There is one place in Japan where the emperor dare not go. It is a supreme irony, because it is the place where he would be most welcomed and his prime ministers and members of the cabinet often visit.
Neither is distance or geography a factor. His imperial home is close by, and on August 15 he will be just 600m meters from it across the road at the Nihon Budokan hall in Tokyo, at the official ceremony marking the surrender of WWII.
But that small distance represents conflicting views of Japan’s past and future.
The place he dare not go is Yasukuni shrine, a toxic mix of myth and militarism that acts like a canker
gnawing the vitals of the Japanese body politic. Even the name is strangely at odds with its function. Yasukuni means peaceful nation.
Emperors have visited. Hirohito paid his respects at Yasukuni eight times after the war but made his final visit in 1975, three years before the souls of war criminals were enshrined.
Akihito has not visited Yasukuni since succeeding his father as emperor in 1989.
Every nation has a right to honor its war dead. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier holds a special place in the hearts of people regardless of nationality. But this is not Yasukuni’s role. There are no bodies in the shrine. There is, just two kilometers up the road, Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, where the remains of the WWII dead are buried. It has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The shrine’s post-1945 association with wartime state Shinto, a fundamentalist version of the creed, was once considered a joke. A quixotic display of people dressed in funny uniforms who made the Flat Earth Society seem like visionaries. They had no place in modern camera-producing, car-making, salary-man Japan. They were an embarrassing remnant of history, a mutant political gene, followers of another Sun. Or so the story went.
.But in 1978 the souls of 14 Class-A War Criminals (those who plan and conduct wars of aggression) seven of whom were hanged after the Tokyo trials, were enshrined.
This was was an incredible victory for the militarists but it had to be kept quiet, at least initially. The news was not publicized until 1979.
Because Yasukuni is privately funded (by the Association of Wartime Bereaved Families) the government was able to deny any official role. But in a country where one party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been in power for all but four years of the past sixty, their deniability has been as audacious as it is breathtaking.
The shrine occupies prime real estate in the heart of Tokyo. Its existence and manicured grass, elaborate 19th century architecture, multi-million dollar museum annex, its cherry-tree lined avenue, bears audacious testimony to the power of its patrons.
Its Book of Souls record the names, origins and places of death of approximately 2.5 million mostly Japanese men, and some women, who died in wars since the shrine was built in 1869.
State Shinto refers to them as “kami” (divine, godlike) as in kamikaze. The souls are worshipped as deities.
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 seem strangely in the shadows.
Tojo 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.
General Iwane Matsui, commander-in-chief of the Nanking army, and his chief-of-staff, Akira Mutou, deserve special mention.
Both were executed on Dec. 23 , 1948 after being found guilty of perpetuating the massive slaughter of civilians.
They were far from contrite.
After the massacre, Matsui erected a large white statue in the seaside spa town of Atami, his birthplace. The statue depicted Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy looking benigngly in the direction of Nanking.
The horrendous extent of the rampage of Matsui’s forces is still denied by many in Japan today. Yasukuni is the ultimate symbol of those in denial and strengthens their determination to cover up.
The shrine is not just about the hijacking of history; it is about setting the agenda.
It is about keeping the flame of militarism alive. Sadly, and shamefully, it is working.
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a nationalist who wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to give its military a bigger role overseas, voiced support this year for altering a 1993 apology issued by the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, for the forced recruitment of the so-called comfort women
In 1995, the then socialist prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, issued a more general expression of remorse over Japan’s wartime conduct.
The Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura wants to scrap this apology immediately.
Abe recently questioned whether Japan’s wartime conduct in Asia could be described as aggression.
Asked in parliament if he would consider revising the Murayama statement, he replied: “The definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community.
“Things that happened between nations will look differently depending on which side you view them from.”
Total, absolute and utter nonsense.
Can you image the global reaction if Angela Merkel addressed the Bundestag and said something similar about German wartime aggression? Any Japanese politician who says there was a massacre in Nanjing will be in the center of a storm of protests. Their career would be over. The comparison with Germany should again be borne in mind. A German denying the Holocaust would be ostracised and face criminal charges. A Japanese minister admitting the Nanking Massacre would be shunned.
The museum adjoining the shrine is an insult to humanity.
It refers to the total of 1,068 tried for war crimes after World War II 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 (the Japanese refereed to WWII as the Struggle for the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere) was necessitated by history and was sought after by the countries of Asia.” Complete claptrap.
In a denial that is criminal both in intent and fact, the shrine’s propaganda adds that the “comfort women” – women forced into sex slavery to satisfy Japanese soldiers – were not coerced “by the Japanese empire”.
You can also see a depiction of the battle for Tokyo Bay. Except there wasn’t one. Myth.
There is a reason why Japanese children know so little about their country’s past, there is a reason why the Nanjing Massacre is barely mentioned let alone acknowledged in Japan. There is a reason why the emperor will not visit. Yasukuni is an expression of the forces at work that deny Japan’s military aggression and want to shape a different, more belligerent future, for the country. It is not just a shrine, looking at the past through a militarist prism; it represents a lurking threat. A clear and present danger.
Its influence is working. Look at the Japanese cabinet.
Thirteen members support Nihon Kaigi, a nationalist think-tank that rejects what it terms Japan’s “apology diplomacy” for its wartime misdeeds.
When a cabinet member says that Tokyo could learn about costitutional reform from the Nazis to carry out a massive program of rearmanent by under the radar, as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso did earlier this month, then the influence of Yasukuni is undeniable.
Yasukuni wants Japan to dramatically change direction. If the emperor, or any emperor, crosses the road, they will have succeeded.
Tom Clifford can be reached at: email@example.com.