The Prime Minister, The Past, The War, The Shrine and What Is Said In The Unsaid

Staging Showa Era soldiers at Yasukuni Shrine this year, on August 15th

Under the bright and sweltering sun in Japan yesterday (August 15th), the controversial shrine of Yasukuni in Tokyo again received nonstop ordinary citizens’ visits from morning until sunset to mark the 68th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Also, as every year, not far from the shrine, an estimated 200 political activists from the Far Left group Han Tennosei Undo Renraku-kai, (反天皇制運動連絡会) or the “Anti-Emperor of Japan activists,” who believe that Japan’s surrender should have been the fall of its emperor, participated to a protest march in the streets of Tokyo protested by approximatively  40 to 100 Japanese nationalists who may have been from the Zaitoku-kai, (在日特権を許さない市民の会) or the “Citizens’ Group Opposed to Special Privileges given to the Zainichi (Koreans),” (long-term Korean or North Korean residents in Japan,) dispersed and potentially disguised under a group they called the “Rekishi Kenkyu-kai,” (歴史研究会) or the “History Investigation Group.” The Japanese police PR office could not release the exact number of elite police forces present at today’s  Anti-Emperor demo, but it was believed that  more than a thousand of super-well-equipped police officers were running around to protect the demonstrators from the pro-emperor activists.

August 15th 1945 was Japan’s official surrender. Six days after American aircrafts had dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6th) and on Nagasaki (August 9th), Emperor Hirohito announced over the radio that the country would lay down its arms and accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration unconditionally. Over 2 million Japanese including civilians died during World War II and over 10 million  Chinese people are estimated to have lost their lives during the same period.

For some Japanese people this day marks the the beginning of peace, and for others it marks the humiliation of losing the war against the western allies.

“Today is the day the Japanese people suffered the humiliation of losing the war against the western allies. It’s the anniversary of the end the war,” A former yakuza boss said as he woke up yesterday morning. “Let’s pray for those who fought to protect the Japanese nation.” He added.

Anti-Japanese Emperor activists carry the image of the Japanese emperor with a skeleton body.

Since the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party of Japan) came back to power last year under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is trying to change the current pacifist Constitution in order to empower Japan’s defense military forces, a shift to the right by the new Cabinet is increasingly raising fears among Japan’s neighbors. It’s “a dangerous revival of its military past,” the Chinese media reported.

Japanese Nationalists’ expressing hostility towards the anti-Imperial left wing protestors

“If Japan had to go on war, I would fight it to protect my country with no hesitation,” Keinosuke Nakai, 42, a member of the Hinomaru Tomo no Kai, a Japanese nationalist group, told JSRC at a meeting held at the Daisuisendo Kaikan bld’s 4th floor, two steps away from the ultra leftist group’s meeting room filled with about 200 activists, where no photos and no footages of the meeting was allowed to be taken. The tension was palpable. In the room on the right side on the same floor, a man who appeared to be a leader said, “Today is the commemoration of Japan’s loss of the war. But remember, next time Japan will win the war.”  He was applauded by his audience of about 30 nationalists.

The Far Left Group and the Nationalists met in the same building in the same floor!
The Far Left Group on the left and the Nationalists on the right, they met in the same building on the same floor!

In Seoul on Thursday, the South Korean President Park Geun Hye urged Japanese politicians to show “brave leadership” in “healing wounds of the past,” at a speech she gave during a ceremony marking the Korean National Liberation Day, as Japan’s 35-years occupation period from 1910 to 1945 ended.

In Tokyo the same morning, Internal Affairs and Communication Minister Yoshitaka Shindo and state Minister in charge of North Korea’s past abductions of Japanese nationals, reportedly visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for the 68th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in WW II.

Instead of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly visited the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo, where he laid flowers for unidentified Japanese people who died overseas during WWII. He also met with the visiting chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Mendez, and agreed with him that Japan and the United States should strengthen bilateral ties as China increases its presence in the South China and East China seas.

