John Breen - Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan's Past

I went into this book with little knowledge of Yasukuni (靖国神社). I take that back. In the week prior to reading this book I read Troubled Apologies, but before reading it I had little knowledge of Yasukuni. So I came in with a blank slate and open mind.

Initially I thought, "What's the big deal? Why are people on either side getting so worked up about this?" However, by the time I had finished Takahashi Tetsuya's essay in the middle-end of the book I realized I had joined the side opposed to what Yasukuni stands for. I think the editor, John Breen, wants you take that side as well even though he comes off as objective in his opening comments. People may applaud him for his balanced treatment, may even call him brave for allowing people on either side of the debate to contribute to this work, but the essays he chose on the "for Yasukuni" side are really a joke. They amount to nothing more than easily-torn-down straw men.

While reading Mr. Takahashi's essay I was reminded of the Mormon church's baptisms for the dead in which all non-Mormons are baptized into Mormonism posthumously (whether their families want them to or not). Yasukuni does basically the same thing by enshrining those who didn't want to be part of WWII. Yasukuni has even enshrined non-Japanese people (mostly from Korea) who were forced into fighting for Japan. At least the Mormons, since 1995 anyway, will sometimes honor requests to remove dead people from their records. Yasukuni won't.

Those in favor of Yasukuni are Kevin Doak and Nitta Hitoshi. Doak's essay is a bunch of religious, Catholic nonsense which appeals to faith rather than sound argument and reasoning. Mr Nitta at least tries to sound intelligent. He tries to make it sound like he knows what he is talking about. But anyone with a small bit of critical thinking skills can see through his rationale. Let's look at a few of his arguments.

One of his reasons why Yasukuni should be supported is that people from 39 countries, not counting Japan, have visited the shrine. (p. 127) Hello? Protestors visit the shrine. Tourists visit the shrine. Just because people visit it doesn't make it a good thing.

Another of his arguments is that the Class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni didn't commit crimes as bad as the Nazi leaders. (p. 131) Therefore, we are to infer that they weren't so bad after all and should continue to be worshiped as kami.

His reasoning about comfort women is laughable. First, he contends that the comfort women made up their stories in an attempt to weaken Japan. If he can't convince you here (that the comfort women stories are all a myth) then he reverses direction and says that "comfort stations" were under military control for many (other) countries like Germany, Britain, and America. In other words, they didn't exist, but if they did they existed not only for Japan but for other countries as well, and therefore, it was OK for Japan to do what they did. (p. 139)

My favorite quote from Mr. Nitta can be found on page 141.

"I hope too that readers will understand that the prevailing intellectual mood in Japan is still overwhelmingly in the grip of an overbearing pacifist ideology."
Although the term "overbearing pacifist" brings a smile to my face, the thought that there are many in Japan like Mr. Nitta quickly wipes it off. And it is the fact that there are many like Mr. Nitta that should make both Japanese and non-Japanese oppose Yasukuni. For it inspires, condones, and encourages anti-pacifist ideology. As Breen, himself, mentions on page 158, Yasukuni falsifies history to make the preposterous suggestion that suicide bombers died for democracy.

This book is not perfect. Since it has many authors there is much redundancy that Breen should have edited out. There has to be some better arguments for Yasukuni that Breen did not include. In any event, if you want to experience the debate and come to a greater understanding of Yasukuni then read this book.

If you'd like to comment on this book do so here.

from the publisher:
Located in the heart of Tokyo, Yasukuni is a controversial shrine dedicated to the Japanese war dead. It holds the remains of twelve convicted and two suspected Class A war criminals, and its museum features an account of Japan's involvement in the Second World War that many would describe as revisionist. Visits to Yasukuni by cabinet members often spark protests in Japan and abroad, especially in China, Korea, and Taiwan, and the shrine's existence continues to foster a sense of mistrust between the Chinese and Japanese governments.

As the first authoritative volume in English on Yasukuni, John Breen has edited a book that neither commends nor condemns the monument. Instead it renders more complex an issue that, in the media at least, has been portrayed in starkly simplistic terms. Breen presents authoritative yet divergent views on the shrine and its place in postwar Japanese diplomacy, ideology, and history. Critical contributions are written by leading Yasukuni and anti-Yasukuni Japanese intellectuals, as well as Chinese and Western commentators. Yasukuni is a provocative symbol of Japan's nationalist past. With this book, English-speaking readers can now access a full portrait of the shrine's significance and its unique position in the highly contested history of Japan.