Japan from the inside out

Some Yasukuni lanterns are more important than others

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 18, 2007

It was widely but briefly reported by the Japanese media two days ago that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ponied up 10,000 yen (about $US 82) out of his own pocket to buy and donate a commemorative lantern for the Mitama Festival at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. (Yes, that Yasukuni.)

The prime minister’s name was written on the lantern without his title, indicating that he made the donation as a private citizen. The media are intensely interested about prime ministerial visits to the shrine for several reasons. Obviously, one reason is that former Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits during his term in office ignited public hysteria in China and South Korea, with the governments of both those countries fanning the flames. It’s not good for cordial diplomatic relations for folks to protest by cutting off their fingers and shooting flaming arrows into the grounds of the Japanese embassy.

Another is that the visits are important domestically because they symbolize what some see as the creation of an identity for a post-war Japanese state. Yes, the Japanese are still working this out, which is why Constitution reform continues to be an issue. On the other hand, some in the media, particularly overseas, prefer to portray this as a “resurgence of Japanese nationalism”. It makes for jucier copy.

Conservatives (for want of a better word) say that since its defeat, Japan has had plenty of government, but hasn’t been a state (in the nation-state sense of the term). They think Yasukuni is an essential part of that identity as a memorial for the country’s war dead in the same way Arlington serves in a similar role in the United States.

An official visit by a Japanese politician is not really a hot-button political issue in itself—voters of an ideological bent already have made up their minds one way or another based on their broader philosophy. During the last Diet election, it was ranked a low fifth in opinion polls on the list of issues voters considered important. Some in business and financial circles, however, would rather the politicians stay home. It’s bad for business in East Asia when people in the easily irritated countries stage boycotts or break the windows of the local Japanese branch outlet.

The prime minister himself is rather coy about both his past actions and his intentions for the future. Mr. Abe was a strong supporter of former Prime Minister Koizumi’s inflammatory visits, but he refuses to tell the media whether he went last year or not, and they weren’t able to catch him in flagrante. He passed up the opportunity to go in January during the New Year’s holidays, when it is customary for Japanese to pray at shrines, and followed the example of Mr. Koizumi’s predecessor, Yoshiro Mori, by going to the Meiji Shrine instead.

Mr. Abe also donated 50,000 yen out of his own pocket for a masakaki to decorate the Shinto altar at Yasukuni’s spring festival this year. And of course many are waiting to see what he will do on August 15th, the date of the Japanese surrender.

A curious phenomenon regarding the Mitama Festival, however, is the relative absence of media coverage of the many prominent politicians besides Mr. Abe who also donated funds to buy a lantern. For example, the photograph shown here appeared in a Japanese newspaper with the caption, “Lanterns donated by Prime Minister Abe and many other politicians hung at the shrine”.

A careful examination of the photograph shows that the lantern with Mr. Abe’s name on it is not pictured. But there at the top left is the lantern donated by Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party. His lantern even reportedly contains the inscription, “Member of the House of Representatives”, though it is not clearly visible in the photo.

Considerable media coverage is devoted to Mr. Abe’s shrine-related activities, but Mr. Ozawa’s donation, if it is mentioned at all, is noted only briefly at the end of reports. If it is important that the public be made aware of the prime minister’s actions, is it not also important that the public be told in equally unmistakable terms about the behavior of the man who would replace him if his party took power?

Perhaps Japanese readers will disagree, but it might be that Mr. Ozawa’s donation is lightly covered so as to slip the news by some of his party’s supporters. Political activists of both parties know who’s doing what, of course, but some voters who generally support Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ may not be paying close attention.

The DPJ has to be the gooney bird of political parties in the advanced industrialized countries. It was formed during the political reorganization of the 90s, and primarily consists of people who bolted Mr. Abe’s party, the LDP, and those who left the Socialist Party (now the Social Democrats) when it imploded. In other words, it’s a walking contradiction—it is comprised both of Diet members who signed the recent Washington Post advertisement rebutting the comfort woman resolution, and a few serious socialists who are knee-jerk anti-Emperor/Flag/National Anthem/American Alliance, and who supported their old comrades’ so-called Peace Cruises to Pyeongyang in years past.

This grouping of unlikely bedfellows is one reason the party has yet to gain traction as a serious opposition group in Japan. They remain a catchbasin for the votes of those who are opposed to the LDP for various reasons, but are too middle-of-the-road to cast a ballot for the Socialists or Communists.