Although Prime Minister Abe did not go to the controversial shrine in person this year to avoid further issues with China and South Korea, Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency reported that this morning’s visits by the two Cabinet ministers will “further harm mutual trust between Japan and its neighbors.” The Chinese view is that Japan should/must reflect upon its history of aggression, and sincerely apologize to the victims of its military past. Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to about 2.5 million Japanese people, mostly soldiers killed in past wars, (not only WW II), is viewed by neighboring Asian countries as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Fourteen Convicted Class-A war criminals are also enshrined there. But the Japanese people who pay a visit to the war dead do not necessarily honor war criminals. They might pray for one or two of their ancestors who died at war. But in a statement released by China’s Foreign Ministry, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin and Japanese Ambassador to China, Masato Kitera, strongly protested the visits to the controversial shrine in Tokyo by the two Cabinet ministers. China holds that “no matter in what form or capacity Japanese leaders visit the war-linked shrine, it is essentially an attempt to deny Japan’s history of militarism and invasion of its Asian neighbors.” The statement said.

The Japanese police force trying to maintain order during the Anti-Emperor demo.

For experts on the matter, the problem is the shrine. The first Japanese Prime Minister who visited Yasukuni was PM Takeo Miki, on the anniversary of WW II, in 1975. On October 17, 1978, Yasukuni began to honor the wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo and 13 other Class-A war criminals. The first Premier who made an official visit since the end of WW II was Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, on August 15th, 1985. One of the most controversial PM who systematically visited the shrine was Junichiro Koizumi, from 2001 to 2006. Author and Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, Jeffrey Kingston, writing about the annual visits noted, “The only way to end the controversy is to impose a moratorium on visits to Yasukuni by any serving Cabinet ministers. Officials should honor Japan’s war dead at the official cemetery at Chidorigafuchi, not at a privately run propaganda center.”

The police squad reached a huge number.

This also marked the first year in over a decade that the current Prime Minister did not apologize for Japan’s aggression in Asia nor solemnly swear that Japan would never wage war again. As often is the case in Japan, it’s in what is unsaid that speaks the loudest.

Jake Adelstein contributed to this article

Yasukuni Shrine: The Nation’s Pacifying Shrine That Angers Other Nations

Memo: JSRC is neither opposed to the existence of Yasukuni Jinja nor does it support the views of the group currently operating the shrine or Japanese nationalists.  We felt that it would be useful to get a glimpse at why some people go visit the shrine and who those people are. We apologize if anecdotally shedding light on the cultural background offends you. 

Yasukuni Shrine. 靖国神社.

靖 (Yasu) means “peaceful” “国” (Kuni) means “Nation”. “神社” (Jinja) means “Shrine.”

The Shrine of The Peaceful Nation. And it’s true, Japan is now a peaceful nation, but this shrine in which some of Japan’s war criminals are enshrined and which honors the war dead in general–this shrine is a perennial source of international and national conflict.

“There are three kinds of people who visit Yasukuni shrine every year on August 15th:  There are the opponents to the controversial visit, the ultra nationalists and those who really come to greet the spirit of the dead.”

 A visitor sitting on a bench aside the main alley on the way to Yasukuni Shrine, said this on the day officials of the Japanese government made their first visit to the shrine since the DPJ took power in 2009.

We tried to meet and understand who are the other people going.

In August,  thousands of people visited the controversial shrine of Yasukuni to celebrate the 67th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War and the beginning of peace in Japan. Both interpretations were true.

Thousands of Japanese paid a visit to the Yasukuni shrine yesterday.

Yasukuni jinja, or the “shrine that pacifies the nation” is famous for honoring the war dead, but the political controversy starts at the point where convicted war criminals have also been enshrined in the same place: after being convicted and sentenced to death by the military tribunal of the Allied Forces, the spirits of more than a thousand Japanese war criminals, and later on 14 “class A” war criminals have been enshrined at Yasukuni in 1969 and in 1978.

"Let us mourn the souls of the heroic departed" (Left flag), "We are opposed to replace a new facility to mourn the dead" Fukushima prefecture shinto and political association (Right flag)

The visits made by a big number of Japanese politicians, including prime ministers have raised the concerns of the international community, especially the governments of China and Korea, which were invaded by Japan and view the Yasukuni shrine as the symbol of Japanese Militarism and a strong support for nationalism. The most widely reported visits in the media were those of Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (Liberal Democratic Party), in power from 2001 to 2006, who repeatedly visited the shrine on an official level.

Old men exhibiting their imperial military costumes at the entrance gate of Yasukuni shrine.

This year, the visits by Transport Minister Yuichiro Hata and State Minister in charge of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese Nationals Jin Matsubara, marks the first controversial visits by Democratic Party of Japan’s Cabinet members since they came in power in 2009, despite Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s demand to his cabinet members “not to make an official visit” to the war heroes’ shrine. “The visits may be an indication that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s power is waning,” The Japan Times noted.

