The Poppy, the Yasukuni Shrine and Remembering 

Photo Source Ari Helminen | CC BY 2.0

It’s that time of year again–when the British remember those who have died fighting for Britain in modern times. It’s a sinister spectacle. It’s in-your-face British militarism, at a time of in-your-face British war crimes. It’s a war dance. Red poppies are everywhere in the streets and media. What looks like symbolic blood is held up high and the British genuflect and chant. The dead and the half dead are on parade. They’re not protesting but celebrating killing and being killed for the queen. The promise is more war and more dead. And Britain loves it.

The rest of the world doesn’t have a say. Targets rarely do. However there’s a parallel out there which is instructive. And could possibly shame and even reverse Britain’s religion of war. The parallel case is Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine.

In the middle of Tokyo, a few hundred meters from the imperial palace, there’s a discreet and aesthetically pleasing shinto temple dedicated to those who died fighting for the Japanese emperor between the years 1867-1951: the Yasukuni Shrine. It operates under the radar screen most of the time. But in the last two decades it hit the headlines when Japan’s neoliberal leaders (Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe) began to visit and otherwise connect with the shrine. It was and is an open display of solidarity with imperial Japan’s war dead.

Japan’s New Right don’t wear poppies like their British counterparts but their message is the same: it’s great to kill and die for the Empire. Unlike the British, however, the Japanese aren’t getting off scot-free with this blatant act of revisionism. The victims of Japanese imperialism protested against this in-your-face embrace of the Yasukuni Shrine. And Japan’s born again imperialists had to back off. In no uncertain terms, China and the two Koreas opposed this new Japanese attitude towards Japan’s old wars. The past and present victims of British imperialism should do likewise.

And before someone objects to the association of British wars and Japanese wars – compare Britain’s present military campaign in the Middle East with Japan’s old military campaign on mainland Asia. Like Japan’s actions in Asia (starting with Korea – 1905) Britain’s actions in Asia (starting with Afghanistan – 2001) are rolling affairs, involving one war of aggression after another. Moreover, the end point of Japan’s past invasions was World War. Similarly, the end point of Britain’s present invasions looks more and more like World War.

The difference today is that Japan’s victims make Japan feel shame and guilt, whereas Britain’s victims do not or cannot. Japan’s New Right (Shinzo Abe, etc.) hesitates before pursuing policies that recall the wars of the past. China and the Koreas will never let them forget. Britain, on the other hand, forgets everything – even though it says that it is remembering everything. And so it blindly pursues war, again and again.

Before it is too late. Before the next British world war kicks off for real – Britain’s victims should follow the example of the Chinese and Koreans. And force a real remembrance upon the guilty Empire. Ireland and India, for example, could start the process. And they could continue it by speaking up on behalf of the voiceless Afghanis and Arabs.

Alas – who are we kidding – the victors write history, while the vanquished live history. Maybe Britain will only remember its victims when it is vanquished.


Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.