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Steaming Through the Cherry Blossoms at Yasukuni Shrine




Thanks to the passionate interest of my two sons in all things pertaining to railroads, I have traveled to isolated freight yards, passed many an hour waiting for a particular train so my older son could photograph it, and traveled far from Tokyo to ride and photograph steam engines. Their interest in trains has faded as they have grown older, but my older son was still happy to accompany me on a recent expedition to document the Paleo Express steam train on the Chichibu Railroad northwest of Tokyo.


My own interest in railroads is not that of a train spotter or anorak as they are called in Britain, but rather as a social historian of modern Japan.  Railroads were one of the most conspicuous aspects of the modernization of Japan following the Meiji Restoration. They continue to play such a vital role in Greater Tokyo and the cities surrounding Osaka that people tend to identify with the commuter rail line they use.


Thus, it was as a social historian that I leapt at an opportunity to help scrub a steam engine – something that occupied my morning on April 7.




The Steam Engine at Yasukuni Shrine


The particular steam engine I was invited to help scrub was not just any steam engine, but the one on display in the Yushukan, the museum at the Yasukuni Shrine in the Kudanshita area of Tokyo.


The Yasukuni Shrine is well known to English readers because of its association with “Class A war criminals” and the protests that come from China and South Korea when prominent members of the Japanese government visit the shrine. The Yushukan is somewhat less well known, but, if anything, subject to more criticism in English because of its alleged glossing of Japanese imperialism and aggression and because of exhibits alleged to glorify war by its critics.


Among those exhibits, one of the most controversial is the steam engine I helped scrub. It is controversial because of its association with the construction of the Thai-Burma Railroad (criticized as “Death Railway” in some English accounts) and the brutal conditions under which Allied POWs and indigenous people labored in building the railroad. It is this railroad that was the subject of the well known and partly fictional Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia Pictures, 1957).



Although I made a visit to the Yushukan with British friends last summer, we had spent most of our time looking at the excellent displays pertaining to medieval Japanese warfare and the poignant display of photographs and memorabilia from the young Japanese who had sacrificed themselves in suicide missions in the closing days of the war. I had not really taken in the whole shrine since the 1980s, when I happened to visit on the same day as then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s official and highly controversial visit.  



Scrubbing the Steam Engine


I wanted to see how the shrine as a whole had changed and who, other than a curious historian, would show up on a beautiful Sunday morning to scrub a steam engine.


Mistakenly, I had thought that the cleaning of the steam engine might be something of a religious purification ritual attended by Japanese who bring a religious fervor to their patriotism. As it turned out, all of those participating were primarily interested in steam engine preservation. This came out in a self-introduction session after the cleaning. For them, the C5631 was primarily a singularly well-preserved example of a mass-produced steam engine model that had given noble service on lines throughout Japan.



And, the cleaning we did was real. We scrubbed every part of the engine that could be reached. At age 72 I did not feel obliged to climb on top or under the engine, but others did. They were as enthusiastic as the children who were later allowed to enter the normally off limits cab.


We scrubbed the train with wet and dry rags because, while using compressed air and water would be more efficient, such cleaning would require the train area to be cordoned off and almost certainly spread dust and possibly dangerous substances into the adjacent restaurant and gift shop area. Although appearing clean when viewed from the perspective of a visitor, once you were actually scrubbing the engine, one could see that it collects a substantial amount of grime between cleanings, despite being housed inside the museum.


After cleaning the steam engine, I spent the next three hours photographing the shrine precincts and the cherry blossoms along the route from the shrine to the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which is dedicated to unknown war dead.



Celebrating Traditional Japanese Culture, Not War



In this context, it is perhaps worth noting that the Yasukuni Shrine is not a cemetery. It is all too common to read that “Class A war criminals are buried” at Yasukuni Shrine. However, burial is extremely rare in Japan and has been for some centuries. Cremation is the norm and in the case of the “Class A war criminals” executed by the United States, there was an explicit effort to ensure that there would be no identifiable remains that could be the basis for some sort of martyr’s shrine.


If in reading an article about either Yasukuni Shrine or Chidorigafuchi you see a reference to burials at either site, stop reading then and there. The author has just shouted that he or she is totally lacking in understanding of these sites and has not done even the most basic research on the subject. The rest of any such article is guaranteed to be rubbish.


Contrary to the grim image of Yasukuni Shrine in a large fraction of writing about it, overall it is anything but a glorification of Japanese militarism. If it celebrates anything, it is certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture: formal gardens, the tea ceremony, and the kimono.


There is an exquisite formal garden and numerous flowering cherry trees that were in full bloom when I visited. On the other hand, the hall where ceremonies are held for bereaved survivors is only a small part of the overall shrine complex.




Festivals and Multi-Ethnic Inclusion


While there may be ceremonial occasions when the atmosphere at Yasukuni Shrine is somber, on the day I visited the atmosphere was very festive. In fact, the shrine is host to a number of annual festivals unrelated to war remembrance or militarism, and these festivals attract enormous crowds. Everywhere I went within the expansive shrine compound there were visitors in festive mood, especially young women seeking a backdrop for photographs.


