The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Down at Yasukuni yesterday

Yesterday was the celebration of the end of the Pacific war at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a special time of rememberence and hopes of peace and also a time when certain sections of the Japanese population get aggressively nationalistic. It os a frightening time to be a foreigner here, the passionate hatred some people have for anyone not Japanese (especially Koreans and Chinese); plus the tacit freedoms they are given to express their bigotry are worrying. 

All over the world there appears to be a growing tolerence to extreme opinions of what it is to be identified with a country. A lot of racism and nationalism hides behind words of patriotism or religion these days, whether it be Islamic fundamentalism or corporate protectionism. Maybe it is because, in this world of multinationals that act independent of countries and as-often-as-not rather like their own despotic nations, people do tend to hanker after rosy-hued ideas of nationhood and culture homogeneity. Such things are understandably attractive for peoples who feel they have lost anchors to their own lands. But the past was never as remembered and to use it as a design on the future is short-sighted at best. We live in a very different world to that on which we dream now. It is not just the cosmopolitan character of our cities and even villages these days that is changing our countries and cultures, those things have been going on since before man came down from the trees; what has moved the world this way is us: it is we that call ourselves a member of the tribe of Britain or Japan, or whoever and eat Italian food in American restaurants; take holidays on Thai beaches in French planes; buy Korean Hi-fis made in China; Spanish cars with German engines and drink Australian beer in Irish pubs served to us by Scandinavian backpackers that are creating the mix.

And I`ll tell you what, love it! We are the luckiest people alive, many of us have opportunities now to experience more countries and cultures than any generation EVER before. Make the most of it because when the oil goes, cheap flights to faraway destinations will just be a memory.

Yet what do we do with this all these wonderful freedoms of thoughts and ideas? We complain and complain that`s what! We complain that England doesn`t feel English enough or Japan isn`t Japanese enough, or French enough, or American enough or….!

Well that is the flip side of globalisation I`m afraid. While it is true that were I in England now I would be buying my electricity form a French company and paying an American company for my telephone and that does seem a little bit of a shame and kind of wrong, that too is a symptom of this international world we live in. Not a great one to be true but it comes with the territory (if you`ll excuse the pun).

You see the thing is that I hate racism; I especially hate racism pretending to be something more benign like patriotism as is happening in the UK at the moment. I love that I have international friends, I love that many of them can live near me, where ever I happen to be in this world and I love that I can move around to new places and new experiences almost as and when I please. Why would people hate that? But they do, they really believe those “others” that so enrich their lives should stay in their own countries and not dilute the culture; they confuse ersatz-idylic pasts with fears of mongrel futures; they edit history to paint it brighter and when challenged on these points they defend their views strongly because they must know, deep in their hearts, that they are wrong.

I am happy that, in most of Europe the need for such idiocy to hide its true colours is equally as strong. Lies and manipulations get pointed out quite quickly by those that watch for such things and we still have a media that, more or less, gives voice to those that fear such lies becoming believed. Our past allows us to paint each fresh-faced fascist with the helpful hues of history and those colours still frighten us. Yet even in Europe there is a growing acceptance of the idea that new could be different; that the black-shirted man, so long silenced by our collective guilt, should be given his voice afresh and in our generosity accept that he may have something to say so we should listen.

Yesterday at Yasukuni there was little subtlety to the feelings people had; Japan never really went through the guilt thing about the war and many people are less troubled by history than Europeans. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, it`s a different world nowadays and in Japan especially the number of tourists and immigrants has exploded in the last 10 years meaning that the comfortable plantation of predjudice in which racism can grow unchecked has dried and become slightly more barren of late. Some right-wingers now felt the need to disguise their anti-Chinese sentiments in Pro-Tibetan, or Pro Taiwanese, ones. yet no-one, not even those “working” for the cause of a free Tibet, pretended it was anything other than Japanese nationalism. Another symptom of our globalised world.