The leftist element of the party might not care for their standard bearer publicly supporting a Yasukuni festival as a member of the Diet. In the past, Mr. Ozawa has called for the convicted war criminals to be enshrined at a separate location to allow politicians to visit Yasukuni itself.

Their enshrinement didn’t stop him from buying a lantern, however.

The Mitama Festival, incidentally, just ended on the 16th. It was inaugurated in 1947 for the consolation of the souls of the nation’s war dead. More than 30,000 lanterns are lit at night, and this photo from the Japanese portion of the Yasukuni website gives you an idea what it looks like. The shrine also planned to have the students at a local women’s junior college and children carry mikoshi, or portable shrines, but poor weather forced the cancellation of that event.

12 Responses to “Some Yasukuni lanterns are more important than others”

  1. yasuyasu said

    Always thank you for interesting posts.

    Matama Festival -> Mitama Festival

    Though will be typing mistake; the following just to make sure.
    Mi-tama(御-魂) means the honorific title of the soul of the dead person.

  2. Edith Cavell said

    As always, I am charmed by Mr. Sakovich’s review of a Japanese festival. Ritual can be both comforting and beautiful. It is unfortunate that our dear blogger uses these rites and festivals to perpetuate Japan as a Kodak moment instead of a very real country.

    Ignored, by our dear blogger Sakovich, is the significance of the Mitama Matsuri, especially its first day, July 13th. It is indeed beautiful, and I was saddened to see him mar its meaning with his usual small-hearted rhetoric.

    July 13th is the festival for the Chinreisha, the spirit pacifying shrine that is located to the south of the Honden or main shrine behind very tall iron bars. Until last October (2006) access was blocked to the public.

    The Chinreisha comprises two za (seats) where two distinct sets of kami (deified war dead) are venerated. The first is dedicated to those who died fighting against the Imperial forces in the Meiji restoration–they are excluded from the Honden. The second is dedicated to the war dead of ALL nations. Thus, European, American, Australian, Chinese and Korean war dead are enshrined at the Yasukuni site. Unlike the souls enshrined in the Honden, however, the souls at the Chineisha are not deified individually. The Chinreisha is a collective enshrinement of these combative souls. Like the Honden, this shrine receives offerings every morning and every evening of every day and it has its own annual festival, which is July 13th.

    This Chinreisha is relatively new; having been created in July 1965 to enshrine the war-dead in Japan and abroad since 1853 whose souls had not been enshrined in Yasukuni’s Main Hall. Some believe it may have been established to enshrine the souls of the 14 controversial Class-A war criminals, or even all 1000 or so convicted Class A, B, and C war criminals. The then-Chief Priest Fujima Tsukuba had opposed their enshrinement.

    There are many distinctions made between the war dead at Yasukuni. Many of those who died in Japan’s wars cannot be enshrined at Yasukuni because of class or manner of death. The most basic distinction is between those who died for the Imperial cause and all others. The Chinreisha exists as a counter to the exclusiveness of the central shrine by enshrining the spirits of ALL those who died fighting against the Imperial cause (like Saigo Takamori, who fought against the Meiji restoration as did the ancestors of the current Chief Priest and the current imperial Princess Kiko, who recently bore a son for her husband Prince Akishino), as well as all foreign combatants and victims of Japan’s wars.

    The July 13th festival for the Chinriesha is all-inclusive. As Prof Breen, one of the world’s leading authorities on Shinto said, “What is interesting about the Chinreisha in the present context is that it has the capacity to recall a more nuanced past, a past of perpetrators and of victims, of winners and losers, of horror as well as heroism.”

    Sadly, it is precisely this past that deniers of Japan’s less than glorious Imperial history, such as our dear Mr Sakovich, hope to bury. The result is continued ill-will and insecurity in East Asia.

    Edith Cavell

  3. Peter Pan said

    A careful examination of the photograph shows that the lantern with Mr. Abe’s name on it is not pictured. But there at the top left is the lantern donated by Ichiro Ozawa, the head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party. His lantern even reportedly contains the inscription, “Member of the House of Representatives”, though it is not clearly visible in the photo.

    Good eye!

