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The Wages of Guilt    1994

by Ian Buruma

"Memorials, Museums, and Monuments"  pp 221 -224


It is a peculiar concept of peace. The cherry blossom trees in front of the shrine bear white tags with the names of Imperial Army regiments and famous battleships. Behind the shrine is a stone monument in the shape of a globe, in memory of the Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the SS. Nearby is a long concrete slab pocked with holes, containing different-colored rocks from the battlefields of Leyte, Guadalcanal, Guam, and Wake Island. There is also a "Mother's Monument": a white marble sculpture resembling a deep throat with water gushing through. It is, so the inscription informs, "the image of mother in the minds of men who were dying of thirst."


Along the gravel path leading to the main shrine, several blue and-khaki trucks were parked, festooned with nationalist slogans. A wartime military march boomed from loudspeakers mounted on top. The trucks belonged to some of the extreme right-wing organizations that wished to restore the prewar order, what they called, before Hirohito's death, the Showa Restoration (Showa being the name of Hirohito's reign). Uniformed young men with shaven skulls barked in unison and bowed in the direction of the Imperial Palace.

In front of the museum is a well-maintained display of vintage machine guns, a World War II tank, a howitzer, a torpedo, and the first railway engine to pass along the Burma Railroad. This is what the museum pamphlet describes as "sacred ground." And the weapons on exhibit had been "used with love and care" by "the deities of the shrine." Their "sacred relics" are shown in the museum.


There, in the first room, the visitor is confronted by a large oil painting, in a heavy gilt frame, of Emperor Hirohito visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the 1930s. He is dressed in military uniform and flanked by bowing priests in white robes. A sacred sword is shown too, forged by priests attached to the shrine. And there are various items left by soldiers who fought in the wars against China and Russia, just before and after the turn of the century.


Other relics on display are a "human torpedo"--a steel sausage with enough room for one man, who would sacrifice his life by steering its explosive charge into an enemy ship. There are battle flags, signed by soldiers in their own blood, the names now barely more than faded brown smudges. There is a replica of a "cherry blossom" plane, used in kamikaze attacks. Letters from soldiers to their mothers or wives are preserved in glass cases. The torn, bloody shirt of a soldier who died in the Philippines is exhibited among the stained battle flags, as well as a cracked picture of his mother. which he had with him when he died.


There are more oil paintings, all in the same pompous nineteenth-century manner as the picture of the emperor at Yasukuni--paintings of Japanese troops at the Great Wall of China fraternizing with grateful Mongolians and paintings of human torpedoes or cherry blossom planes engaged in their fatal missions. There is a large model, resembling a miniature garden, depicting the hopeless battles in Burma and the Philippines, with little plastic suicide tanks rolling off felt cliffs. Much attention is paid to the hard plight of Japanese soldiers captured by the Soviets after the war and imprisoned in Siberian camps. And at the end of the exhibition is a glass case displaying, among other items, a Burmese flag presented to Japan by General Ne Win, the Burmese military dictator, who was trained in Japan before the war. It was given, so the text informs, by "one who

owes the liberation of his country to Japan." And President Sukarno of Indonesia left a stuffed bird of paradise as a token of his gratitude.

The texts between the exhibits, explaining the background of the war, are straight wartime propaganda. The annexation of Manchuria in 1931 was a necessary move to protect the Asian continent from Soviet Communism and Chinese rapaciousness. The war in China was inevitable, because Chinese rebels were being spurred into anti-Japanese activities by the British and the Americans. The war with America was a matter of national survival. And the suffering of Japanese POWs, as well as millions of others, at the hands of Communist regimes proved that Japan had been on the right side all along. In short, to quote from a history booklet sold at the museum bookshop, "the Greater East Asian War was not a ‘war of invasion,' but just the opposite: it was a holy war to liberate the world from Communism."


It is easy to conclude from all this that the Yasukuni war museum glorifies militarism. In fact, it is more complicated than that. What it glorifies in a quasi-religious manner is not belligerence or hatred, but self-sacrifice. The tone of the museum and indeed the entire shrine is summed up by a large bronze plaque put up by the Association to Honor the Special Attack Forces (kamikazes). It was unveiled in 1985, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Engraved in stylish characters are the words of Takeda Tsuneyoshi, president of the association: "Some six thousand men died in suicide attacks that were incomparable in their tragic bravery and struck terror in the hearts of our foes. The entire nation shed tears of gratitude for their unstinting loyalty and selfless sacrifice."


In a small room next to the main shrine, I spoke to a young priest whose crisp white robe denoted the purity of his office. He was no more than thirty years old. His father had been a Shinto priest before him. After exchanging name cards and pleasantries, I asked him what he thought of the Pacific War. First, he said, it was a big mistake to call World War II the Pacific War; it was the Great East Asian War. It was also a mistake to

think that the Great East Asian War was a war of invasion. "We had no choice. It was purely a matter of national survival. Be sides, the idea was to liberate Asia. The Asian people are still grateful... ."

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