Many of the tourists were Chinese, some wearing kimono. While the Chinese government and some Chinese zealots make a political issue of Yasukuni, there also appears to be an endless supply of Chinese tourists who are more interested in selfies taken with distinctively Japanese buildings and gardens in the background.


As has been the pattern in Japan for millenia with shrines and temples, Yasukuni Shrine hosts numerous peripatetic vendors who travel from one shrine or temple festival to another, setting up stalls to sell food, souvenirs, amulets, and other items. Thus, a visit to Yasukuni Shrine provides an opportunity to sample Japanese and non-Japanese street food.



I was particularly intrigued to see one food stall proclaiming in large lettering that it offered HALAL food.



One repeated theme in internet venues is that Japan prohibits the long-term residency of Muslims. This claim is complete nonsense. There is no notable anti-Islamic sentiment in Japan and there are a number of mosques, the earliest dating from 1935. Some sources say there are more than 200 mosques and masjids (place of worship) in Japan. Desecration of mosques, as has happened in Britain, is essentially unknown here.


Given the picnic and carnival atmosphere in the eastern portion of the shrine compound, it is perhaps not surprising that some visitors stretched things a bit with their star-spangled attire. When they passed me, I thought they might be some of the “tourists from hell” that have attracted attention in the Japanese press. Instead, I found they were both native speakers of Japanese.




Cherry Blossoms in the Surrounds of Edo Castle


The walkway between Kitanomaru Park and Chidorigafuchi Cemetery, one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing venues in Tokyo, was even more crowded than Yasukuni Shrine itself.


Kitanomaru Park was part of the Edo Castle and is probably best known for being the site of the Nippon Budokan, a central site for Japanese martial arts that has hosted many rock music concerts by famous groups, including The Beatles.


Having been part of Edo Castle, the Kitanomaru Park is surrounded by a moat with numerous cherry trees on its banks. The moat provides a splendid background to the cherry trees as well as offering an opportunity to view the blossoms from pedal or row boats. There was a long queue of people — both Japanese and foreign visitors — hoping to rent one of the boats.




Thought-Provoking Presentations


Even when the the cherry trees are not in bloom, Yasukuni Shrine and the Yushukan are well worth visiting, although a visit when there is a festival will be more interesting. The Yushukan, moreover, provides an excellent opportunity for foreign visitors to think about how the more unpleasant aspects of history in their own country are presented (or not presented) in museums and memorials.


Japan in general has few memorials or statues associated with military leaders of the 1930s to 1940s. Those that do exist are typically in out-of-the-way places. Generally, unless you can read ornate and archaic Japanese inscriptions, you will have no idea what the monuments are about.


The only individual memorialized in a significant way at Yasukuni Shrine is Justice Radhabinod Pal, whose thousand-plus page dissent was the basis for the book Victors’ Justice: Tokyo War Crimes Trial by the American liberal historian Richard Minear (reprint edition by Princeton University Press, 2016). Minear sought to use the Tokyo Trials to understand the American hubris he perceived in America’s brutal war in Vietnam that had so much in common with what Japan had done in China.


Similarly, echoes of another thesis — that FDR wanted war with Japan and provoked it — can be found in the Yushukan narrative. This comes from Charles A. Beard (1874-1948), an American Quaker historian, and his book, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941, first published in 1948 (Yale University Press).



Foreign writers who have not studied the historiography of the Pacific war frequently attribute both interpretations to the “right-wing” in Japan when in fact both both are something that originated with American liberal historians.


When I was teaching, I always told students to look for what is not in a text or a report. That applies to the Yushukan and its exhibits, but it is also applicable to monuments and memorials in Japan.


Unlike parts of the U.S., Japan is not dotted with statues celebrating those who fought to preserve chattel slavery or who engaged in genocidal operations against the indigenous inhabitants of what is now the United States. Japanese universities do not have buildings named after slave holders and defenders of slavery. Famous Japanese universities were not built with slave labor or financed through the sale of slaves, as some were in the U.S.


Yasukuni Shrine is many things. Above all, as an historian, I see it as a way for foreign visitors to learn both factual and interpretive history with respect to Japan and to confront their own nation’s history.





The Yushukan is generally open 0900-1630. Admission is 1000 JPY for adults, 500 JPY for students in higher education, and 300 JPY for middle school students. Younger children are free. The official guide is here.

The Yasukuni Shrine itself is open 6 A.M.-6 P.M. (March through October) and 0600-1700 in the winter (November-February). There is no admission charge for the shrine itself. The official guide is here.

The Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery is open 9 A.M.-5 P.M. (April-October) and 9 A.M.-4 P.M. in the winter (November-March). There is no admission charge. The official guide is here.

Transportation: The cemetery, the shrine, and the moat area shown in the photographs are all a short but uphill walk from the Kudanshita Subway Station.


Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth



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