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Sorry, Japan: Yasukuni Is Not Arlington

2014/01/27

The spiritual center of Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown, which consists of four crypts containing remains of an American from each of WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. These represent both the collective sacrifice and grief of the country.

At Yasukuni, the unknown cannot be deified. Thus, in 1959, the Japanese government created near Yasukuni Chidorigafuchi a public park that contains a crypt for the ashes of thousands of unknown soldiers, sailors, and likely civilians who died in the Pacific War. Every year, coinciding with Memorial Day in the United States, there is an official ceremony attended by the Prime Minister, a member of the Imperial Family, and foreign ambassadors to add new ashes to the ossuary.

Most important, one of the criteria for those buried at Arlington is an honorable discharge. Those court-martialed, tried for war crimes, or convicted of a felony cannot be interred. This is not the case for Yasukuni. In addition to the fourteen convicted war criminals who were found responsible for carrying forward the Pacific War, there are thousands who violated both Japanese and international laws. Notable is Washio Awochi (sometimes spelled Awachi) a civilian manager of a comfort station in Batavia (Jarkarta) who was convicted by a 1946 Dutch wars crimes tribunal (Case No. 76) of forcing Dutch women to be Comfort Women (sex slaves). He died in a Batavia jail.

Yasukuni is about rejecting the judgments of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Many Japanese still believe that Imperial Japan should not be subject to the rules or values created by the West. The Tribunal is deemed “victor’s justice.” To emphasize this point, a large monument to the Tribunal’s Indian Judge Radha Binod Pal, who questioned the legitimacy its judgments, stands on a plaza at the Shrine.

Arlington, by contrast, makes no moral or political judgments about either American military policy or about the individual soldiers buried there. Americans do not visit the cemetery to worship them. And unlike their Japanese counterparts, American politicians do not come to Arlington to make statements about current foreign policy. Indeed, any effort to go beyond recognition of the sacrifices made by American would backfire internally as well as externally. But for Japan’s conservative leaders, Yasukuni has become a tacit political expression of Japanese defiance and autonomy.

A visit to Yasukuni has always been a political act. War is presented as a noble and glorious sacrifice preserving Japan’s Imperial institution. Originally, the Emperor used it to unite his nation with his divinity. Today, Yasukuni allows a Prime Minister to assert Japan’s independence and recast its past.

The rites, the grounds, and museum all focus on Japan's Pacific War. The Shrine is for Imperial Japan. No postwar soldier is allowed deification. The story Yasukuni wants to tell is that an industrially sophisticated Japan liberated a backward Asia and that their fellow Asians should be grateful.

Today, the Shrine serves mostly as a protest against those who do not accept this narrative. The Shrine tacitly rejects the international and national legal underpinnings of postwar Japan—the Peace Treaty and the Constitution. Abe making an official visit as prime minister to honor the selected souls at Yasukuni blurs the separation between Japan’s religious and political institutions and suggests that the Emperor has regained his divinity. Both are central to the legitimacy of modern Japan.

The Yasukuni Shrine is about declaring victory. The Emperor God was right, the victorious foreigners were wrong. Yasukuni is not about contrition or reflection, but about certainty. There, Japan did not lose the war. Imperial Japan, when Japanese were said to noble, selfless and brave, is longed for as a better time. Yasukuni is a place of defiance, and this is what separates it most from places of memory like Arlington National Cemetery.



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