The Pacific War officially came to a close on August 15, 1945, but even today the images and sound clips of the Showa Emperor announcing on radio Japan’s surrender to end the war are etched in the collective memory of Japanese people.
This year, Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako joined Prime Minister Abe and other other politicians, dignitaries, and guests on the same date and hour, for a ceremony marking the 75th year of peace following the end of the war at the Nippon Budokan, a large arena near the Imperial Palace. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the attendance for the speeches and respectful minute of silence was shrunk to less than a 10th of its capacity, from over 14,000 to 540 this year.
Earlier that Saturday morning, before joining others for the national commemoration at the Nippon Budokan, Prime Minister Abe visited the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which memorializes more than 300,000 of the unidentified soldiers who died during the war. Excluding the visit of the Prime Minister, the location was otherwise quite quiet, crowded if anything more by the media and policemen.
Just down the road is the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines approximately 2.4 million souls of those who died in wars over the past 150 years — including Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and even the souls of animals — since the shrine’s establishment during the Meiji period.
There, on the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, about 24,000 rather ordinary people according to the shrine’s count, including Japanese families and non-Japanese, stood under the sweltering August sun, queuing for around two hours to pay their respects in front of the main hall of the shrine.
Among those paying respects at the shrine, for the first time since 2016, were four Cabinet ministers of the current government, as well as several other members of the Japanese Diet.
In the interest of understanding the reason so many in Japan would choose to mark the 75th year of peace at this particular shrine, JAPAN Forward caught up with former Cabinet member and current member of the House of Councillors, Eriko Yamatani (LDP). We asked if she would share some of her background and explain why she values praying for the souls who gave their lives during the war, as well as why she believes it is important to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
Ms. Yamatani chairs the Special Committee on Political Ethics and Election System, and has held posts in the government as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission (2014), State Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue, Ocean Policy and Territorial Issues, and National Land Strengthening, and State Minister for Disaster Management.
Excerpts of the interview follow.
Could you comment on this special anniversary of 75 years since the end of World War II?
It’s been 75 years since the war ended. In Japan’s case, we have enjoyed peace. We are a country which prioritizes democracy and pacifism, a well-respected country that has considerably advanced.
However, if we look at the situation internationally, in particular in Northeast Asia, it’s a dire situation. As a country that builds peace and as a sovereign country, we in Japan need to be prepared. We need to grasp the reality of the situation around us, and acquire accurate information.
While pursuing these things, today I would like to commit myself once again to do my best to see Japan take steps forward as a peaceful country, with dignity.
This year, Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Japan. As the discussion continues between the two countries, is there a message you would like to impart?
From a geographical perspective, we are of course neighboring countries, so we have to increase the mutual overall understanding of each country.
However, China acts alone by doing things like stealing intellectual property and furthering its hegemonic attitude by using [debt diplomacy of] the “One Belt One Road” initiative. Many countries are showing concern about China’s threat to freedom and democracy, and we need to come together as one to raise our voice against it.
On this last point, I think the Japan-American relationship is extremely important.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that he would not come here (Yasukuni Shrine) this year. What are your thoughts on this?
The Prime Minister regularly expresses his gratitude for the souls of those who fought and gave their lives for their country, and for the spirits of the deceased enshrined here. I think the decision whether to visit [the shrine] or not is up to the judgement of the Prime Minister. But whether he comes or not, I think that there is no change in his resolve to build a country based on peace.
This year it’s an unusual year in the midst of COVID-19. Do you have a message for the many who have come to visit the shrine?
There are many young visitors, there are many who have brought their families. The fact that so many are trying to hand down the memories [to the next generation], it’s very heartening.
After this, at the ceremony at the Nippon Budokan to commemorate those who died during the war, the number [of participants] has been reduced.
As we stand at the turning point of the 75th anniversary after the end of the war, we honor that memory despite the limitations of the coronavirus. And I think that in fact the memory might be stronger than ever.
We are facing a new era, with a peaceful diplomacy that is based on realism. As a sovereign country we need to revise the Constitution. As we do so, I hope that the memory [for peace] will become stronger than ever.
In Yasukuni’s long history, the shrine still attracts misunderstanding, as in the case when in September 2019 the English rugby team visited the shrine. If you had to explain the problem to a layman, what would you say?
This was a shrine built in the Meiji Era during a time of national reconstruction, with the aim of paying respects to and enshrining the souls of those who had died [in wars].
In English, I have even heard the terminology of “war shrine” used, but I think it’s a big mistake. This is a shrine where one can pray for peace, and if people come here and pay their respects, I think they will also understand this feeling [of peace].
What would you like to say about the fact that China opposes individuals praying at this temple?
I think it’s meddling in another country’s affairs, and it’s a very political move. Of course, I think it is important that we explain our side.
But, at the same time, it is important that we continue to revere the spirit of the deceased and pray for a lasting peace. And we should not allow that to waver.
To people who might be interested in going to Yasukuni Shrine, what would you say?
I think as a human being it’s important to come here. And the most important thing is what one feels in their heart as an individual. Therefore, I would like to see people come here and pay their respects.
Is there anything in your personal background that plays a role in visiting the shrine?
When I was a university student, I learned Japanese traditional dance and participated in the festival for the spirits of the deceased.
Also, my father was actually a pilot in the Katou Hayabusa Sentotai (the flying squadron of the Imperial Army) and was shot down during the war, so he became a wounded veteran. He felt sorry for those who died during the war, and therefore worked hard in the postwar era for economic reconstruction. He was still a great fan of American jazz and Western films. So in those ways he was a completely normal Japanese person who walked towards the path of success.
That is why I think you can’t split the individual from the spiritual. I am grateful for my ancestors and have been trying to continue coming to the shrine for both reasons throughout all these years.
Interview by: Arielle Busetto