It’s time for the annual Yasukuni Follies. Japanese politicians visit the shrine, make-believing they are more interested in honoring the country’s war dead than they are in holding onto right-wing financial support. In Act 2, Chinese politicians make-believe their people should be more upset over what happened three generations ago than over what’s going on today.
Most Catholics, like most Christians in Japan, tend to the left on the issue of Yasukuni, opposing visits by government officials and special status for the shrine that honors Japan’s military dead, including some who were executed as war criminals. However, there are also right-wingers in the church, and some of them go so far as saying that Catholics not only can, but should visit Yasukuni because of something a Vatican cardinal said in 1936.
In the 1930s, children in Japan went to Shinto shrines as a school activity. In response to a query from the archbishop of Tokyo, the Ministry of Education declared such visits a manifestation of loyalty, not a religious activity. Therefore, the Vatican said Catholics could visit shrines, since such visits were a matter of patriotism rather than religion.
After the war, shrines were denationalized and incorporated as religious entities. So, at the first postwar gathering of Japan’s bishops in 1946, Catholics were told they should no longer visit them. Apparently, though, some people felt that the earlier Vatican decision took precedence. They secured a declaration in 1951 from the same cardinal who had issued the 1936 statement, saying that the older policy remained in force. Perhaps the cardinal did not want to admit that he had earlier made a mistake. So, until their generation finishes dying off, there will be Catholics who go bow before Yasukuni’s enshrined war dead.
Curious about who might be there and what they might be doing, I decided to go to Yasukuni myself during Golden Week for a look-see.
I saw a varied, but small, group. There were some old men with canes and hearing aids who probably came to honor war buddies or brothers. One of them carried his cane like a sword rather than as a walking stick. They clapped, bowed and hobbled away. They surprised me with their nonchalance until I realized that they have probably been doing this for some 60 years.
There was a woman leaving in a wheelchair accompanied by people I assumed were her son or daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Was she visiting the enshrined spirit of her husband? She looked worn out; the family looked bored and the kids seemed in a hurry to leave.
About 40 make-believe militia in blue fatigues showed up. Apparently, the aging of Japan is hitting the rightists: most of the “troops” were in paunchy middle age, and a few women helped fill the ranks. They straggled from their black vans to a spot under some trees, formed a ragged line, sang “Kimigayo,” and feigned listening to an old man whose voice could not carry to his audience (or to me). Apparently, the one place in Japan where rightists do not use loudspeakers is Yasukuni. That may be the shrine’s chief benefit to society.
The largest number of people were tourists who seemed to be there to check off another “must-see” on their to-do list. They didn’t go through any ritual motions beyond the 21st century’s chief ritual, photography. The Japanese were mostly women in their 20s who used their cell phones to take photos of each other flashing the peace sign. The gaijin used cameras to take photos of each other without the peace sign. Others visitors seemed to be using the shrine as a shortcut.
Nobody seemed interested in Tojo or other stars of the Yasukuni Follies. That’s when I realized there is not one Yasukuni Shrine at Kudan, but thousands.
There are the poignant Yasukunis — one per memory — where people recall buddies, brothers, husbands and fathers. Those Yasukunis disappear one by one as those who treasure them join their buddies, brothers, husbands and fathers in death.
There is the Yasukuni of the politicians and their megaphone militarists — the same Yasukuni as that of the left’s protesters. That one, too, will soon fade away as the people for whom it is important disappear and it loses its political usefulness.
In 10 or 15 years, there will be only two Yasukuni Shrines left: the tourist stop and the shortcut.
Rather than being distracted by the Yasukuni Follies and the past, we should recognize that time is making the “problem” wear away, and instead work today toward a future where shrines for war dead will all be merely old tourist stops and shortcuts.
William Grimm is a Catholic priest in Tokyo and the editor of Japan’s Catholic Weekly. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today