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[Bookmark] To Oppose Yasukuni Shrine is to Follow America’s Cultural Decline — Kevin Doak




Bookmark is a JAPAN Forward feature that gives you long reads for the weekend. Each edition introduces one overarching thought that branches off to a wide variety of themes. Our hope is for readers to find new depths and perspectives to explore and enjoy.


For the United States and Japan, among others, August 15 always marks a particular moment in history to remember, the anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.


As 2020 marked the 75th anniversary since the end of World War II, The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward caught up with Dr. Kevin M. Doak, professor and Nippon Foundation Endowed Chair in Japanese Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.



Given his expertise on politics and religion in Modern Japan, it was an occasion to discuss the role of Yasukuni Shrine today in Japan.  


With the recent manifestations and riots in the U.S. taking down statues of Christopher Columbus, Dr. Doak also gave his insights on the causes of the unrest, the links to religion, and what expectations we can have for the future of the U.S. and the world.


Below are excerpts of the interview:



In the U.S. there is a movement of denying the nation’s historical past. What kind of implications do you think this will have for the world, including Japan?



I like to think of it as coming up onto the ground from the sewer, and I wish it would go back to the sewer, because it used to be underground and now it’s mainstream.


I saw an article in The Washington Times a few days ago. Somebody had said that this protest movement in reality represents a kind of post-French Revolution notion of reason: very individualistic, oftentimes not very reasonable, a kind of “ideal” of [the concept of] reason. 


It opposes the idea that a nation can be defined by its traditions, by its culture, by its religion. And it doesn’t want anything to do with that. 


If you look at one of the strange things about this destructive anarchist movement, they go after Christopher Columbus statues. Chicago took down theirs, and many other statues have been taken down. 



This is really strange because Columbus isn’t really tied to American slavery, or African Americans. But he is tied as the person who brought Christianity to America. And that’s why they're going after him.


In California, there were attacks on a monastery and the burning down of this 250-year-old national historic chapel built by Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary.


It’s not anymore about George Floyd. It’s not anymore about race. It’s trying to tear America away from a notion that it has a consistent history and tradition of culture, which often includes religion. 


I think so far Japan has done a far better job of hanging on to its identity as a “nation” based on culture and tradition. Immediately after the war, there was a similar tendency for America, although not as strong, to see Japan in terms of this notion of reason, disconnected from religion or other factors.



In America, we had a very tenuous definition of the country’s tradition. These rebellions, revolutions, these anarchistic looters and rioters, are trying to rip that apart. It is disastrous for America. It’s a lesson that I think Japan must learn from and be prepared to avoid. I hope Japan is able to hold that off.



Ultimately, what is it those Americans want?


A lot of American commentators have said they don’t know what they want. If [the protesters] would only come forth with a list of demands, we could talk. 


But [the protesters] don’t present an agenda. They’re incoherent, and they’re violent, so we have to look deeper and be more analytic.



[Regarding the alleged opposition to the Confederacy of the American South] there’s a very interesting article earlier this month in the American Conservative by senior editor Helen Andrews, with the title “A Lesson from Robert E. Lee.” She pointed out that President [Dwight] Eisenhower always had a picture of Robert E. Lee in his billfold. 


Why would you carry a picture of a guy who fought against America? [Because] when Robert E. Lee resigned his commission and returned to Virginia to lead the Confederates, he said, “I wish I could do what I want to do, but I have to set aside my personal feelings and do what is my duty.” 


Eisenhower, who was a general, understood duty as being more important than personal inclinations. 


These anarchists want to flip that around. They hate duty, the notion that they can’t indulge their own personal feelings. 



Regardless of their age, they’re like children. That’s why they go after Robert E. Lee, Father Serra statues in California, Christopher Columbus, and Frederick Douglass


This has to be a sign that they want to wipe out any force of tradition as having a claim on them as to what their duty as citizens are. 


I think [Helena Andrews] is absolutely right. It’s a very interesting [article] and nobody wants to hear this. Of course, she’s called a racist for saying these things, [even though] nobody in America that I know of is defending the Confederacy or slavery. 



What do you think is the cause of this movement?



People will make the same argument that the 1968 radicals now have tenure so they indulge their students. There’s no question there. It’s deeper than that. 


Students show up at university already indoctrinated, believing they have nothing to learn in college, and now they just have to be political activists. It’s the culture, and the university is reflecting that.


It’s very hard to explain the source of this cultural disintegration. If we could explain the source, we could stop it.


