Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Meaning of Yasukuni - A Seminar

On September 24, a seminar hosted by the Tokyo American Club and organized by Temple University was held. The audience was predominately American/western with a smattering of Japanese who could understand English. However, this stands out as one of few opportunities to talk about Yasukuni in an open forum. It seems many people went to get a broad understanding of the issues, which the seminar seemed to accomplish well. The goal of the symposium was to frame the issues surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine issue by identifying what the Shrine is, some of the political issues surrounding the shrine, and finally some future prospects of the debate, at a timely change of administrations.There were no surprises or revelations and I feel it was presented in an even handed way.

Documentary Screening: "Spirits of the State"
(28min film produced by John Nelson)

Contextualizing Yasukuni: Its Religious and Political Significance
Moderated by David Satterwhite (Executive Director, Fulbright Program

· "The Yasukuni Shrine in the Context of East Asian Nationalisms"
Phil Deans, Professor of International Affairs, Director of International Affairs Program,
Temple University, Japan Campus

· "Packaging Yasukuni Shrine for International, Political, and Religious Consumers"
John Nelson, Associate Professor of East Asian Religions, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of San Francisco

· "Mobilizating from the Margins: Domestic Citizen Politics and Yasukuni Shrine"
Brian Masshardt, Lecturer,
Musashi University; University of Hawaii-Manoa

Beyond the Yasukuni Crisis
Moderated by Jeff Kingston, Professor of History, Director of Asian Studies,
Temple University, Japan Campus

· "Moratorium to Yasukuni Visit: Japan's Internal Logic to Overcome History"
Kazuhiko Togo, Senior Lecturer,
Tamkang University;
former Ambassador of Japan to the

· "The Impact of Yasukuni on Japanese Foreign Policy"
Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science,
Columbia University

Commentary on the Conference

"Spirits of the State"

Only two academics in the non-Japanese speaking world have published any refereed articles on Yasukuni. They are John Breen of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and John Nelson of the University of San Francisco. Both of them are anthropologists focusing on Shintoism, and approach the shrine and the debate as such. Likewise, Nelson’s documentary also looks first at the shrine for what it is – a religious Shinto Shrine.

I chatted with Nelson after the seminar and told him that I especially appreciated his efforts to present the shrine debate at first as a place of faith. The key to opening the shrine to dialogue when I interviewed Vice-Chief Priest Yamaguchi Tatebumi was his realization that I had researched Shinto, the nature of the Kami, and the primary identity of Yasukuni, as a place of faith.

Nelson does not ignore the power of the Yushukan, however. In his comments too, he acknowledged that he was not able to incorporate video of the inside of the new museum. He did explain well though how the spirits of the dead and the shrine itself has been politicized, a phenomena which he studies. The spirits have been approbated for another purpose – in this case the purpose of the state.

Synopsis of the Film


The film opens with observations on war, casualties, and remembrance in the 20th century before focusing on how one nation--Japan--used the deaths of conscripted soldiers to enhance nationalism and reverence for the emperor. One of Japan's oldest religious traditions, Shinto, was appropriated by the state in order to become the spiritual "engine" driving the vehicle of Japan's race towards modernity and industrialization. Patriotism, indoctrination, and state-centered ideology are shown using historical footage and photos of Yasukuni shrine, built in Tokyo as a religious site to enshrine the spirits of the military dead but also as a place of pageantry and state-sponsored ritual. Using ethnographic footage compiled by the filmmaker as well as images from public relations films made by the shrine in the 1970s, the film provides a rare glimpse of the shrine's priests conducting rituals for the spirits of the dead. Viewers then see how Japan's early war victories turned to retreats and defeat (the "kamikaze" special attack squads are shown) with soldiers promising each other to "meet again (as spirits) at Yasukuni shrine." The film then turns to the problematic status of the shrine in the postwar period, due in part to the inclusion of Class-A war criminals and constitutional prohibitions against the collusion of religion and the state. Audiences see how the shrine, its priests, and its spirits of the military dead remain a powerful resource for politicians espousing patriotism, sacrifice, and nationalism. But these associations are also a source of considerable controversy both within Japan and elsewhere in Asia. The film concludes with scenes from well-known Tokyo landmarks (the City Hall, Shinjuku, Shibuya) that suggest the Japanese are at a crossroads in how they deal with the history of the war and how they choose to commemorate those who lost their lives for a failed cause.

First Panel

Together, Nelson, Deans, and Masshardt outlined the nature of the shrine and the approbation of the shrine for political purposes (Nelson), the conflict over the shrine in China (Deans), and finally the role of civil society support and opposition of the shrine (Masshardt). Nelson, in my opinion, did the most to help everyone understand the shrine, its purposes, and the reality of its paradox of both a religious shrine and nationalists memorial. There was also a clear distinction, in may ways, between the shrine’s religious precinct and the Yushukan. Masshardt also was a nice fit, carefully explaining the role of the pro- and anti-Yasukuni forces in Japan’s society. As he noted, the right have power, have the shrine, and simply sit back and wait for any attempts by the left to even try to say something. At times it was quite humorous – the Heiwa Izokukai members are, after all, aging rapidly.

