On 15th July, I got a chance to visit that most controversial of sites in practically the whole of Tokyo, Japan even: the Yasukuni Shrine. It just so happened that the Mitama Matsuri – a celebration for the spirits of their ancestors – was going on, so I had even more of a chance to see how the space was and felt during a festival.
It was… bizarre. Here you had a location so contentious because of its link with Japan’s WW2 past – the spirit of soldiers and war dead up until 1945 are enshrined here as heroes. (In fact, some of my Japanese friends even refuse or feel awkward to visit the shrine.)
Even so, the Mitama Matsuri was somehow an opportunity for the shrine organizers to bring the space closer to the average Japanese person. “I at first thought I couldn’t come, but because I saw so many people here, I thought maybe it’s not so bad after all, this place,” said one Tokyo-based friend.
Well, it was during a festival, so things appeared… festive. There were many, many people. There were shops selling trinkets and junk food (mmm, okonomiyaki). There were freak shows (bit of a let-down, nothing really freaky) and haunted houses (which I didn’t go into), games and other such pleasantries like these masks (in case you wanted to disguise yourself haha).
Also, because of Mitama Matsuri, there were groups of people ferrying small shrines up to the main Yasukuni Shrine. They were accompanied by drums and other percussive instruments, and old ladies were performing a folk dance around the Omura Masujiro statue. It felt pretty… wholesome… which I think was the point the organizers tried to make: That despite the controversies surrounding the spiritual enshrinement of the over 2 million Japanese who died during World War 2, the shrine was more than just that.
Having said that, it was a strange place, nonetheless. A Noh theatre doubled as a karaoke performance stage, and there appeared to be a plant nursery of some sort right in front of the shrine proper.
There was also a museum within the compounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, which presented the history of Japanese warfare – inclusive of economic and sovereignty rationales – from the establishment of the first Japanese emperor way back in the 10th century right up to Japan’s defeat in World War 2.
The rationale for Japan’s involvement in WW2 was described, if I recall correctly, as a response to the American stranglehold of resources (oil, rubber, copper, etc) and its continued support of China in the Sino-Japanese war.
There was no description of Japanese atrocities committed during its occupation of Malaya, or any of the other South East Asian countries.
There was, though, one part that painted a picture of the increase in independence movements after the war, which Imperial Japan perhaps felt was its positive contribution to the liberation of South East Asian nations from the grips of colonialism.
I’m not so sure about this line of thinking.
At the end of the 22-gallery tour, which were spread out over two floors, my Japanese friend exclaimed: “Oh, this museum is horrible. It makes war look beautiful.”
I couldn’t but agree.
I didn’t visit the Yasukuni Shrine itself, and I didn’t feel I needed to. I think it is something that the international community has said so much about, and that there is so much pressure within Japan itself to withhold discussions and public discourse about this shrine and its manifold meanings – at least from what my Japanese friend told me.
As we walked away from the shrine, I felt totally drained. The burdens of history laid heavy on me, though I can’t imagine how much heavier it must have felt for my Japanese friends.