I stood at the gateway to Yasukuni Shrine wondering how to feel. This was the place that had been the focus of more then a few news stories and cause of several diplomatic crisis between Japan and the rest of the world. Yasukuni, the shrine where the souls of millions of Japanese people ‘dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan’ (read: mainly soldiers) are interred. So what’s the hubbub about? All countries have similar memorials, why is this one so special? These were the questions that ran through my head as I finally stepped through and on to the grounds.
The weather was hot and muggy, almost to the point of pulling me down to the ground. To be honest, visiting Yasukuni Shrine wasn’t on my list of things to do in Tokyo but when I got off the subMaway near the Karrimor distributor (so I could exchange my faulty merchandise) and saw the signs it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
A guard stood to one side of the main shrine glaring at all who came by. Not once during the entire time I was there did the scowl leave his face or the aggression leave his body. Everyone was an enemy, even those who came to pay their respects. Those who lingered too long he paid special attention to. A European tourist stepped up to the shrine, camera in hand trying to take a picture, and was shoed away with a growl and severe wave of the hand. I found that odd considering there were no signs that said anything about photography.
After he noticed me standing dead center about 20 meters from the shrine, staring and thinking, he couldn’t help but cast negative energy in my direction. I shrugged it off and got back to the questions dancing through my mind.
So why do people get angry about Yasukuni Shrine? To many of you outside Southeast Asia the name is most likely unknown but in this part of the world it is a catchphrase that can start a fight. Memorials for dead soldiers are common throughout the world. A country that doesn’t honor those who died for it won’t remain a country for long.
My mind slipped to the atrocities of war, the raping, the pillaging, and the wanton mass murder that sometimes results from the stress of combat. The first conflict that sprang to my mind as I stood there in the oppressive heat was Vietnam. As a kid in school I was inundated with all the things the U.S military had done in that country, both good and bad. Images of mutilated bodies, stories of entire villages wiped out, Hollywood movies about what happened, I couldn’t escape it. So why doesn’t the world get all up in arms and complain if a president visits the memorial in Washington D.C? The world seems fine with us having that memorial but when a Japanese politician visits Yasukuni Shrine the protests ring loud around the world.
What has Japan done in it’s past that was so horrible that would reverberate to this day? The incident that came to mind was Nanking. I won’t go into details but let’s just say things got really, really bad. But then again things got really, really bad in Vietnam as well…so what’s the difference?
That question rolled over and over in my head. What’s the difference? Why is it okay for one country to have a memorial honoring dead soldiers but not another? Why, why, why?
The guard continued to glare in my direction, occasionally leaving his station to stalk around the front of the shrine. He must have wondered what I was doing standing there. It had been almost 20 minutes and I hadn’t moved a foot. I was just staring at the building…
Then my brain caught on to something. Even though the U.S had done many unforgivable things during the Vietnam War, in the end (and with our feet dragging), we admitted the horrible things our military had done. Along with honoring our soldiers and their good deeds we also recognized our soldiers and their bad deeds. There was no cherry coating on Vietnam, just the truth (mostly), and everyone in the U.S knew it.
Japan, I think, in the eyes of the world has yet to do this in regards to many wars it participated in. A sweet cherry glaze covers all the conflicts they have been through and the world is frustrated with that. Yasukuni Shrine and what it represents (honoring those who died for their country) is a good thing (not counting the 1,068 Class B and C war criminals and 14 Class A war criminals), but the refusal of the government to recognize the bad with the good destroys everything. Some might say, ‘but Japan has already apologized for this and that…’
Really? Take a look at the education system and tell me if they really meant the words they said? What a country teaches its children is a true reflection of what a government thinks.
War is brutal, no doubt about it. Many heroic as well as horrific deeds are committed in the heat of the moment. To acknowledge one and ignore the other is unforgivable, especially to those who were wronged.
Now I must state for those of you who might be getting angry that I’m slamming Japan pretty hard, that I don’t think that Japan is 100% guilty nor other countries 100% innocent. There is a lot of grey area and I’m no expert on war, history, law, or politics. I do know how I feel and what I think and as I stood there, on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine, that was my conclusion. Sometime in the future I might learn something new and my opinion might change, but that is then and this is now.
I left Yasukuni Shrine without paying respect to those interred there. Among the 2,500,000 I know there are many who are deserving but…well… it’s that ‘but’ that stopped me from walking up those few wooden stairs and saying a prayer. It was a tough moment in my life, deciding where to stand on such an issue. I like Japan, that’s why I lived here for almost 6 years, but there are some things that just aren’t right, at least not yet.