The one area of research evident both from my research and the panelists is the nature of not only the expropriation of the shrine by the state (a case clearly made by Nelson), but also the culpability of the state in supporting the shrine despite Article 20 of the Constitution. We know that Koizumi’s visits ignore the constitutional ban on taking part in religious practice by the state (although some would say he bows only once, not twice, etc. etc). However, in the question and answer period there was some confusion as to how it was decided that the 2.46 million enshrined Kami were determined to be so, especially the 14 convicted class A war criminals. Deans pointed out that the treaty with China was signed the day after the 14 class A war criminals were enshrined, and this was after a decade of attempts by the LDP to have the shrine declared a state shrine again (Yasukuni Jinja Hoaan). Besides the death of the Chief Priest who held out, was the enshrinement of those 14 a concession to those who opposed a treaty with China?

Panel 2

Retired Amb. Togo, son of convicted War Criminal Shigenori Togo, presented a follow up to his idea of a moratorium on visits to Yasukuni Shrine. He and senior officials at MOFA applaud “his spirit” but no one seems to think that his proposal will be effective. He also calls for a debate in Japan on the nature of the shrine and its meaning in Japan. This much I agree with. Curtis seems to think that the past is in the past, and East Asia has to move forward from where it is today. This was a little in opposition to I think what Togo was saying. I am critical of both their opinions that something on this debate should move, but neither can offer concrete suggestions for solving the multiple impasses involved in this debate.


As another participant expressed to me today in an email, it is amazing how little very intelligent people know about Yasukuni Shrine, the debate, why it is a problem, and how it can be solved. IN order to achieve any sort of reconciliation it is absolutely necessary for the facts to be established so that a common understanding can be reached. This is still not the case. It is clear from the final comments made by Curtis in response to my question that the issue is even more complicated that they were able to cover in five hours. I specifically asked how Japan and China can reconcile the way war criminals were handled in the 1950s (which implicates the US). He acknowledged this opens an entirely new perspective on the problem.

This in itself is a problem – the Yasukuni shrine debate is immensely complex and difficult to understand, much less come to terms with. The general public has little patience to understand the fine details necessary to clarify in order to address the broad issues. As an example, many relatively intelligent observers cannot understand the nature of a kami, and often misinterpret the name of the shrine itself (not peace country, but pacified country – as in pacifying of the Gods).

To understand the Yasukuni debate, one must have a grasp of religion, history, international and domestic politics, law, and in particular the nuances of nationalism in Japan, China, Korea, and other players. This seminar was an important step in achieving a broader multidisciplinary understanding of Yasukuni Shrine and its conflict. However, we are only a small step closer to any possible reconciliation of the issue. Meanwhile, everyone holds their breath to see what Shinzo Abe will do.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Benedicts Remarks

On September 12, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture at Regensburg University, where he once was on faculty. One quote he used during the speech raised alarms throughout the Muslim World. The pope’s statement was: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached” – quoting Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus

At its root, the issues over the Pope’s comments are about the future of religion – both Christian and Muslim – within a liberal European society. Although the exact quote used by Pope Benedict is what sparked much of the outrage in the Muslim world, there was scant attention paid to the speech overall.

The pope was talking about the future of the Church itself and its own internal “holy war” in defining a modern identity of the Catholic Church within a secularized Roman Catholic Church. His point was this: “The decisive statement in his argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

He goes on in the speech to note the contradiction between God’s transcendence. He asks, “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?” He goes on to describe a melding of Greek philosophy and Christian spirit, and the later dehellenization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He criticizes the melding of mathematical and elemental science with the human and social sciences, which he argues excludes God.

His central theme is to argue for a combination of reason and faith – science and theology. He further argues for a widespread dialogue of cultures and religions.

His argument, therefore, is not unreasonable, making the criticisms of his quote that much more remarkable. Further, his quick apology for misunderstanding is also notable, and in many ways, proves his point – the overreaction in the Muslim world only demonstrates a greater need for dialogue and understand not only between Muslims and Catholics, but between the rational and faith. It is this debate that is shared between Europe and the Middle East, but also a point of conflict between them. This shared struggle between rationality (i.e. modernity) and faith is shared between the Middle East and the west. Ultimately, the humility of the Holy Father should give many pause to consider what he ultimately is proposing.

What is forgotten in the protests and the fallout, is that dialogue as called for by the Pope requires as much listening, if not more, than it requires screaming.