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A Mingling of Souls at Yasukuni — Toward A Strong, Beautiful Japan




In February 2018, just before his summit meeting with President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on the outskirts of Washington, DC. The tomb symbolizes all American servicemen who lost their lives in the Greater East Asia War.


An honor guard comprising members of the four branches of the American military — Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines — met Prime Minister Abe at the tomb. Then, a military band played the Japanese national anthem, “Kimigayo,” followed by the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”


The United States welcomed Prime Minister Abe with the highest honor as he bowed his head briefly and offered his “undying condolences” to the dead. Images from the graveside ceremony expressed with solemn gravity the spirit of sincere reconciliation between Japan and the United States.



In August of that same year, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and then-Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera also visited Arlington to offer their prayers.


Politicians from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) have also paid their respects at Arlington.


Before he became prime minister, Naoto Kan laid a wreath at Arlington in April of 2010 in his capacity as deputy prime minister and finance minister. Kyodo News reported that it was “extremely unusual” for a deputy prime minister or a finance minister to place a memorial wreath at a cemetery, averring that Kan was likely “laying the groundwork for a post-Hatoyama” administration. (Yukio Hatoyama was prime minister for less than a year, from September 2009 to June 2010, and was the first prime minister from the DPJ since Hatoyama’s grandfather was prime minister in the 1950s.)


In January of 2011, then-Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara also laid a wreath at Arlington. In April of 2012, then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — and also at Arlington Cemetery “Section 60,” where the men and women who died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. Maehara and Noda are also members of the Democratic Party of Japan.



The reigning Japanese emperor has also visited Arlington National Cemetery several times — twice as crown prince and, once, on June 6, 1994, as emperor. This shows how very close is the relationship between Japan and the United States.


Recently, however, Japanese dignitaries have not been visiting Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of the Japanese war dead are enshrined. I cannot shake the sense of loneliness that this causes. However, the fact that His Imperial Highness does not visit Yasukuni is surely unrelated to his own personal sentiments.


Strictly speaking, I think Akinori Takamori is correct when he writes in his book about Yasukuni that an emperor’s activities from day to day include none undertaken of his own personal volition.


Harsh political realities surround the Yasukuni Shrine, and yet there is a silver lining. A relationship that might even be called a mingling of souls has been built up among the families of the spirits of the dead who sleep at Yasukuni, and members of the American military and their families who hail from a country that was once the enemy of Japan.



In 2015, the 70th anniversary of the end of the Greater East Asia War, Prime Minister Abe gave a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In his speech, the Prime Minister introduced an American: 94-year-old retired Marine Corps Lt. General Lawrence Snowden; and a Japanese: member of Japan’s House of Representatives and former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Yoshitaka Shindo.


At the age of 23, then-Captain Snowden led a company into battle on Iwo Jima, surviving the campaign. Mr. Shindo is the grandson of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, head of the Iwo Jima defense garrison who died in battle at the end of the fierce fighting on the island.


“I have been communicating with Lt. General Snowden and his family for more than 20 years,” Mr. Shindo said. “The first joint U.S.-Japan memorial service for the Iwo Jima war dead was held in 1985 — 40 years after the end of the war. My mother and I visited Iwo Jima for the first time that year.”


The second joint U.S.-Japan Iwo Jima memorial service was held 10 years later in 1995, the third five years after that in 2000, and then every year thereafter. As Lt. Gen. Snowden said, “We didn’t and don’t go to Iwo Jima to celebrate victory, but for the solemn purpose to pay tribute to and honor those who lost their lives on both sides.”



Lt. General Snowden passed away two years after Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the U.S. Congress. His funeral was held at a Marine Corps base, and then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis was among the attendees. Mr. Shindo read a letter of condolence from Prime Minister Abe. It was almost certainly the first time that a Japanese politician had taken part in a funeral for a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.


Mercifully, there are no national borders separating heartfelt respects for war dead and many foreigners are among those who visit Yasukuni Shrine. The only written records are for those who enter into Yasukuni’s inner sanctuary to attend the official Shinto ceremonies. Visits by foreigners remain unchanged even after 1979, when it was reported that so-called “Class A war criminals” — a favorite target of condemnation by China and the like — were among those given respect in common with all other war dead.


What is striking are the visits to Yasukuni by members of the military, scholars and diplomats from countries which were enemies of Japan in the Greater East Asia War — particularly visits by those from the United States military. Those in the military know better than anyone that soldiers in every country are the same. They fight to the death and give up their singular mortal existence for their home country and beloved families.


An acquaintance of mine, author Ryusho Kadota, told me about the “Unknown Scout Soldier” story of the kindness shared between enemies who were once both Boy Scouts. The anecdote is carved as a relief at the Kodomo no Kuni children’s theme park in Yokohama, and is remembered as part of U.S.-Japan exchange by the Boy Scouts.



During the Greater East Asia War, a Japanese soldier with a bayonet came upon an American soldier who had fallen, gravely wounded. After seeing him, the American soldier lost consciousness, in his last thoughts despairing that he would certainly be killed. But when he awoke he discovered instead a message beside him, written in English. The fallen American had given the traditional three-fingered Boy Scout salute, by which the Japanese soldier, who was also a Scout, knew that he was with a fellow comrade. “I cannot kill a defenseless, wounded Scout,” the message read.


The American soldier eventually returned home and told the scouting authorities about what had happened. In 1952 a member of the scouting head office communicated the experience to his counterparts in Japan. The name of the Japanese soldier who had spared the American’s life could not be identified and it is believed he died in battle. If so, then the spirit of that merciful Scout is also enshrined at Yasukuni.


During the Occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur considered closing Yasukuni Shrine. He was opposed by Father Patrick J. Byrne, the leader of the Maryknoll Catholic missionary society, and Father Bruno Bitter, a Jesuit priest and the Vatican’s representative in Japan.


Father Tatsuya Shimura writes: “Yasukuni Shrine has nothing to do with the justness or unjustness of war. It is an important duty for, and right of, all citizens to show their respect to and offer their gratitude for those who risked their lives for their country.”



We the living must learn this history. We must forget neither the stories of the souls of the war dead nor the existence of the Yasukuni Shrine. Knowing history is not just a matter of accumulating knowledge of the past. It is the spirits that are participating in history, past and present.


In August of 1996, Her Majesty the Empress of Japan read aloud the following poem.


We know not where you have gone to, land or sea,

you exalted spirits, formless and many,

watching over the country



Her Imperial Highness’ heart, ever mindful of the spirits of the dead floating far and wide, was surely remembering here the spirits who sleep at Yasukuni.



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)



Author: Yoshiko Sakurai