itchy feet cravings · musings

Tokyo Diaries: Yasukuni Shrine

My mom confirmed to me once that our ancestry is a mix of Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. We didn’t acquire Japanese ancestry until after 1945. You probably guessed it now. I’m struggling to accept the fact that my great grandmother, as my mom said, could have been one of those who unfortunately had been part of the degrading scheme the Japanese soldiers instigated during World War 2. Though none of my relatives would dare utter the word ‘comfort women,’ I’m pretty sure she could have been a war victim one way or another even though some of our kin disputed that story.

That’s why, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to include the Yasukuni Shrine in our itinerary when my friend and I came to Japan in November last year. But by the time we arrived in Tokyo, I suddenly gave in to the urge to go and visit the place. My primary goal: to stop this nagging sense to come to terms with the past.

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the Daiichi Torii, considered the largest torii  in Japan, is made of bronze steel

Yasukuni Shrine has always been the most controversial places in Japan. Oh well, not only in Japan, I think the whole of Southeast Asia knows that. If anything, it’s been known as the repository of the souls of the Japanese soldiers, men and women and children who fought and served for the Japanese empire during WW2. This is where the Japanese enshrined the remains of their war dead, those who died fighting for the Emperor during the Meiji period, including those who were declared war criminals. Any foreign leaders or dignitaries who visit the Yasukuni-jinja are considered making a political statement. Any Japanese leader who visits the place will draw a rebuke from neighboring Asian countries who suffered under the Japanese occupation.

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Incidentally, as I’m writing this, our country just celebrated the Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor)—a national public holiday in the Philippines commemorated annually every April 9th in memory of the Fall of Bataan. It’s also known as “Bataan Day” or the day when the Bataan Peninsula fell against the invading Japanese. The combined forces of the Philippine and US Army was forced to surrender on April 9, 1942 to the Japanese invading army and thus, was the start of the infamous “Death March.” And though the Philippines and Japan used to be foes, now both countries are allies. As the saying goes,  there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, especially, in global politics. The Philippines now enjoys a strong bilateral economic, political, business relationship with Japan.

When I was in elementary and high school, I had always been fascinated with discussions on history particularly WW2 stories. But I cringe each time the topic veers to the atrocities and gruesome details of the war. Back then I have a negative sentiment towards Japan.

Fast forward to the future. I found myself standing in front of the bronze statue of Japanese Vice Minister of War Omura Masujiro, at the monumental entry of the Yasukuni Shrine, wondering who the hell he is. We took the Hanzomon Line to Kudanshita Station (Exit 1), after a brief visit to the Japanese Imperial Palace.

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Well, he was revered as the father of the Japanese modern military. Being a brilliant military tactician, the Emperor during the Meiji Restoration assigned him the task of creating a national army and he did so by Westernizing the nation’s military system, and dismantling samurai factions and fiefdoms, among others. His legacy as a military theorist and leader earned him the Emperor’s praise, but also led him to incur the wrath of discontented samurais. He died in Osaka after he was attacked by samurais disgruntled at his aggressive military reforms. Omura may have very well sowed the seed for the Japanese empire’s dreams of expanding its influence over Southeast Asian neighbors that’s why he deserved to have a monument created in memory of his legacy.

The sky was gloomy and the weather cold crisp—perfect setting for someone in a pensive mood. While I was taking pictures of Omura’s statue, my friend called me out to check the flea market at the sides of the park.

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My, was it a treasure trove! Some were selling pre-loved vintage items like clocks, watches, Japanese furniture, jewelry, kitchen tools, traditional masks. It’s amazing to see quirky finds such as old cameras, Gundam robots, Japanese artworks, things like that. My friend decided to buy a Japanese Noh mask. It looked a bit creepy to me, so I decided to forego buying one for myself.

We scoured the flea market starting from the entrance of the monument all the way to the entrance of the second torii. There we stopped to have lunch at a small canteen where we saw some foreigners dining too. For lunch we shared a plate of okonomiyaki and chicken yakitori  priced at Y500 and Y450 respectively.

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We moved on afterwards and passed the second steel torii

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the Daini Torii, guarding the Shinmon or the cypress gate
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the Chumon Torii, the third gate, guarding the Shinto shrine

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We stopped briefly in front of the Shinto shrine where we saw some people praying up front. Out of respect, we minimized taking pictures and walked towards the Yushukan war museum. Entrance to the building’s first floor is free but the museum exhibits come with a price and the price depends on what exhibit you choose to enter. Inside, the museum features a steam locomotive, a fighter aircraft and cannon. We also couldn’t resist checking out the books about Yushukan and some items sold at the souvenir shop.

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There are two exhibits here–the exhibit located at the first floor has no English translation while the one at the second floor has. Because we were a bit short on cash we decided to check out the First floor exhibit. Photography isn’t allowed.

Well, I guess you don’t need that much English interpretation to understand the whole point of the exhibit here. It contains photos of the “war heroes” of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and notable soldiers who died in the service of the emperor. Some of their personal effects are also featured here. But what really stunned us is the number of Philippine maps that are hanging on the walls! Explicitly showing their conquest of our nation. Their revisionist approach really grated on our nerves that I momentarily forgot my fascination for the Land of the Rising Sun. We sat down for a moment at the audio-video corner to watch excerpts of their momentous subjugation of Asian countries during the WW2 which didn’t forget to feature the supposed ‘sacrifices’ done by the IJA for its vision of a Greater East Asia.

On our way out of the room, we spotted this guest book where one is supposed to sign before leaving the exhibit. We did sign and to our amazement, found mostly blunt comments left by the visitors here who didn’t like what they saw. Like one Chinese visitor who wrote in big capital letters: “What the hell are you thinking Japan?!’ or comments like “OMG, I’m praying for you Japan!” Others are written in Korean, Chinese, and English and we can just guess they wrote expletives to condemn Japan’s view of WW2.

I was a bit breathless when we stepped outside the museum and on to the park. Here, we felt none of the personal turmoil we encountered inside when we toured the grounds of the museum’s park. Every thing is serene, quiet and peaceful. I tried to collect my thoughts and breathed deeply, looking around the complex.

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A monument dedicated to Justice Radha Binod Pal was the newest addition to the Shrine erected in 2005. The Indian judge was the lone justice on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East’s trials of Japanese war crimes who dissented and judged the defendants not guilty—a matter very “well-known” to the Japanese people.

IMG_0074_5 Even animals who were utilized by the IJA deserved a monument here, like this horse here..

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We followed a trail of locals going down a tree-lined path. At the end of the lane is a beautiful Japanese inspired-garden with a koi pond.

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We sat at the benches drinking at the sight of tranquility. Nothing beats a quiet time during travels. I took the opportunity here to reflect what we just learned about history.  As bitter as it can be, I can say I’m proud of the fact that we as Filipinos have moved on and had the grace to forgive. Now, a lot of Japanese businesses have set up shop in the Philippines and contributed to the economy. Japanese restaurants have mushroomed and their cuisine has become famous in the land. A lot of Filipinos are visiting Japan enjoying its sakura festivals and touring its famed spots, including Mt. Fuji. Others have found work here too and have decided to live here. Forgiveness, I know, is difficult, but a beautiful thing.

So to hell with history, what’s important is the future and the hope nothing like WW2 happens again in the future. I leave it all to God and allowed my burden be washed like the rocks struggling to keep afloat in the strong currents of a river…

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“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”      Amos 5:24

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