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At Yasukuni Shrine, People Pray for the Dead; Leave Politics Out of It




Politics and memorials to the dead are separate things. It is civilized courtesy to distinguish between them. Is it not barbarian and uncouth to debate the problem of the pacification of the souls of the war dead by mixing politics with it?


Ceremonies for the repose of the war dead should be carried out solemnly and in seclusion; the mass media have no business causing a commotion whenever someone pays their respects at Yasukuni. Why do Japanese reporters act so disgracefully? Instead of pacifying the war dead, they try to politicize them.


It was surely a grave mistake for the Japanese military leaders of the 1930s to expand the theater of war on the Chinese mainland and get bogged down in a quagmire of Chinese nationalism. I do not accept victors’ justice, and I have strong doubts about the historical views pronounced by the judges presiding over the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, but this does not mean that I accept what the Japanese military did in the years prior to Pearl Harbor.



Nationalist China and the United States were not entirely exempt from blame, but it was the Japanese themselves who failed to understand their own position in the world. This was manifest stupidity on the part of the Japanese Empire.



Still, it is the duty of a nation’s citizens, whether a war has ended in victory or defeat, to properly propitiate the souls of their war dead, including those who were given the death penalty.


When countries wage war against one another, might makes right, and victors find enemy leaders responsible for the war. However, in my opinion, the greatest war crime committed during World War II was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan by the Americans, when Japan was on the verge of collapse and its government had been signaling through diplomatic and other channels its intention to surrender.


The Americans used Japan’s pre-emptive attack on the US as a pretext for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but was this atomic retaliation really justifiable?


Think of the respective numbers of non-combatants killed. When the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, it targeted battleships, warplanes, and military facilities. Because of this targeting, only 68 American civilians were killed on December 7, 1941, while several thousand times this number of ordinary civilians were killed on August 6, 1945. This should be borne in mind.


The propriety or impropriety of a bombing attack is indicated by the ratio of civilian to military casualties. I have touched on this point repeatedly, not only in my Japanese writings but also in my English book and lectures. The firebombing of Tokyo neighborhoods was also a large-scale massacre of women and children.



At American military cemeteries, even some of those who were killed in the course of carrying out these intentional and inhuman bombings are interred and paid respect. Even though this be the case, I think it appropriate that the Japanese prime minister should lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on his visits to Washington, DC.


Why? Because politics and prayers for the dead are separate things. They are matters belonging to different dimensions.


Japanese Shintō makes this clear as an article of belief. In Shintō, both good people and bad become kami, or deities, after death. As the great National Learning scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) explained in Naobi no Mitama, “Bring your fervent requests to the good gods, and also supplicate the evil gods.”


Ordinary Japanese people are steeped in this sensibility. So it happened that when left-wing scholars of political science inadvertently proposed the separate enshrinement of some war dead, an uneducated old woman replied, “Isn’t it true that we can’t make distinctions among the dead?”


A good example of this is provided by the Kanda Myōjin, one of the most famous Shintō shrines in Tokyo. It is dedicated to Taira Masakado, the 10th-century rebel who tried to usurp the Imperial Throne of Japan. As it was in ancient Rome, in Japan, too, those who died in rancor were often deified, as people feared that their malevolent influence would cause disasters. The living should not only pay respects to the good souls, but should also console the resentful souls of those who met an untimely end.



Japan is a bit different from ancient times, though. For Prince Shōtoku (574-622), who was most instrumental in introducing Chinese civilization and Buddhism to Japan, the greatest concern was religious co-existence with native Japanese traditions. When he promulgated the Seventeen-Article Constitution, Prince Shōtoku exhorted in Article I that harmony was to be valued.


Shōtoku’s ideal was that everyone should act peacefully and treat all with respect. Prayers for the repose of the dead should transcend religious and political differences. Harmony in the realm of the dead, too, should be valued over distinctions between enemies and allies.


What is interesting is that, although unnoticed, a similar change has taken place in Western countries.


For example, 100 years ago, almost 2,000 British and French soldiers fighting in World War I were executed by firing squads for violations of the military code, such as desertion from the front lines, aiding the enemy, and mutiny.


When 80 years had passed, though, steps were taken by former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to “reintegrate into the nation’s historical memory” those who had been executed, as “sacrificial victims of a rigorous military code that was just as cruel as the fighting itself.” (Le Monde, November 9, 2013)



Nicolas Sarkozy, who had vehemently opposed these steps 10 years before, changed his mind when he became president of France and agreed with Jospin on this point. When Queen Elizabeth prayed at the centenary of WWI, it was for them, too. As Sarkozy said, “They were like us, with their weaknesses and strengths.”



Born in 1931, Sukehiro Hirakawa is emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo and a director at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. A prolific scholar and author, Professor Hirakawa has studied in France, Germany, and Italy, translated the Divine Comedy into Japanese, published and/or edited dozens of books, worked extensively in Japanese modern history, and has won, among other awards, the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, the Yomiuri Prize for Literature, the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon, the Watsuji Tetsurō Culture Prize, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, and the Japan Essayist Club Prize. A version of this Yasukuni essay appeared, in Japanese, in the newsmagazine Will (September, 2014), and in Professor Hirakawa’s latest book, Nihonjin ni umarete, maa, yokatta (Shinchōsha, 2014). Professor Hirakawa’s English works include Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West (Global Oriental, 2005).


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