Monday, October 11, 2010

Tokyo See: Yasukuni Shrine - Where Controversies Abound

I have another confession to make: we have not been to Akihabara Electric Town yet. Samurai T belongs to the Pre-Technology Stone Age Era,  and while I love to own the latest tech toys out of sheer vanity and/or curiosity, do not have a single tech bone in my body. But yes, I have promised myself that I will visit Akihabara when we next visit Tokyo (whenever that may be), and come hell or high water, I will drag the Samurai (kicking and screaming if need be) along with me. I am most keen to visit a Maid Cafe.

So, instead of Akihabara which usually ranks as one of the top attractions in Tokyo, we have been to less touristy places like Yasukuni Shrine, no thanks to the history-mad Samurai, but I am also guilty lah - I love history and international relations subjects.  Chosen by the Meiji emperor to commemorate the war dead starting from the Boshin War in 1867, Yasukuni Shrine is a political hot potato come every World War II anniversary for having enshrined Class A war criminals within its premises. Added to that, the shrine operates a military museum, the Yushukan, which presents a revisionist interpretation of history where Japan is seen as an Asian liberator and highlights "heroic" war stories like the kamikaze pilots.

Yasukuni Shrine is easily accessible via the Tokyo Metro Subway. Take the Tozai or Hanzomon Line to Kudanshita Station and it is a painless 5-10 minute walk to the shrine.

The eager Samurai pointing the way to Yasukuni at the Kudanshita Station

Surprisingly, for a city based shrine, Yasukuni Shrine has sprawling grounds - which also means more walking. From the entrance of the shrine where a massive Torii stands guard, we had to walk a fair distance to the main building. And unfortunately for me, it was a hot summer day.

 At the entrance of Yasukuni Shrine

One of the biggest and tallest Torii I have ever come across in Japan. Also note the clear blue sky.

While for most people the major focus of the shrine is the presence of the WWII war dead, there are actually a lot of monuments on the grounds commemorating the Japanese soldiers from multiple wars stretching back to the 19th century.

According to the Samurai, this is dedicated to the war dead from the Japanese expedition to Siberia.

The "national" nature of the shrine could be seen by the large number of the imperial Chrysanthemum crests adorning the architecture of the shrine. It also did not escape us that there were hardly any tourists around, as opposed to Meiji Jingu Shrine. The locals, mostly old and middle-aged Japanese, looked to be paying respects to relatives. Some were taking their dogs for a stroll around the grounds. As we neared the main shrine, I saw military men standing guard where people offered their prayers. (We have visited multiple shrines in the country but never encountered any guards.) I tried to peek into the prayer hall to see if I could see the tablets of the controversial war criminals to no avail. I also attempted to take a picture of the interior of the shrine, and was shouted at by the military guard. Uh-oh. They were obviously very sensitive around here.

A chrysanthemum crest on the wooden door

The main shrine building. Did you see a guard?

I was shouted at for taking this photo!! Thankfully my camera wasn't confiscated.

Well, since we were not allowed to take photos near the main shrine, and I certainly wasn't going to pay my respects to the WWII criminals (not keen to be struck by lightning by my own ancestors), we made our way to another part of the shrine where the military museum was located. It was actually a fairly modern looking building, with an adjourning nice little park peppered with lots of bronze statues. 

Dedicated to military dogs. How cool is that!!!

On the first level of the museum (free admission) which had a modern glass facade, we immediately saw the highlight display which was a Zero Fighter aircraft used by the kamikaze pilots from WWII. Having read so much about the Zero Fighters during history lessons, it was awesome to come face to face with the real thing. The ground floor exhibits also included a section of a steam locomotive and actual cannons with battle scars. There was also a gift shop at the corner which sells mostly nationalist and imperial military knick-knacks which were most interesting to look at, and would be a great addition for collectors of war memorabilia. To access the second floor where there are more war artefacts and weaponry, a 800 yen admission is required. Being cheapsakes, we decided to forego exploring that part of the museum.

The remarkable Zero Fighter with the Japanese Sun under its wings 

A severely "wounded" cannon

Although I am well aware of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the various conquered Asian countries, including Singapore, I did not feel any up-swell of rage nor sadness as I walked around the shrine and museum. The Japanese themselves have also paid the price with the 2 atomic bombs, and the citizens then were also the victims of an ambitious and militarized government. Obviously I did not live through the horrific war to colour my feelings, but one thing I do understand is that war is cruel and as part of the global community we should all do our part to prevent such large scale massacres from ever happening again. 

The shrine and the museum are reminders that there remains pockets of hawks and imperialists in Japan lobbying for the resumption of Japan's military power, and in view of China's meteoric rise as a military power in the region, the governments should make doubly sure that all conflicts must be resolved in the diplomatic arena. As it is we have more than enough problems (terrorists, anyone?) to confront this day.

(Hmm, the last section sounds like something I would write on a political science paper. Haha.)

No comments: