The Duck of Minerva

Ruminations from Yasukuni

6 May 2008

While I was in Japan last week interviewing government officials about their “human security” foreign policy agenda, I visited the Yasukuni shrine. Readers may be aware that this memorial to modern-era Japanese war dead has been controversial in the region: victims of Japan’s imperial wars see it as a salute to war criminals, and the opposition in Japan considers any national monument to militarism a violation of the post-war constitution.

A Chinese documentary film about Yasukuni was released over the weekend in Tokyo amid stringent opposition from nationalists.

Most of the controversy focuses on the shrine itself, but I found Yushukan Museum much more disquieting. Although my guidebook told me that the shrine honors Japanese soldiers and civilians who died defending the Japanese empire, I found the museum focused on soldiers to the exclusion of civilians. Among the lauded artifacts is a steam locomotive from the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” built by Allied prisoners of war. And told through the lens of Japanese nationalism, the history of Japan’s imperial wars looks rather different. For exampe, here is how the siege of Nanking is described:

Yet not all of the warrior imagery seemed propagandistic. I found myself contemplating a bronze statue near the entrance to the museum.

This is not an image of self-serving militarism, but of just warriorhood: the young man with the sword is assisting an injured elder, and sheltering a mother with children; he is showing the younger boy how to behave correctly with a weapon.

One might argue that such representations have some place in an international society that places value on the protection of human life from the worst of what armies do.

At any rate, pure pacifism must be a hard sell in a society whose members still recall fighting in the last of Japan’s great wars. My brother and I noticed old Japanese men reading the placards with great solemnity.

For them – perhaps even for a younger generation inured to the horrors of battle, such memory-keeping is vital.

What struck me most tooling aroud Tokyo beyond the shrine was how quickly the Japanese remade themselves as a society after World War II, forsaking their former militarism. Today, the emphasis in Japanese culture is on courtesy and “cuteness” or kawaii. (For a scholarly treatment of kawaii, see Anne Allison’s work in Postcolonial Studies.)

It is as if Yushukan contains all those feelings that have been so self-consciously excised from the rest of society. Perhaps, in that sense, it plays a role of some value despite the arguments of its critics.