"idealism without illusions", Japanese cookies sold for 630 yen at the Yasukuni shrine presents shop.

The visits made by the two Cabinet Members this Wednesday spark the diplomatic tensions already palpable after the official visit by the President of South Korea Lee Myung Bak to dispute the Takeshima islands claimed by Japan.

An official ceremony began under a white tent around 10:30 am with the broadcast of the Japanese national anthem and Emperor Hirohito’s speech broadcasted on national radio on August 15th 1945 to announce the end of the war and Japan’s defeat. Further down the road, closer to the shrine, white doves were thrown in the air and filled the blue sky.


Back in the white tent, various guest speakers and old timers spoke about their experience of the war standing on a podium facing a number of  senior citizens wearing the black outfits of mourners. At various occasions, a Japanese man in his fifties in the crowd screamed insanities about other Asian people, but  the most disturbing things was that nobody around him reacted to his remarks. He was finally taken away by force from the tent by two men in black.

Two members of the parliament were also part of the ceremony: Mrs. Eriko Yamatani, known for her views on Japan’s territorial claims of the Tsushima Island, owned by 0.007 percent of Korean residents, and Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in charge from 2006 to 2007, and current member of the House of Representatives, was part of the ceremony, visiting the shrine on an official level, unlike his 2006’s visit, which raised concerns from the Chinese and South Korean governments at the time. “Like all of you here, I was blessed with hearing the voice of the emperor 67 years ago. And we gave up our weapons and surrendered. And since that time, we have walked a long hard road.” He said during his speech, before disappearing in a car. It was hard to tell if he actually visited the shrine or not.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2006-2007)

 Under the shades of the old trees aligned along the way to the shrine, the grand son of deceased Tsuekichi Ishikawa is now 62 years’ old and sits on a tatami mat with two or three friends, eating odango rice and red beans sweets. His ancestor was a professional ranked soldier at the Yokosuka Navy. He is the current owner of a hundred years old imperial banner, which used to be carried by his grand father when he served in the Japanese Navy.

"This flag is hundred years old", the grand son of Captain Tsuekichi Ishikawa said.

The grand son of deceased Captain Ishikawa was until recently the manager of pro wrestler Kozo Takeda, and he comes to Yasukuni shrine on August 15th, every year: “I come here to commemorate what people commonly refer as the ‘end of the war’, but in fact we can call it the ‘loss of the war,’ I think it makes more sense.” He said exhibiting a rare copy of the design layout of the famous battleship Yamato gunkan, which sank on April 7th, 1945 near Okinawa, where it was sent to protect the island from invasion by the American Navy and fought until destroyed.

A precious copy of the blueprint of the Yamato battle ship that sank in April 1945, while protecting Okinawa from the invaders.
Captain Tsuekichi Ishikawa, his entire family and the mayor of his town, Hitachi Omiya city when he returned safely from war.

Kazuhiko Ikezoe (53) is a judo teacher, but he used to be a salary man at Honda: “Yasukuni is the place where the dead souls come to meet the living people. If you want to meet your ancestor, you can go to Yasukuni shrine, his bones may not be there, but it was decided that on August 15th, we can all meet up in Yasukuni shrine, living and dead ones. The souls meet up there. I came to visit the spirit of my uncle who died in the Philippines.” He explained.

At another corner of the shrine, a group of nostalgic elderly people gathered together in a circle, singing the war songs “Yokaren no uta” (song of the Japanese air force trainees) also known as “Wakawashi no uta” (song of the young eagles) on the background tunes of an old harmonica. It is a title song used in a propaganda film to recruit Japanese youth for the air force, the song came out in 1943.

Old timers singing "the song of the Japanese air force eagles"

After the recent setbacks created by the South Korean president Lee Myung Bak’s request for his nation to receive “official apologies” from the Japanese emperor for the atrocities of the Japanese occupation, a reporter in his early thirties from a major Japanese newspaper investigating what the foreigners attending the memorial said that if he could express his personal views, he would say that “it is quite disturbing that the Korean president makes such official demand to the emperor of Japan.”

Japanese nationalism is not yet buried nor is it a ghost.  Yasukuni Jinja symbolizes Japanese nationalism and Japan’s imperial hubris to many. What it symbolizes to those who visit it is very different from person to person.