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Monday, April 10, 2006

Yasukuni Shrine Tokyo


Spring performance at Yasukuni ShrineTaking advantage of the mild spring temperatures and the blue spring skies I visited Yasukuni (or "Pacifying the Nation") Shrine (in Japanese "Jinja"). Yasukuni Shrine is best known as the shrine which the Prime Minister's visits to over the past few years have alienated Japan's mainland neighbors. Yasukuni Shrine is primarily a war memorial shrine and, as such, is a shrine to Japanese nationalism.

However, the word nationalism is too tight and dry a word to do the facility justice. It is to the people who visit it a reassuring symbol of what traditionally makes Japan Japanese, and one of the shrine's most famous institutions is its grove of cherry trees, considered nationally the 'First Ladies' of the cherry blossom season.

I entered by way of the South Gate, five minutes walk left out of exit A4 of Ichigaya Station on the Shinjuku subway line. The cherry blossom was in full bloom about three days ago, and the trees are now shedding their petals. On entering the gate I half thought winter had struck again. White petals were fluttering down all about in such profusion that it looked for all the world like snow: in people's hair and all over their clothes.

Yasukuni Shrine War Memorial MuseumThe first human activity I noticed was song and dance happening on a stage: all traditional, with a lot of enka singers singing karaoke style, the ends of each line finishing in the throat-catching, syrupy, almost comically exaggerated vibrato of the enka style. The audience was overwhelmingly old, of course, and after a minute or so of that I headed for the shrine war museum.

The Yasukuni Shrine War Museum (entry 800 yen) is a memorabilia and war data masterpiece. Intricately and thoughtfully laid out, it is exhaustive in its coverage of every aspect of the war except, strangely enough, the atomic bombings, on which – as far as I could see – there was nothing. However, to do the collection justice needed far longer than the meager hour I was able to spare it, so I may well have missed some small corner mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Early in my tour I stopped off at one of the two theaters in the complex to watch a documentary on the war. It gave an account of the war from a no holds barred Japanese perspective.

Hideki Tojo, Japan's military-man Prime Minister, was the maligned national hero served up victor's justice in the kangaroo court of the Allies, and the war itself was – if not ineluctable – an absolute necessity if the Japanese were to preserve their ‘national spirit’ or ‘essence’. The movie was expertly made and researched, but extremely emotive. The voice narrating was that of a middle aged Japanese woman fraught with pious grievance, accusation, controlled outrage, and even with the occasional quaver of almost tearful hysteria.

Yasukuni Shrine gardensI continued on my way around the rest of the exhibition feeling – after that performance – very much the ‘gaijin’ and, perhaps for that reason, wasn't in a frame of mind to inspect everything in as relaxed and inquisitive fashion as it all demanded.

Once back outside I wandered across the courtyard and, on a whim, into a building and up the stairs. It was milling with old people, one of whom called out to me in English ‘Can I help you?’. It was an old man wearing a Homburg and holding a cane. I replied, ‘Oh, I’m just looking’, but he began conversing. The old people there were all ex-Zero fighter pilots who were having their annual get together. He had been a Zero pilot too, but just before he was due to fly his, of necessity, fatal mission, the war had suddenly ended! I said ‘So you were a volunteer?’, to which he said ‘That is a very difficult question.’ He said that ‘social conditioning’ made the question of whether he had really volunteered or not a very difficult one to answer.

Main torii gate of Yasukuni JinjaThe more we talked, I found out that this gentleman who spoke impeccable sophisticated English was a retired junior college professor, 86 years old, who for the past twenty years has been taking groups of Japanese students to New Zealand. He was therefore overjoyed to find out that I was a New Zealander and bowled me over by telling me that not only did he know of my hometown in New Zealand – a rural dot on the map of no more than 20,000 people, but he had taken students there!

Interview with an ex-kamikaze pilot

I left him after at least 30 minutes of animated conversation, no longer feeling like an 'alien'. I walked around the shrine grounds some more, happening upon its pond and enclosed garden, complete with tea house. I walked past the inner shrine, thronged with spring crowds paying their respects, and then wandered towards the main gate at the other end of the walkway up to the inner shrine.

Performing monkey at Yasukuni JinjaI should really have come in through the main gate to begin with (accessible from Kudanshita station on the Hanzomon and Tozai lines). It is a majestic expanse of boulevard and shows just how modern a concept nationalism is, with its very twentieth-century portentous massiveness. Being cherry blossom season it was shored up tent-to-tent with stalls offering candy floss, octopus dumplings, goldfish-scooping, rising sun headbands, pancakes, choco-bananas … to name just a few. Just inside the main gate there was even a man with a performing monkey! Apart from a few fashion giveaways, I could imagine the scene as being identical to scenes there from fifty years ago.

Across the road is Kitamaru National Gardens, their most famous occupant being the Budokan. Again, being spring it was a scenic treat. Had I time I would have gone cherry blossom hunting in there too, but made do with this nonetheless dreamy vista looking into it.
Across from Yasukuni Jinja, looking into Kitamaru National Gardens

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