Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Kamakura, Yasukuni-Jinja

Like Roland Barthes, when I first looked towards the Imperial plaza, the invisible palace and the woods beyond, seeing no more than an embankment, I felt that the centre of Tokyo was empty. And like the many visitors skirting the outer grounds, which are open to the public, I too looked for something like the White House, Buckingham Palace, even the Taj Majal, guardsmen, a show of pomp, a waving hand, a sign of Emperor Akihito, Crown Prince Naruhito, a Rolls-Royce whisking Crown Princess Masako, an ex-diplomat, now a depressed caged bird, off to her shrink.

On this perfect day of late autumn I circle the Imperial Palace once again and turn into a side road separated from what I think is the palace by a moat. I hear a lone trumpet. Chet Baker. Could this even be a member of the imperial family practicing? But no. The sounds were coming from the Kitanomaru Gardens.

It is 15 August 1945. Emperor Hirohito speaks on the radio for the first time ever. Still a living God, blessed by the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, for he will only renounce his divine status on 1 January 1946, announces the surrender of Japan. In his Hiroshima Diary, Dr Michiniko Hachiya, who is treating bomb victims, cannot believe what he has heard. Surely he was going to command us to fight the English and American monsters to the last man, woman or child, even with bamboo staves.

Historian Daitochi Irokawa believes he acted weakly with the military generals and should have seized the initiative to surrender much earlier.
"Was the emperor actually so afraid of a group of army officers? Did he not consider relying on the support of the many in the armed forces and the vast number in the public who were willing to die for him? If he really opposed the war, why didn’t he try to prevent it, even if it meant risking his life, in order to save more lives?

Whatever may happen to me
I put a stop to the war
Thinking only of the people who were dying.
Those who died in the war would surely regret the emperor did not write this poem before, rather than after, the war." (In Search of Modern Japan, p.90)

And the Americans allowed the now mortal Hirohito to stay on. He would be a bulwark against communism. The people would still obey him. Not a shot was fired when the Americans entered Japan after the surrender. In February he was sent on to the streets to behave more like a British monarch to tour and revive the spirits of the impoverished people.

I visit the Jimmu temple, where Hirohito collected botanical specimens while he was still a relatively free Crown Prince, and then descend into Kamakura, some 50km from Tokyo, capital of Japan from 1192 to 1333. I buy some mushrooms and dried sweet potatoes and enter the Meigetsu-in Temple, the Bright Moon Hermitage, founded in 1160, and to where Tojo Tokiyori, ruler of Japan, retired in 1256 at the age of 30. Up the stepping stones, how many centuries old are they? Past the hydrangeas, sadly not in bloom in autumn, to the temple. The left hand room has a gold-inlaid altar; the right-hand room is an eight-mat room which is empty but for a plate containing a single persimmon, for the humble caqui is the national fruit of Japan, sagging and swaying from the single tree of many a tiny backyard even at the end of November. And at the back of the room a large circular opening looks out on to the yellows and golds and reds and browns of the garden beyond. I turn and see a dry garden. Grey sand raked in swirls broken by rocks, small at the front and larger at the back as they blend in with the autumnal maple leaves.

Caqui on a plate.
Eight mat room of emptiness.
Autumn leaves outside.
The Meigetsu-in is one of the most famous Zen temples in Japan. Throw a small coin into the box, make a ten-second prayer to Kannu Bodhisattra, the deity of compassion, make a wish, then go back to admiring the autumn leaves.

At the Bright Moon Shrine
Leaves red, yellow, gold and brown.
Let’s take a picture.
For modern-day Japan keeps religion at an arm’s length. Shinto was the ideological basis of the Emperor-worshipping military machine, which saw the Japanese as a unique and divine race. Disestablished by the American occupation forces, it no longer plays a central role in the life of most Japanese. Shrines are visited, photographed, ceremonies are held there, but devotees are dwindling.

But this is a generalization. Many of those who lost their lives for Japan, including Class A war criminals, are enshrined at the Yasukuni-Jinja shrine in Tokyo, the “Repose of the Country”. The shrine and the adjacent museum have been covered in controversy, and today’s Daily Yomuri reports than Japanese PM Junchiro Koizumi has been criticized by China for having made frequent visits. “The US had no interest in bringing the war to an early end”, I read in the exhibition of war material. “Roosevelt’s insistence on unconditional surrender prolonged the war”, and the “colonizers”, who were “defeated by Japan early in World War II” “could not supress the ideals Japan had advanced after World War I of racial equality and self-determination” as many Asian and African countries achieved independence after World War II.

I pass through the Hall of Memory, see tanks and cannons and fighter planes which have been dedicated to the Shrine and look at pictures of the Jinai, the Divine Thunderbolt Kamikaze Unit, who vowed “to meet again in the next life under the second cherry tree near the entrance gate of Yusukuni Jinja”.

The Visitors’Book makes fascinating reading. For Azumi S. “ it was terrible day for me because I had to come here. I hate this place. I saw many foreigners come here and I beg them not to believe this exhibit as it is. Most of Japanese don’t take the war like that way, and schools tell us a normal history like you had. But unfortunately most of officials support this shrine and I beg you not to take Japan like this shrine shows”.

And Ali: “Why did you join the Nazi side? Why did you do so many war crimes? Why don’t you acknowledge what you did? I feel even Germans acknowledge and regret their past more honourably than you”.

But RJ, a retired US major writes: “As a war veteran I understand the meaning of sacrifice. Japanese warriors should be proud of their warriors as we are”.

Not too many visitors at the museum. The uncontroversial Showa Museum up the road, picturing exhibits of daily life in the war years, draws in the bus loads of the elderly, many of whom lived through the war.


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