I’ve been saying for a number of years that what we’re witnessing is what happens when a civilization goes into decline. It’s very similar to what happened in Rome around 350-400 A.D. Rome was going into decline, why couldn’t the Romans stop it? They were very smart people. 



[But] you can’t turn around something when you’re living in the midst of decline. Decline is so comprehensive and so confusing, it’s very hard to identify it if you can’t get outside of it. 


Japan has an advantage. In some sense, [the Japanese] are both in and outside of Western civilization. Very much a part of it, but somewhat autonomous from it. They might be able to see what’s going on in American civilization’s decline and avoid it. Maybe.



On this theme of religion and remembering history, in Japan we have the Yasukuni Shrine. It’s a religious site, but many leftists propose an alternate secular location to commemorate the fallen. What do you think?


[Leftists] put this forward as though it’s a question between Yasukuni, Shinto nationalism, imperialism, and nasty wars, and Chidorigafuchi [National Cemetery], which is all about liberation and individualism and the postwar. 



But what the Japanese should learn from our problems right now is, that is not really what the choice is. If the left wins and establishes something like Chidorigafuchi as a secular institution of mourning, it also begins the process of disintegrating Japan from its cultural and historical continuities, and begins to reshape it into something totally new. That’s what our anarchists are trying to do.


Japan is in a good position to take a lesson from America’s problems. I think most Japanese do not like anarchy, [whereas] many Americans are turning out to like anarchy — they think of it as freedom. 


This is one of Japan’s cultural strengths, that they’ve always had a greater sense of social responsibility to the people around them.


RELATED ARTICLE: INTERVIEW | A Visit to Yasukuni Shrine is a Prayer for Lasting Peace — LDP’s Eriko Yamatani



I think the argument against Yasukuni is “a wolf hidden in sheep’s clothing.” It’s not really about religious freedom, or about concern with the Koreans and other people. It’s about changing Japan to a more French Revolutionary secularized culture, which will lead to the kinds of things we’re seeing in America. It would be terrible.



Do you think that this would ultimately lead to things such as abolishing the Imperial Household, if we compare it to the French Revolution?


I just finished writing a paper on a Jesuit in Japan who later became very famous as the head of the worldwide Jesuits, fluent in Japanese.


He intrigued me because, in the early 1940s, he wrote a piece on communism. He said that what the communists are really going after ultimately is the Japanese emperor.



I think he knew what he was talking about because he was a Spaniard, and he saw how, in the Spanish Civil War, the communists were going after the king. So he was right that in Japan the attack on the emperor really came out of the international Comintern.


This has to be resisted. And the Japanese shouldn’t fear their great Tenno. Many conservatives think the Tenno is too liberal and too Christian. That’s okay, because at least it keeps the Tenno going and gives the Japanese continuity


America doesn’t have a monarch, and when you look around at most countries, they killed the monarch or never had one. Anarchy is a stronger culture.



Do you think Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should visit Yasukuni Shrine? (He hasn’t visited since 2013.)



One thing I have learned over the years is I almost always defer to Prime Minister Abe’s judgment. He’s got the best political judgment of any politician alive today, no question. He was ahead of [U.S. President Donald] Trump, who only lately realized that China’s a threat.


I wrote years ago that I’d like to see him go to Yasukuni every Sunday. But I think he’s a very wise person who knows how to move within the realm of the possible. 


Japan is very fraught right now, and so he knows exactly how far he can get out ahead without going so far out ahead that he becomes useless or ineffective. 


On the other hand, I would say with everything that Trump and others are doing about China, offending China is the last thing he should worry about in terms of Yasukuni. And that’s not a good reason not to go.



I spoke with a well-known Japanese person who lived through World War II. And even though that person is Christian, they said, “I always go to Yasukuni once a year.” When I said, “Why? You’re not Shinto,” the person told me, “Because my classmates died in the war, and I want to show respect for them.” 


But that’s a different generation. There is a new generation coming, of younger Japanese who don’t understand World War II and what Yasukuni means.


Most Japanese were born after World War II, including Prime Minister Abe. And they might have ancestors, but don’t have that kind of personal connection [to the wartime]. It’s [become] more a matter of indifference: どうでもいい、(“dou demo ii,” anything is fine). They don’t really care, they’d rather open up the bars and go back and have fun.


But there are bigger issues here than the personal. What is the role of Yasukuni within defining the Japanese sense of indebtedness to those people who sacrificed? Who did their duty?



The vast majority of the people who went off to war and died, they didn’t do it out of their own personal inklings, but because it was their duty — against their personal inklings, much like Robert E. Lee.


