"I'm a Belieber" – Justin Bieber pays his respects.

by Colin Liddell

April is a big month in the calendar of Yasukuni, the shrine in downtown Tokyo dedicated to the souls of all those who have died in the service of the Japanese Emperors since the Meiji Revolution. It is therefore also a big month for making a fuss about the enshrinement of a group of men, who since the post-War trials carried out by the US occupation forces, have been called "war criminals."

Aside from the quaint notions that war should be some kind of sport played by gentlemen and that "war criminals" can only come from the losing side, Yasukuni Jinja never fails to create major misunderstandings between Japan and the West, misunderstandings that are quickly latched onto by interested parties in North East Asia who probably know a lot better.

But back to April – not only does the month contain the birthday (29th of April) of the wartime Emperor Hirohito, in whose name most of the 2.5 million enshrined at Yasukuni died, but it is also the month of an important three-day Spring festival, when those wishing to pay their respects visit the shrine.

This is also a time when many politicians and lawmakers choose to visit. Last week 147 members of parliament and two cabinet ministers made the "pilgrimage" in a move that will automatically be interpreted by some as honouring "war criminals," and probably spark off protests by China and the two Koreas.

With President Obama paying a visit to Japan in the same week, these ceremonies looked particularly awkward this year. It is thought that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has visited the shrine in the past, avoided visiting this time so as not to cause offence. Nevertheless, he offered a "masakaki," a kind of decorative tree used in Shinto rituals, to make up for his absence.

The Japanese government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is well aware of the diplomatic embarrassment that trips by politicians to Yasukuni Shrine creates and, as with Abe's decision to just send a ceremonial tree, moves have been taken to limit the negative fallout. Although politicians, ministers, and occasionally Prime Ministers visit, they claim to do so only as "private individuals" and not in their public capacity. Despite this, critics in the West and elsewhere choose to see this for what it is – a very public act in which the country's political elite visit the controversial shrine.

In many ways, there are similarities with Japan's whaling policy – another significant public relations failure for the country – where the Japanese whaling fleet continues to hunt whales under the guise of doing "research."

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe remembers his shoes.
But if the subterfuge isn't working, why do the Japanese bother to do either of these unpopular acts? As a trading country dependent of good relations with the global community and with growing business interests in mainland Asia, Japan stands to lose a lot by such behaviour. They also depend on America for their defence, so honouring men who were hung for their "crimes" against America is particularly counter intuitive. But yet they do it!

The reason for this is that Japan, despite its exposure to global consensus, still retains a strong independent sense of its own culture and interests.

The reason that Japan maintains its whaling fleet in the face of international criticism and low public demand for whale meat is revealing. In the "Deep State," the substrata of entrenched power and interests that exists just beneath the level of the democratic puppet show and which tends to guide any nation's more long-term direction, there seems to be a realization that Japan, as an extremely overpopulated island, may not be able to rely forever on cheap imports of meat from abroad. If these ever cease for whatever reason, the country would then have a serious protein deficiency. In such a case, having a whaling fleet and a whaling skill base, which could quickly be scaled up, would provide an essential alternative source of protein.

The reason for Japan continuing to "honour" those who died in the service of the emperors at Yasukuni has a similar element. Despite a pacifist constitution imposed on it by America, the Japanese know that they live in a part of the world that is essentially hostile to them, and that their civilization is small and relatively isolated. Showing consideration for the souls of those who died for the country may well have a future relevance if wars of survival or conquest again have to be fought.

But the real reason for paying respects at Yasukuni is more basic. While outsiders view it as "honouring" or even "celebrating" the individuals enshrined there, including "war criminals," the Japanese see it differently. Despite its technology and gleam of modernity, Japan is still a very traditional country and in many unexpected ways. We might even call the Japanese somewhat superstitious. This leads us to the main function of Shinto shrines and Buddhist Temples.

The reason people in the West get angry about Yasukuni is because we tend to equate it with our nearest equivalent, namely our war memorials. These exist to call attention to the deeds and sacrifices of past generations, and to declare our affinity with them. But in Japan Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples do not exist for that reason. One of the main reasons they exist is to literally placate the spirits of the dead so that they will be at peace and therefore be less likely to cause harm and bad karma. At its most basic level a shrine is a kind of anti-voodoo device, lucky charm, or spiritual detoxifying agent. The morality of the spirits involved is much less of an issue than their ability to cause trouble if not placated.

In the late 16th century, during the unsuccessful Japanese attempt to conquer Korea and invade China, soldiers from the Japanese army killed thousands of Koreans and Ming Chinese and cut off their noses as trophies or as part of a bounty system. When the war ended, the noses – presumably pickled or preserved in some way –found their way back to Japan. The Japanese accordingly buried them – all 38,000 of them – and set up a shrine with Buddhist priests appointed to pray for the repose of the souls of the de-nosed.

Hirohito: the one that got away?
For the Japanese, religious as they are in a way that Westerners tend to see as superstitious, to not pray for the souls of the dead at Yasukuni is simply not an option. This can perhaps be understood by considering the history of the actual enshrinement of the so-called "war criminals." Most of the important war criminals were executed at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, which was controlled by the Americans during the Occupation (1945 – 52).

It would have been awkward to enshrine them at that time, so the site of Sugamo Prison was considered as a rather cursed and unlucky piece of ground – haunted if you like. Despite this, during the 60s and 70s, as the Japanese economy boomed, pressure grew to use the land. Finally in the late 70s, a massive 60-story skyscraper, called Sunshine 60 was built on the site. This building, which was then the tallest in Japan, was completed in 1978. It is no coincidence that this was also the year in which the war criminals executed on the site were enshrined at Yasukuni in a secret ceremony.

Although it has not been officially admitted as such, the enshrinement of the war criminals was clearly an attempt to placate the souls of the "war criminals" in order to purify and make safe the site on which this massive building stood. As much as Japan wants to be liked by the wider world, there are some deep-rooted elements of its interests and culture that it simply can't or won't change. Rather than continuing to view Japan through Western eyes and blaming it accordingly, we should try to understand it on its own terms. In this way we might well learn something that could be of benefit to ourselves.

Originally published at the website of Civil Liberty.

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