I normally do not take it upon myself to butt into how other countries mind thier business… but the recent and to date, sixth public visit (16 August) to Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi is definitely an eyebrow-raiser.
For those of you who don’t know what this is about, a wee recap:
- It is shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead.
- Every time a Japanese PM visits this place, the rest of Asia throws a huge fit.
- Koizumi doesn’t give two flips about what the rest of Asia thinks (about his visits to this shrine… although some might debate about how much thought he gives to any foriegn policy issues that negatively affect Japan among its regional neighbours)
- About half of the Japanese public (according to various polls) supports the PM’s official visits…
- Koizumi’s most likely successor, Shinzō Abe, is not likely to discontinue official shrine visits - and is considered more of a "neo-conservative" than Koizumi.
- The current Emperor has never visited the shrine during his reign,
- the former Shōwa Emperor (Hirohito) stopped regular visits upon finding out that the souls of 14 Class-A were war criminals "installed" there.
Yasukuni Jinja (Shrine) was originally built in 1867 as the Tōkyō Shōkonsha as a memorial shrine for samurai/conscript soldiers who fought in both sides of the Bōshin Civil War (War of the Meiji Restoration). This took place roughly at the same time as our own "War Between the States" here in the USA.
The shrine was renamed in 1879 to its present name, Yasukuni, which means (perhaps ironically) "peaceful country".
Inside this shrine are housed several million kami or souls (according to the Japanese animist religion, Shinto) which have been interred there from 1867 on to the present day.
These souls are so honoured as having died in the service of the Emperor, as well as Japan… and presumably, the souls of any Japanese Self-Defense Force members that die will also have the privilege of being interred there).
Also included in the shrine are the souls of several hundred war criminals, including about the 14 Class-A war criminals (the likes of Hideki Tōjō among them).
Yasukuni had served a something of a rallying point for Imperial Army/Navy recruitment in the buildup to the Manchurian Campaigns of the 1930s, and later into the greater scope of the Pacific War (WW2). In fact, the shrine was directly under the control of a joint Army and Navy commission. Today, it is an independent religious organization.
In Japan’s post-war constitution, Article 9 renounces Japan’s right to wage war as an offensive tool of its foreign policy, and Article 20 forbids the admixture of "church" and state. It does so much more explicity than the US Constitution does for us: our notion of it is based largely on the courts’ interpretations of what a particular Founding Father wrote in reply to a church concerning the issue. In Japan’s case, the state is forbidden from granting a religion politcal authority, and also from recieving special privleges.
At least, that is supposed to be the way it works. As of 2005, there is in the works a series of amendments sponsored by Koizumi’s party (ironically called the Liberal Democratic Party) to drastically alter Article 9 (maintenance of armed forces) Article 20 (allowing state officials to "observe ethno-cultural events" — read: Yasukuni visits) and Article 89, which currently forbids government funding of religious (Shinto) activities.
So, why should we care about Japan’s church vs. state issues?
It goes back to what Japan’s "founding fathers" had determined to be the thing to put 1880s Japan on a par with the European powers - a monarchy, and a state religion. Japan had the monarchy: an Imperial line (which some believed to have stretched back unboken over 2600 years) - but it lacked for a cohesive religion that would compel people to take up arms and die for it.
Buddhism - although excessively fractious throughout much of Japan’s medieval history, lacked the expansionist and "evangelical" bent to it that Islam and Christianity have. I mean, most of thier income derived from a few wealthy patrons and a brisk sale of posthumous names and other services to assure that dead kinsfolk were safely remembered in the afterlife.
Islam and Judaism were practically unheard of, other than private observance by resident foreigners.
Chrisitianity (both Protestant and Catholic) had posed enough of a threat to the previous Tokugawa regime in its early days that it was kept under the ban for all 250+ years of that regime, and then some long time into the Meiji Era. The ban was rigid enforced, and after 30,000 Catholics were crucified in the aftermath of the Shimabara Incident, nobody dared to make an outward display of thier Christian beliefs. As a result, the religion died off, or pieces of it absorbed into various local cults which have survived somewhat into the continuum of modern Japanese syncretic Buddhism.
