A Day to Remember
The Yasukuni visit on August 15th is a ritual for many photographers in Japan; we go to see a side to Japan that is often hidden but which bubbles below the surface of most interactions. Because on this day, the day that marks the end of the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat, the unique pride of the Japanese in themselves is on full display.
And it is a display for the best part: a strutting peacock in khaki and medals display of historical myopia and stupidity. Patriotism is one thing, and a worthy one at that, but here, on this day, people look to the past to find the cause of their present discomfort, laying their search wrongly and missing the message in remembrance: They see a small Asia country respected through its export of discipline and order not the fear created by the colonial adventurism of its despotic military rulers. They see romantic hopelessness and the divine sacrifice of youth toward a passion of place not the national embarrassment that should be the kamikaze. They see the faces of millions of innocent men branded evil by unwelcome and uncouth enemy lords, without realising that at least 14 of those faces deserve that very description. And they see conspiracies of foreign subjugates to belittle Asia’s natural leader not the collective response of an organic new world order and the beginnings of post-colonialism, Asian or otherwise.
What they do not see enough is the waste of life that was the Pacific War. An easy victimhood can be found in the numbers of dead but they blame he wrong people for those lost souls and put defeat down to diet or bad luck.
Almost every year my photographer friends and I go to see the dichotomy of Japanese nationalism here. There is a superciliousness to it that is laughable when the history is recalled yet it is a sort of pantomime of self-regard that is of course interesting as a photojournalist; with posturing men in uniforms they have not earned and a mania of flags, fights and misplaced anger. The constant question foreigners get asked, when talking to people at Yasukuni on this day, is where we are from. The openness of the relationship that ensues depends on answers stuck in past animosities. Obviously British and American citizens are derided whereas Germans and Italians are treated as brothers and welcomed.
The biggest pantomime is the annual “will he, won’t he” of politicians’ visits who nominally go to remember the war dead, but actually do so to make political statements and cement their right-wing credentials. This year Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, (who right wing credentials are quite strong) stayed away in a realpolitik attempt to avoid increasing tensions with China and South Korea after territorial disputes and several racist gaffes by senior cabinet members. At least three of his cabinet ministers visited the shrine however and 77 other Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers (LDP) also did. In total 89 politicians paid their respects at Yasukuni on Thursday. I watched some arrive; driving up in their cars and getting out, in formal frock coats, to polite applause. Famous faces got loud cheers and the less famous a mere smattering of sweaty hand claps from the more enthusiastic onlookers, before embarrassment that they didn’t actually know who that person was sent them silent.
Last year only 55 politicians came to Yasukuni on August 15th and indeed the whole place seemed busier this year. A spokesman for the shrine told the press that 175,000 people had come to pay their respects, up from 161,000 last year, and the queue of people waiting to pray stretched back far further than I have ever seen it before.
Maybe the current troubles with its far too critical neighbours is causing this surge in national pride. But these are not your rabid right-wing activists in Uyoku jump-suits. Most of the visitors were mostly ordinary people, living ordinary lives who may never express openly, at any other time,, the feelings they have. They may work, live and study with foreigners every day without their dislikes getting in the way. Perhaps they do not even feel that dislike day in, day out. But is must be there , mustn’t it? For the wish to march with a flag on the street and to express your belief in your nation’s exceptionalism is not normal. Pride I get. Patriotism I understand. Respect for victims of war I agree with. But Yasukuni is not about any of those things, it is about expressing a political opinion that places all other nations below your own and refuting the lessons of history, with an apparent intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about nationalism and xenophobia. The politicians know this; the right-wing ideologues and their foot-soldiers know this. The foreign media know this. Yet a visit to Yasukuni is still reported as an innocent expression of commemoration and hopes of peace. Yet can it ever be that when the shrine so disingenuously ties the unpleasant aspects of Japanese history to the memories of its victims?
Are the Japanese people really so stupid, or do they really feel that dangerous pride again?
Confusing and troubling day as you feel for a moment there that you do not understand this country at all. Men in shirts and ties insult you to your face whereas other men in boiler suits with swastika badges apologise for standing on your foot while they are fighting with riot police in an attempt to cause real physical harm to peace protesters.
Can’t keep away.
More images of the Yasukuni Shrine end of war celebration on August 15th at my archive site here: