Thursday, November 10, 2005

Yasukuni Jinjya, Part 2

As promised, here's the second installment, in which I actually visit the shrine itself (and the musuem, though regrettably I was unable to take pictures - strictly prohibited, apparently.)

First, the Toori gate:
Yes, yes, I posted an image of this before, but this time you can see just how damn big it is. There are, I believe, three of these, two leading into the outer courtyard, and the third leading into the inner courtyard.

Just inside the third toori, there are two pillars, each with eight friezes around the base. Here are two of them:

Of course I took pictures of all sixteen, but I'm not going to put them all up ... that would just be overkill, and I'm not sure how many pics blogger will let me publish (the rest of them are up on my Flickr account.)

This caught my eye as soon as I entered. I'm not sure what it is, but it certainly is decorative.

The shrine itself was, to my admittedly untrained eyes, a fairly standard and unexceptional example of Shinto architecture. Which is, elegant buildings:Surrounded by trees and interspersed with the occasional rack of prayers:

To tell the truth, I didn't spend much time in the shrine itself ... I felt, somehow, as though I were intruding, an unwelcome stranger in a place I didn't belong (admittedly, this is a feeling that gaijin get a lot, it seems.) Seeing people cleansing their hands with holy water, clapping twice and bowing their heads to pray didn't make me feel any more at home; it was as though my very presence was an imposition. Not, mind you, that I was given any "Go away, dirty foreigner" looks, or anything at all like that ... I don't want to give the wrong impression here. It was just that, Yasukuni is a shrine dedicated to those who died for their country; two and a half million souls are entrusted to it. The Japanese come here to pap their respects to ancestors - or brothers, or lost uncles - who paid the ultimate price. So I tried to tread lightly, and spend no more time than absolutely necessary.

So, on to the musuem. In the courtyard were various statues, honoring everything from battleships to horses (apparently only one or two horses ever returned from Japan's various campaigns; cavalry veterans, grateful for their mounts service, paid to have the statue on the right put into place.)

Now, as I said at the top of the post, I was unable to get any pictures of the musuem ... or, really, I was just too cowardly to disobey the 'Photos Strictly Prohibited' sign, which is really too bad as there was some very cool stuff in there, like (what I assume is) a Zero, and even one of those human-guided torpedoes the Japanese Navy used during the really desperate closing days of WWII. And, of course, Samurai armor, swords, and all other things military from Japan's long, occasionally inglorious but never dull military past.The two photos you see here were, of course, taken by someone with more balls than I.

Now, I've been to a number of war musuems, both in my native Canada, and in Great Britain, and there were two things that really struck me about the one at Yasukuni. The first was the abruptness of change the museum shows; in British war musueums, you can see the long, slow, and painful evolution of military hardware, from armoured knights to musketeers to WWI riflemen to Spitfires. At Yasukuni, you see medieval equipment right up to a certain point (specifically, around July 8 1853, when Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to international trade.) Then, there is an abrupt transition to European-style military hardware, not just in the technology (primitive rifles, cannons, etc) being used, but even in the style of uniforms: ornate piping on the sleeves, regimental cap badges, round Civil War style hats, it's all there.

The second thing was the somewhat different interpretation of history offered by the museum. It's hardly even-handed; it glosses over the atrocities of the firsy half of the 20th century, such as the Rape of Nanking, the use of bubonic plague against the Chinese, and the brutalization of POWs and occupied territories. This is hardly surprising; the Japanese are famously reluctant to acknowledge the crimes of their grandparents' and great-grandparents' generations. However, the central way in which the account differs is not one of ommision, but one of perspective: the section on modern history (which is most of the museum) starts off with a map of the world, centered on Asia, showing the encroachment of the Western powers. Essentially, the museum takes the position that the Japanese were simply taking action to preserve themselves, and other Asian peoples, by forging a pan-Asian superstate that would have the resources, manpower, and military might to withstand the European onslaught.

It's tempting to dismiss such a view as a post-facto rationalization, an attempt to duck the guilt for their crimes. And that's probably partly the case; any accurate history of Japan in that period must, after all, take those crimes into account. Yet there is, I think, something to this. Try to imagine, after all, what the world must have looked like to the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century: after centuries of intentional isolation, happily slaughtering one another in an endless series of vicious internecine wars, a fleet of strange-looking, ill-mannered gaijin come up to one of your ports and say "Trade with us, or we blow up your cities." So you trade with them, and suddenly become aware that, 1) their technology (the steam engine, firearms, printing presses, etc) has made them very, very strong and that 2) they have subjugated more or less the entire planet. Your culture immediately begins a series of protracted upheavels as it attempts to assimilate all the new technology gained through this trade; by the time you've finished, you take a look around and realize that you may well be the only non-Western country in the entire world to have gotten it's shit together. Still, you're much smaller and weaker than any of them are ... then, at the very beginning of the 20th century, you find yourself at war with one of those powers (namely, Russia.) It's comparitively short, but immensely costly in both lives and treasure: fighting it almost bankrupted the Japanese government, and 85,000 were wounded or killed. But, in the end, you win ... you (and, not trivially, the rest of the world) realize the Europeans can be beaten. You know another war with European powers would be a Bad Idea (hence, the Anglo-Japanese alliance) but at the same time, you can see that, with a little bit of expansion (just like the Europeans have been doing) you can get the resources necessary to avoid being smashed, and maybe even push them back a little.... and there's the rest of Asia, still reeling drunkenly from it's collision with European culture, poorly defended and ripe for the taking....

I'm not saying the war was right, of course. What I'm saying is, the Japanese didn't do anything the Europeans hadn't been doing, and did it for essentially the same reasons (principally, greed, with possibly a very small helping of their version of the White Man's Burden.) One can understand why they behaved as they did, and if they behaved like animals during WWII, well, that wasn't a war noted for easily troubled consciences, by any of the players. And, to be fair, the Japanese took their share of lumps. Their entire country was burnt to the ground in air raids, and to this day they remain the only people to have been nuked. Twice.

To close: one of the somewhat touching things I learned in the musuem was that, before they flew, the pilots of one of Japan's fighter wings vowed to meet in the second life by the second cherry tree from the left of the toori at Yasukuni. The survivors - there weren't many, of course - planted this tree when they returned.

(I think this is the right tree....)


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