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Friday, August 15, 2014

Japan Remembers End of Pacific War at Yasukuni Shrine

終戦記念日 靖国神社

Today is the 69th anniversary of the end of Japan's Pacific War. Since a couple of days ago the right-wing sound trucks have been doing their street-circling routine blaring those funny Japanese-Colonel Blimp-style stirring folksy tunes with their rumpa-dumpa rhythms, sung as if verging on tears of indignantly asserted joy.

Shinmon ("Divine Gate") at Yasukuni Shrine, looking toward the Haiden, Tokyo, Japan.
Paying respects to the war dead at Shinmon ("Divine Gate"), before the Haiden shrine, Yasukuni Shrine.

The streets of Tokyo just north of the Imperial Palace were almost empty due to it being the O-Bon holiday period, but were charged with tension all the same. Surugadaishita intersection, just one intersection east of Tokyo's Jinbocho booktown intersection, was blocked by a police cordon when I passed through at about 9:30 this morning. A plainclothes policeman was remonstrating with a yelling motorist who had gotten out of his car, in the jovial, half-mollifying way authority figures here adopt in the face of blusterers.

I was on a bicycle so, checking with one of the uniformed police, squeezed through (even the footpath had traffic cones and chains strung across it) and continued on my way. Up to Kudanshita intersection was almost completely empty of cars thanks to the roadblock.

From Kudanshita up to Yasukuni Shrine, the traffic resumed, but one lane was blocked off on each side for the grilled-windowed police buses that lined the street. Troupes of young police were being mobilized between them: all in their twenties, fresh-faced and often bespectacled, looking more like student volunteers than front-line enforcers.

Flute and oboe duo, and old man doing his best to sing along, Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo.
Flute and oboe duo, with an old man doing his best to sing along, at Yasukuni Shrine.

Inside Yasukuni Shrine looked busy, hung with banners and with what appeared to be the beginnings of a crowd.

I went to Yasukuni Shrine after midday to see what was happening. The main shrine building was thronged, with a long line of people stretching from the torii gate just in front of it, waiting to approach the shrine and pay their respects to the war dead.

Further towards the other end of the shrine grounds were several stalls, one for the right-wing Nihon Kaigi group selling books with a revisionist take on Japan's waging of war and its causes, and collecting signatures in support of revising Japan's constitution to allow Japanese troops to actively serve abroad. Right beside it was another stall collecting signatures against a move to shift the enshrinement of Japan's war dead to another, less controversial, shrine.

Old soldier I chatted to at Yasukuni Shrine, who fought in Russia as a teen. Tokyo, Japan.
Old soldier I chatted to at Yasukuni Shrine, sent to fight in Russia as a teen.

Most interestingly, however, was the presence of a group dressed in military uniforms, gathered around a monument near one of the gates into the shrine. At their center was a frail looking, long-bearded old man sitting on a beach chair in his uniform, and sporting a medal. I went up to him for a brief chat. He was alert and amiable and told me that he had served in the Japanese army in World War Two in Russia for three years, during which time he had been captured by the Russians. "We were confined," he said, holding up and crossing his hands at the wrist in mime. I asked his age, he said 88 (making his wartime experience a teenage one)—"moh dame, moh dame" ("No good, no good anymore!"). I said he looked fine and we had a brief laugh, I thanked him, and moved on. I noticed that as soon as I moved in to talk to him, the guy in military uniform holding an Imperial Army flag immediately disappeared.

It's a hot day today. I went to the refreshment area where there's a small restaurant, outdoor tables full of people snacking and drinking, and vending machines. I bought a bottle of tea and stood there drinking it. Right beside me a guy in his early-to-mid thirties who sounded somewhat tanked up on beer was loudly proclaiming to a bystander he'd cornered about how America was a "land of killers," positing the fate of the native Americans as an example. While Japanese myself, I couldn't resist being a bit of a loudmouth too, and turned around and said to him "Read the history of Hokkaido" (in reference to the fate of the Ainu). I had finished my drink and was walking away anyway, so his outraged shriek equivalent to "WTF!?" in Japanese failed to make its mark.

Dai-Ni Torii ("No.2 Arch") & Shinmon ("Divine Gate"), Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo.
Dai-Ni Torii ("No.2 Arch") and Shinmon ("Divine Gate") at Yasukuni Shrine. 
 The Emperor and prime minister Shintaro Abe are attending an end-of-war memorial ceremony in the Budokan today. Attended by about 6,000 people, it is reported by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that of the approximately 5,000 members of families of the fallen, offspring make up the majority, and that this year has a record low number of former wives of the fallen: 19, and, for the fourth year running, 0 parents.

38 other local authorities throughout Japan are holding parallel ceremonies, involving a total of about 40,000 people.

69 years on, the Second World War has become fodder for renewed nationalistic bickering in East Asia, primarily between Japan and China. I was in China just a month ago and noted the daily "Confessions of Japanese War Criminals" column in the English-language newspapers there, and over the past month or so there have been reports of war bereaved families in various parts of China launching group litigation against Japanese companies and the Japanese government for war reparations.

After stirring up the hornet's nest of East Asian resentment last year with a visit to Yasukuni Shrine, PM Abe stayed away this year.

Japanese Intelligence in World War 2 

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