After the ban was lifted, it never again enjoyed popular appeal as it had been thoroughly squelched. To this day, it remains among the least popular of Japanese religions, with only some trappings playfully kept by the masses for some of its outward shows of consumption such as baby christenings and marriages. (A stylish marriage will set back those involved by a good $40k-60k…)
Enter (State Controlled) Shinto: Up until the Meiji Restoration, the practice of Shinto had largely been somewhat akin to some Native American Tribal religious practices, with no central unifying dogma or a hierarchy of clergy. It was quite localised into neighborhood, village, and city shrines at the operational level, and a handful of grand shrines that were famous mostly for thier age, collection of particular relics, or patronage by either Shōgun or Emperor. Most shrines and thier priests received little if any official support, beyond a few wealthy patrons and some festivals held in conjunction with key times of the year (seeding, planting, harvesting, etc.) - and as in the case of thier European counterparts, made a tidy sum in the sale of lucky charms and alcohol (in this case, saké).
The smaller shrines were often found within the precincts of larger Buddhist temples, and some could be as small as a simple roadside box with a carved idol inside of it, much like the "Bathtub Mary" grottoes here in the USA.
An ecclesiastic heirarchy was not to be found; the closest thing to a "Holy See" was a particular grand shrine at Ise, possibly distinguished only for being one of the largest and oldest such shrines in Japan… and occassional special visits to it by the Imperial Family.
Most shrines serve two purposes: veneration of ancestral souls (shared to great extent with Japanese Buddhism) and the upkeep of enshrined higher-ranked kami (gods) specific to that region, who brought various "lucky" blessings - fertility in farming and childbirth in particular. Other shrines were devoted to specific gods of phallic worship, war, and success in commercial ventures. In modern times, some of these gods have been been co-opted to pour out blessings upon test-takers for elite high schools and colleges, and various medical procedures. And of course, finding one’s true love.
Prior to the restoration in the 1860s, the public loosely held the idea that the Emperor was something of a divine authority on Shinto, as he was supposedly a direct line descendant of some mythical and primordial Japanese creation god.
To the commoner, the Emperor was a mythical being, someone who existed vaguely and out of reach. Most hardly ever thought of him or his court.
To the average samurai, he was rarely thought of but lived somewhere in Kyōtō; he was a source of pain only when some quirk of politics necessitated the samurai’s lord to make war on some other domain that fell on the ill-will of the Shōgun.
To the Shōgun, as the generalissimo and duly authorized ruler and vicegerent of the Emperor’s will… the Imperial Court were a drain on finances and an occasionally troublesome group of close-minded busybodies that needed to be kept on a short leash. Indeed, off-and-on for over 1000 years, the Imperial Court existed and lived at the pleasure of some Shōguns, some of whom would reduce the Court to begging for bread and withholding maintenance funds, resulting in a Mikado who lived not too much above the commoners.
And to certain anti-shōgunate Daimyō in Western Japan who were holding 250-year old grudges, he was a source of much opportunity.
Because of this "mythic" status the Emperor had, he was often a pawn in the hands of various shōguns and regents, etc… to control the masses, and more importantly, the Daimyō who wanted to unseat the Shōgun in favour of themselves.
And it was in this fashion that the young lad Mutsuhito - a.k.a. the Meiji Emperor - would be put to further use. In fact, it was because of his value (for who would raise thier hands against a god? ) that he was used as something of a charm by the Satsuma and Chōshū clans (along with a handful of smaller clans that had been collectively defeated by the first Tokugawa Shōgun in 1615: the Satchō Alliance).
When they fought against the end of the Tokugawa shōgunate, anyone who fought against the Satchō "Imperial Army" was immediately branded as the worst kind of sinner… an Imperial Rebel. A Rebel against "God".
