Japanese Lib

The Issue of War: States, Societies, and the Far Eastern Conflict of 1941–1945

by Christopher Thorne
Oxford University Press, 364 pp., $22.95

Yasuhiro Nakasone
Yasuhiro Nakasone; drawing by David Levine

Last August, only a month after Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, the Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro also decided to pay tribute to the war dead. This sparked off anti-Japanese riots in several parts of China. It does not take much to provoke Chinese into making anti-Japanese gestures—these are, as it were, part of the national ethos. But this time, it seemed, Nakasone had really gone too far. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto sanctuary in Tokyo, where more than two million “heroic souls,” including those of General Tojo Hideki and thirteen other Class-A war criminals, are enshrined. He paid his respects to these souls in his official capacity as prime minister and thereby broke a major postwar taboo. Previous prime ministers had been there too, to console the Japanese war dead by offering them sprigs from a sacred tree, but they had gone as private citizens.

The Yasukuni shrine is not just a Japanese version of Arlington or the Cenotaph in London. It is also rather more sinister than Bitburg. Tucked away behind the cherry trees, their branches festooned with paper tags bearing the names of battleships and Imperial Army regiments, there is a handsome memorial dedicated to the Kempeitai, the dreaded military police, known for their highly developed torturing skills. Also on display is part of a steam train that opened the infamous Burma railroad. Like so many other symbols from Japan’s recent past, Yasukuni sets off a dangerous complex of emotions—bitter, nostalgic, embarrassing, sad, painful, but above all, like the whole history of Japan’s war, undigested—memories to be circumvented or defused like landmines rather than faced. The war is remembered, if at all, as a cataclysmic natural event, somewhat like an earthquake, of which the primary victims were the innocent Japanese people, first led astray by bad militarists and then nuclear bombed by bad Americans.

The Yasukuni shrine was established in 1869 on orders of the Meiji emperor, to console the spirits of those who had sacrificed themselves to return political power from the Tokugawa shoguns to the emperor. In our century, when notions of racial superiority and glorious militarism rapidly reached a hysterical pitch, Yasukuni became a war shrine to the master race. It symbolized, in other words, all the bad things postwar Japanese were supposed to forget as quickly as possible and keep away from their children, lest nasty things happen all over again.

Today’s young Japanese, pampered by postwar parental indulgence and coddled in soft high-tech affluence, have, it appears, indeed forgotten about traditional Japanese “ethics” (like Yasukuni, another code word relating to the wicked past). Emperor worship, the Yamato spirit, the way of the samurai, all these are, many say, just empty phrases to the modern Japanese. This lack of moral fiber, of Japanese spirit, is precisely what worries Prime Minister Nakasone. Modernization has made the Japanese rich, but spiritually empty. (This was,…

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