I hope that many young Japanese are starting to feel that, because frankly we need more Japanese to join the Self-Defense Force, to strengthen their own military.


That means being willing to take a sacrifice, willing to say, “I don’t want to do this, but I must do this.”  I think [Yasukuni] could be a symbol of that.



From your experience, do you see any hope that the future generation of Japan will take interest in the issue? 



I’m ambivalent about that. On the one hand, I think the Japanese might survive this better than Americans because everything I know about Japanese history is that continuity has retained its force even after the postwar, to a surprising degree.


The Japanese have maintained their culture, their identity, much better than most other countries that moved through the 20th and 21st centuries. Consistency and tradition are very strong, that’s their strength.


Now, against that, Japanese have become very affluent. As people become affluent, they tend to become more interested in their own pleasures and less interested in duty. That’s true in America, that’s true in Japan, that’s true in Europe.


Which of those forces is going to prevail? I don’t know. I think Japan is also at a turning point.




What do you think the future looks like in the U.S.?


I’m very pessimistic there. Many of us think that in America you’re seeing the dissolution of American civilization, the falling apart of culture. And it is much further along than I would have thought. 


Just a few years ago, I talked about the end of American civilization, but it was more abstract. Now, you see violence in the streets — and, worse, major political officials supporting anarchy, violence, and trying to tear down the police and the forces of stability.


Particularly for me these attacks on churches are troubling. Many Japanese may not understand this because of very different cultural relations with Shinto or with [other] religion. But when you start attacking Christian churches in America, you’re attacking the equivalent of our emperor system: it’s the glue that holds the society together.



If you can go that far and do it with some support from political officials, then I don’t see how America can rise up again.


Time will tell, but it’s going to take something very cataclysmic. Not just this COVID-19 Wuhan virus, but something much worse than that, to come together again.


In the Great Depression and World War II, Americans were poor. They had socialism and all kinds of problems. But we still had a dominant culture based on Christianity.


Japan still has a culture based on respect for the Tenno. We don’t have that anymore. Without that, I don’t know what’s going to help us rise up again.




Do you think President Trump’s law and order approach will be a cure only in the short term?


I think that’s exactly right. For about five to 10 years I’ve been saying we can’t expect someone to make America great again, a savior. Decline is inevitable, I think.


The only thing we can expect is a manager who can slow down the decline, and I think Trump’s law and order will slow it.


I think [Joe] Biden will accelerate the decline. I don’t expect America to come out of this disintegration.




Will the U.S. still be a beacon of hope for the world?


Right now, I think Trump and his administration are leading the world, not just on the coronavirus thing, but also on the recognition that China is such a lethal threat to the rule of order and international law. That’s helpful and good. 


But that’s a kind of geopolitical issue that can be addressed even as America begins to decline within. Somebody else can pick it up. Maybe Japan can, or Australia, or someplace else. 


Still, there are good things coming out of the Trump administration because we’re slowing down the decline.



(You can read the original interview in Japanese, here.)


Interview by: Yoshinari Kurose, Washington bureau chief, The Sankei Shimbun


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  1. Frank

    September 22, 2020 at 6:54 am

    "The Japanese have maintained their culture, their identity, much better than most other countries that moved through the 20th and 21st centuries. Consistency and tradition are very strong, that’s their strength."

    Please Japan, listen to us in the west when we warn you about embracing multiculturalism. If you open your borders and continue warming up to the idea of a multicultural Japan, in 50-100 years you will be dealing with the same thing. You will have your race riots, you will have people forcing diversity on every aspect of society by force, you will have your own culture and native people denounced. Its a slow death. It will not improve your society and I think any LDP politician pushing for this needs to be ousted as they are not looking out for the nations interests but the interests of corporations.

    This is supposed to be a conservative paper is it not? Why do I constantly see posts praising multiculturalism when that is the thing causing the wests decline?

  2. Aidan Morrison

    August 25, 2020 at 8:58 am

    "This is really strange because Columbus isn’t really tied to American slavery, or African Americans. But he is tied as the person who brought Christianity to America. And that’s why they’re going after him."

    Maybe it's just me but isn't the reason people oppose celebrating Columbus that he massacred and enslaved the native population? Sounds like Mr. Doak may lack some basic understanding of this issue.

    • cassandrawasright

      September 23, 2020 at 8:38 am

      Hi Aidan, when you wrote this comment on August 22 I was in agreement with you, but since then I've been digging into stories about Columbus. I think if you are interested in questions of historical memory like what this article brings up, it would be good for you to read about him as well.

      The key book for me is Carol Delaney's "Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages that Led to America", which is based on her academic research.

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