Having long put the Tokugawa to rest, the Satchō planners - now the framers of the new Meiji-era government - sought to maximize Meiji’s value as a "god" and a "most high priest" through the issuance of various Imperial Rescripts and eventually the 1889 Imperial Constitution. The sum of all of this maneuvering established a once-docile animist religion as a Divine Emperor Worshipping Cult.
Bringing all of this into the present, it was this Cult that sought to whip up every Japanese into a mind-controlled frenzy to invade China in the 1930s, fight the Americans and the British in the 1940s, and eventually cause Truman to choose between dropping a couple of rather unpleasant but revolutionary, destructive weapons which had a toll of around 400,000 Japanese casualties, or else landing an invasion force (Operation Downfall) which would have had the extremely unpleasant task of slaughtering millions of fanatical defenders, down to the last man, woman and child: if Okinawa had been defended to the death of all but 216 people out of 20,000, the Home Islands would be ever more so fanatically defended… according to the (Japanese) War Ministry’s Ketsu-Gō plan… even schoolchildren were to be enlisted in defense of the Land of the Gods. Schoolgirls were issued awls (big needles used to sew leather) and told to aim for soldiers’ abdomens; schoolboys might even have had to draw kamikaze duty by strapping explosives to themselves and rolling themselves under tanks to deliver thier deadly payload. Much like the spectre of Islamic fanaticism our soldiers face today.
The loss of American lives in those operations was projected to have numbered around 1,000,000 souls, and upwards of several million Japanese in the Kantō plain alone.
Not really that hard choice of a choice, if one thinks about it.
To put this into perspective, imagine Communist China trying to land an invasion force in Texas: even in favourable circumstances, fighting against millions of homicidally angry, automatic-weapon-toting Texans would not something to be taken lightly.
Fortunately, the war ended with a greatly reduced loss of life (granted, no war or loss of life on a massive scale is ever a good thing) on terms where the source of Japanese cultic fanaticism (also somewhat reduced by the toll the war had taken among the civilian populace) could be removed. Through some complex arrangements, Hirohito (the Shōwa Emperor) was allowed to retain his crown, but not his deity… and he also managed to escape the gallows… but, the issue of whether or not he should have stood trial is beyond the scope of this post.
And with the promulgation of the 1947 (MacArthur) Constitution of Japan, the fangs of State Shinto, and the appeal of the militaristic Emperor Cult were broken; and not a just a few war criminals’ souls eventually housed in that dreadful shrine. Yasukuni is one of that last vestiges of the Emperor Cult, in that it proudly displays the Shiragiku and in its museum walled with thousands of pictures of deceased soldiers and sailors, it offers a rather unpalatably revisionist history which repaints Japanese war crimes in a most rosy light: the Nanking Incident becomes the rather clinical "Nanking Operation", describing it as a liberation of a city held by a few radicals. In fact, the entire war itself is played off as Japan having had its hand forced into war by a few mean Western nations that wanted to control and expand thier colonial enterprises in Asia.
According to the Yasukuni Musuem - the Yushūkan … Japan’s war was an altruistic venture to free up Aisa for the Asians. Of course, the Zaibatsu corporate concerns would have easy access to all those things being freed up from the hands of all those greedy westeners. Especially the oil.
Beginning to sound familiar? Perhaps someday we will see even more similarities that early Shōwa Japan had with Bush’s wars in the Middle East.
Except for those few yakuza and uyōku (read: ultra-patriotic) nutjobs in those noisome "sound trucks" that seem to have permanent parking staked out around Yasukuni Shrine. Most of these jokers are twenty-something freeters (part time jobbers) that couldn’t get past college entrance… and would likely poop in thier black jumpsuits if they suddenly found themselves in a real war with bullets zinging toward them. Even some of the older yakuza (who may have fired a few shots in defense of thier prostitution rings) have scarcely witnessed the horrors of wars as the Taishō generation which faced a vengeful America did.
