To emphasize your dedication to peace and revulsion for war, the most effective way is not, surely, to offer a prayer at the place of sacred enshrinement of a murderous gang of fascist warmongers. Yet that is precisely what the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, did when he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine this week.
Set aside questions of Japanese contrition, or lack of it, over Pearl Harbor. That is an understandable American concern, yet even it was lost amid the convoluted reporting about the Yasukuni visit’s dubious motives and diplomatic consequences.
This is an Asian affair. It is about bayoneting babies in the single worst atrocity in the World War 2 era: the Nanking Massacre or, especially in view of its horrific violence against women, the Rape of Nanking. After overwhelming the Chinese capital in mid-December of 1937, the Japanese army ran amok in a six-week rampage of rape, torture and slaughter. The death toll: At least 370,000 Chinese men, women, children, babies and the elderly, nearly all civilians. Up to 80,000 women were raped, and then usually murdered.
Nanking unmentioned in most mainstream reporting that I saw is the specter that haunts this week’s shameful episode of official Japanese arrogance. Only in 1995 did the Japanese Diet (parliament) get around to recording “deep remorse” about Nanking, but noted the “context of colonial rules and acts of aggression worldwide”. The word “apologize” went unuttered.
True, the British in India, Americans in the Philippines, and especially the Belgians in the Congo, committed appalling acts of brutality against native populations. Does that excuse Japan for not only imitating them, but going a lot further? The fact is that Koizumi, and the 101 sheep-like politicians, 93 from his own ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who followed him obediently to Yasukuni the following day, appear to lack any comprehension of Asian memories of Japanese wartime brutality. Their visits demonstrate their poor understanding not just of their neighbors, but of the world. As Americans say: They just don’t get it.
At Yasukuni, amid some graceful 19th century Japanese architecture, cherry blossom trees and monuments, is the Book of Souls. Here are recorded the names, origins and places of death of 2,466,532 (at last count) Japanese men, and some women, who died in wars since the shrine was built in 1869.
Most were simple combatants caught in the horrors of war, but important to note is that in the Shinto religion the shrine represents, war dead are known as “kami”. This is the same word that appears in the kamikaze appellation of suicide bombers in World War 2, and means divine or god-like. The dead’s souls, therefore, are not just remembered, but worshipped as deities.
A matter conspicuous by its absence in much of the Yasukuni reporting, was the true nature of the “14 Class A war criminals” mentioned in passing as also enshrined in Yasukuni, which, in an excruciating irony, means “peaceful nation”. Some references were made to General Hideki Tojo, Japan’s prime minister from 1941-44, as one of the 14 inscribed in the Book of Souls, but the other 13 went unmentioned. This was a discraceful omission.
Tojo, known as “the Razor” and a pre-war member of the Black Dragon Society, a fascist assassination gang, was tried in 1948 for war crimes on 54 counts, found guilty, and hanged. Only afterwards was it revealed that he had approved anatomical experiments on prisoners without anesthetic. Another six were found guilty and hanged, four received life imprisonment, one got 20 years, and two died before sentencing. Although their names mean little to non-historians, their terrible deeds are still reviled around the world. (More on them later.)
It was October 17 that Koizumi chose to make his fifth visit to Yasukuni since taking office in 2001 more visits than any other prime minister, and five more than Emperor Akihito who, unlike his predecessors, has made not one appearance at Yasukuni because of its connections. The Koizumi visit was the first day of the shrine’s annual autumn festival, but also the anniversary of the day the 14 convicted war criminals were sanctified at the temple in 1978.
This is significant, because that decision was an example of overt Japanese military nationalism. Ever since the end of World War 2 the shrine’s association with neo-fascist Shinto militarism has been notorious. Enshrining the 14 was a victory for the nationalists. Proof, if any were needed, of its dishonorable nature: it was kept secret for months.
Koizumi and his fellow LDP shrine visitors declare that it is no business of other nations to comment on or even note their religious and patriotic observances. The prime minister’s Yasukuni visit, therefore, could be likened to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder paying his respects at monuments to Himmler and Goebbels, or even Hitler himself. But imagine the outrage around the world. Remember too the wrath heaped upon President Ronald Reagan when in 1984 he visited a graveyard in Bitburg, Germany, where among others were buried members of the Nazi SS murder brigade.
What of the 14 war criminals honoured by Koizumi’s prayerful presence? Two were General Iwane Matsui, commander-in-chief of the Nanking army, and his chief-of-staff, Akira Mutou, both of whom knew about and tolerated the hideous slaughter perpetrated by their men. These deeds were documented and photographed, and have been belatedly shown.
After the war and before his trial, Matsui erected a large white statue along the coast of the Izu peninsula south of Tokyo in the seaside spa town of Atami, his birthplace. The statue depicted Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, for God’s sake. She was built facing Nanking.
There, Matsui permitted his Japanese soldiers, after the city’s surrender, to kill and kill until they were exhausted. Some felt compelled to take rests before they began again. They wielded Japanese martial swords, machetes and bayonets, shot from rifles, pistols and machine guns, burned and buried people alive, and gloried in hangings, decapitations, and strangulations. Heavily pregnant women were raped and their fetuses cut out, sometimes for display to senior officers, who in one recorded case met the sight with gusts of laughter. Soldiers competed in the numbers they slew in a day, and at least one Japanese newspaper reported such rivalry blow by deadly blow.
The world cannot be expected to forget, or forgive, these events. But what do Koizumi and his political cronies know of the world?
Also hanged in 1948 and now enshrined in Yasukuni, is General Heitaro Kimura, officer-in-charge of the Burma railway whose soldiers with his knowledge and approval grossly mistreated, overworked and starved to death British and American prisoners of war in Burma and on the River Kwai.
Another sanctified figure familiar to British and Americans would be General Kenji Doihara, army commander in the horrors of Japanese-occupied Singapore in 1944-45. Before that as a major-general in the Japanese air force, Doihara gave formal approval of the Pearl Harbor air raid, and for his mischief and malfeasance in China in the 1930s, Doihara was nicknamed “Lawrence of Manchuria” after the British Arabist.
Many nations have their war shrines and museums, but surely Japan’s Yasukuni, and the adjoining Yushukan museum, are more unapologetically militaristic? The museum refers to the total of 1,068 tried for war crimes after World War 2 as “martyrs,” who were “cruelly and unjustly tried by a sham tribunal of the allied forces [the international court] of the US, England (sic), Netherlands, China and others. These martyrs are also the kami of Yasukuni”.
It adds that “Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and was sought after by the countries of Asia.” Try telling that to the Koreans, Filipinos, and Chinese. And in a final, outrageous denial, the shrine’s propaganda adds that the “comfort women” Japanese and Asian women forced into prostitution to satisfy Japanese soldiers were not coerced “by the Japanese empire”. Then by whom?
Of course, we know the victor writes the history and administers the course of post-war justice. Often these are distorted by prejudice and dishonesty, but what nation in Asia wishes the Japanese had been the victors? Certainly not those who have rioted against them in Beijing, Jakarta, Manila, Hanoi and Seoul.
Unfortunately, the woeful lack of education that Japanese authorities have provided their schoolchildren for decades about the Pacific war has produced opinion now equally divided over Yasukuni and Koizumi’s visit. A new nation still knows almost nothing about Nanking. A proper apology and education are required. Their absence will be costly.
CHRISTOPHER REED lives in Japan. He can be reached at: email@example.com