The Uyoku dantai (black van nationalist), as always, were blunter still. They roared up to the road blocks of Yasukuni about 3pm and shouted and scuffled with the police. Abuse was hurled and a half-hearted attempt at breaking through was attempted but two buses blocked the road and after a short stand off they roared away, marshal music blaring and were gone.

That they are not arrested for all the laws they break is part of the worrying trend of nationalism in this country. Though the situation is changing in the UK an out and out bigot would still feel pretty scared to voice his opinion as loudly and as ill-informed as many people do here. As the evening gathered, the light was great and I went back into the shrine where I watched an old man in imperial army uniform stamping on the Chinese flag. Now China is not my favourite country in the world, I think they have a lot to answer for globally regarding pollution and support of very nasty governments (another symptom) but I do not have the vitriolic hatred these people had. Fueled by alcohol and in the perfect place to fully expand on those feelings, the flag was attacked with a samurai sword, (and rather hilariously a lolly stick) young and old joining in to hack it to pieces. Being a replica sword and rather blunt it took a little while! After it was torn one young man screaming hoarsly held up a piece, waited until he had a suitable crowd of photographers before trying to light it with his cigarette lighter. before he did that of course he flipped the peace sign as Japanese people tend to do. There was no irony in his gesture though he just was just an idiot.



6 responses

  1. I was at 靖国神社 (Yasukuni Shrine) yesterday too.
    And I saw those knuckleheads in your pictures. (Maybe we were standing near each other).

    It’s a shame that some people act (or even think) like they did.

    Hopefully noone thinks that they represent the majority in Japan…

    August 16, 2008 at 8:26 am

  2. bruce

    Well written, good shots. I hope you are recovered from the hot as day.

    August 16, 2008 at 3:44 pm

  3. Andy

    Since you mention fundamentalism you might find this an interesting read.

    August 16, 2008 at 6:18 pm

  4. I appreciate your thoughts here. In the USA, my home country, we’re seeing the reality of continuing racism as many openly say that race is a “factor” when they choose who to vote for.

    Shifting to Japan, I liked the article in Metropolis about the nationalists and peace protesters. The writer did a good job of exposing that both sides are simply putting on a show. So often “passions” run skin deep here — about as deep as choosing what fashion to wear.

    But skin deep passions sometimes are preferable. It’s comforting to think that the nationalists are goofy clowns making noise and not much more than that — with a few goofy, clown professors and politicians backing them up…

    August 18, 2008 at 2:27 am

  5. Thanks to the Andys and the Bruces and Mr. 5s for commenting. My thoughts (more)
    I do not think all the bluster is particularly harmful it lets off steam and the old men are sweet really, Some at least. I said in my post about this event last year that they reminded me more of the Harajuku cosplay girls than some neo-nazi rally; so I agree, another Andy, that the passions many feel are a mere play, a character for the day as it were. Japan is like that it has fads that can change at a whim to another. But this is the problem too, the right wingers are serious about their business which is not, as many people think, the return of an imperial Japanese system of government, but the marketing of their bravado in calling for one. Yes they are putting on a show, it`s a commercial afterall and all they have to do is get enough people to buy it and the fad of imperialism will happen. I like in the movie “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawarence” when Tom Conti`s character says that: “Japan went mad, en masse.” This show of arrogance by the Uyoku is not meant to be a vision of a future Japan but is an un-reconstructed memory of past glories. No level -eaded salaryman is going to join those groups but as he slaves away in his office; gets bullied by his boss; pisses his troubles and wages away with Chinese hostesses and comes home to find his wife complaining that the expensive restaurant she spent most of the day at was too crowded he is going to admire the “Bushido” of their act. It takes only enough of those type of men to value such ideas to send the country mad again. Then the professors and politicians will shape and direct it. Not goofy; scary.

    August 18, 2008 at 4:08 pm

  6. Pingback: Tears and Anger « sungypsy blog

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