfort women), his eyes widened, as if he were jolted by a sudden rush of electricity. He turned away and mumbled something about how the nurses were well taken care of. I looked at him trying to meet his eyes. But he kept turning away while clutching his hat with both hands and stepped away from me. I continued to engage him with the help of Tim, our translator, who had warned not to mention ianfu to any of the soldiers. I said ianfu again in case he did not hear me. He kept walking and waved his hand as I said ianfu yet again. Our friend and translator, Tim, a Canadian journalist, looked sheepish. The soldier dashed down the museum stairs at Yasukuni.

Later, Tim said the more effective way would have been to draw him into a longer conversation and then ask the questions. Of course that was the common sense thing to do. It was horrible to pounce on him with that question. He could have been struggling with his own demons over his actions during the war.

There was another World War II veteran at Yasukuni. This man told us the military comfort women wanted compensation money, alluding that they were prostitutes who were mad about being unpaid. Another Japanese man in his forties, a right-wing activist against building another war memorial outside of Yasukuni, told me that there was no evidence that women were forced to be military sex slaves. It was like meeting a Nazi veteran who said the Holocaust never happened.

Book link: Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women.


[i] Families of the War Bereaved Society Office was founded by grieving families after World War II. The group is supportive of the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

[ii] Emperor Meiji of Japan was emperor from 1867 to 1912 and under his reign he helped to modernise Japan and established a powerful army and navy.

[iii] Peoples’ Daily, “Lawsuits launched against Japan’s PM for shrine visit,” November 1, 2001, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200111/01/eng20011101_83674.html.

[iv] Asahi Shimbun. October 17, 2014. ‘Abe makes symbolic offering to Yasukuni, likely to forgo autumn festival visit’. http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201410170029

[v] http://arts.cuhk.edu.hk/NanjingMassacre/NMB&J.html 

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