In the present day, there is much concern by East Asian nations (especially Communist China and South Korea which have arguably suffered the worst under Japanese militarism) regarding any attempts to revive State Shinto, and this is typified in the rather harsh reactions these countries have to whenever Koizumi or any other Japanese PM pops into Yasukuni for a quick visit to "appease the heroic souls".
Now don’t get me wrong here: I have utmost respect for anyone who gives thier life for the service of thier country, even if it is/was an enemy country. The "Johnny Commoners" (or in this case, the Tarō Suzukis of Japan) are the grunts who shed thier blood for the rich rulers’ desires for empire, and in many cases, have had very little say in the matter.
In like manner, I am off-put by some rabble that claim to speak for the military (be it the young rucks like these jump-suited buffoons pictured above, or the skinheads here in the USA) and aggravate their respective nations’ peoples with thier small-minded but very loud talk. Particularly… if they have never served thier country in time of war. I honestly wonder what the WW2-age veterans - what few remain - in Japan think when they see some 20-year old uyōku sympathist dressed up as a kamikaze pilot or Imperial Army. Such a guy is barely able to deal with the realities of modern life, much less the harshness of war and life in 1940s Japan!
Most of the older uyōku (again, even the older members of this were scarcely babies as the last bombs were dropped in 1945) are quite clearly aligned with yakuza, and some are certifiable racist crackpots. We certainly have plenty of that sort of rabble in the USA.
Getting back on track… some people believe that Japan has, and is continuing to, shift sharply to the right - especially in its foriegn policies, and with regard to possibly reorganizing its Self-Defense Force into a powerful, force projecting military force. Some might even say that Japan’s nuclear deterrent is only a decade or two away, especially if the USA begins to retrench and fade away from its current "sole superpower" status as a result of its costly interventionism in the Middle East and the economy implodes due to Chinese manipulations and a severe shortage of (peaked) oil. All of this, is of course, my speculation.
But the fact remains that Koizumi (and likely, Abe also, if he succeeds Koizumi as PM) have determined to ruffle Asia’s feathers by repeated Yasukni visits.
Now from the Japanese view, it is all really a matter of appropriate filial duty and ancestor reverence. To the Chinese and Koreans, it is a blatant reminder of Japanese militarist aggressions from over two generations ago. However, if a future PM were to make a commitment not to visit that shrine… and find another venue for honouring Japan’s war veterans (what few remain, as well as the war dead) things might go more easily on the region diplomatic radar.
Not as easy as it sounds though… Shinto beliefs make it rather hard to relocate souls (kami) from one shrine to another. Political inertia from Japan’s (quasi-religious) right which is thoroughly intertwined with the Yakuza crime cartels would also dig in its heels. And stubborn pride and a refusal to make a separate non-Yasukuni monument to Japan’s war dead just to mollify some foriegn neighbors, especially PRC China… would likely ensure that any attempt to push a Yasukuni alternative would be met at best with a classic Japanese stalling response: mokusatsu or "kill by silence".
Yet sadly, it just might be to America’s advantage that many members of the LDP membership (PM included) continue to rub this bit of political salt into those old wounds. Especially PRC China.
China over the long run may indeed be a very formidable opponent against the USA for a future conflict a generation or three down the road, and already is economically. If Japan’s PMs are writing a verbal check that its military power cannot (currently) cash… then the USA is certainly avid to co-sign on that check. Or so Japan hopes, should it ever come down to it. In fact, with North Korea being something of a Chinese (ineffective) proxy, Japan’s hand may be "forced" to rearm, if not build even stronger ties to the USA’s defense umbrella.
Who knows if the PRC leadership is that farsighted… but given the threat of a strong China vs. a strong Japan more or less aligned with the USA, I’ll take the latter. Of course, where the oil is, so also is the power. It is not altogether impossible that Japan could part company with the USA and work out some kind of deal with the PRC that makes the Yasukuni hot-button entirely a non-issue.
It all comes back to the oil: Japan wants a stake in Middle Eastern oil as much as China does. It is only a matter of time to see how this interesting love-hate triangle (US/China/Japan) will work itself out.