    I would imagine no one cares about Ozawa doing it because the media hasn’t worked tirelessly day and night for the past 10 years trying to paint an image of Ozawa being a ‘hawkish nationalist’ like the have for Abe. It really is sad how foreign media tries to paint an image of Japan as being this corrupt and twisted place in order to make themselves feel better. A perfect example is the foreign media’s reaction to the recent earthquake and nuclear leak here — someone reading only foreign media would think the entire country of Japan was leveled in the earthquake and nuclear waste has covered the entire country and poisoned the seas of the world beyond repair.

  4. sai said

    >Edith Cavell
    You need to add this link and show what Prof Breen concluded about Yasukuni Shrine.

    Yasukuni Shrine: Ritual and Memory
    By John Breen

  5. Aceface said

    “such as our dear Mr Sakovich, hope to bury. The result is continued ill-will and insecurity in East Asia.”

    Now why does Yasukuni solely to be blamed for “insecurity in East Asia”.
    OK,I agree the place does reperesent “less than glorious Imperial history” in a way.But don’t you think it is a bit of exaggeration for a picture of lantern….Talk about “small heart rhetoric”.

    “It is unfortunate that our dear blogger uses these rites and festivals to perpetuate Japan as a Kodak moment instead of a very real country.”
    So how about those pictures sent as icon of Yasukuni by the foreign press,handful of weirdos in Imperial military uniforms.Everybody know that these freaks are there waiting for a photo moment by the foreigners and do not represent the visitors in anyway,Yet you see the same old faces everytime in foreign press coverage on Yasukuni.They are no bloggers,they are professional journalists who are supposed to be reporting the very real country.
    But that usual foreign spin of visions of Japan is what exactly you may hope to bury,Edith.No matter what your motivation on the matter is.

  6. ampontan said

    Thanks Yasuyasu, I fixed it. (I actually had the third one right.)

  7. ampontan said

    Aceface: I’m not sure how much people in Japan “not on the left” understand this, but Americans figured one thing out a while ago.

    For example, say you try to convince Mr. A of your belief in a political issue, and Mr. A disagrees. If Mr. A is on the right, he will listen to your logic, and disagree with your logic and your conclusion. When he disagrees, he will say, “You are mistaken.”

    If Mr. A is on the left, he is very afraid of your logic, especially if your logic makes any sense. Being on the left is a matter of personal identity. Their objective is self-congratulation. It is a matter of believing yourself to be an advanced, progressive, enlightened person. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with you is backwards, ignorant, and evil.

    It’s not about politics or society, it’s about being a kind of religion. Almost a cult.

    Notice the comments of Cristobal and Edith this week. Remember Cristobal talking about all the “right wingers” here? That’s code for “evil people”. I suggested that Cristobal read the original comfort woman story I did a couple of months ago. He did, and was horrified, because it actually contained facts that he didn’t want to know about. He was afraid that he might actually be wrong.

    So he said I was looking for a “conspiracy”. That was hilarious (or sad) because he was desperate to find something to protect himself. I don’t talk about conspiracies at all.

    Look at the websites Edith sends us to. For the people that take them seriously, they are a kind of religious cult. How could anyone interested in human rights get involved with the North Korean government, for example?

    Look at her note about this post. She has absolutely no idea what I was writing about. So she decided to write about something else instead. (Or, more likely, copy stuff from a website someone else told her about.)

    But it’s important to understand that she doesn’t care, and she doesn’t want to know. All she wants to know is how anything fits into her religion. If you aren’t part of their religion, you are 異教徒.

    All people who are “on the right” are 異教徒.

    Here’s one reason why I like living in Japan. I went to a small party in Japan not so long ago. One woman and her husband thought the last Emperor should have been executed as a war criminal. At the same party was a man whose idea about the “Nanjing Massacre” was “sometimes those things happen in wars. The Japanese didn’t do anything wrong.”

    Everyone knew what everyone else thought and knew they weren’t going to change anyone’s minds, but they were still friends and everyone had a good time.

  8. bender said

    About Edith’s comment about non-Imperialists of the Boshin war not being enshrined, does anyone know whether Confederate war dead are buried or commemorated in Arlington? I’d guess NO. Nor I believe are royalists back in the revolutonary war or any read coats for that matter. Distinction indeed.

  9. ampontan said

    Bender: Confederates are indeed buried at Arlington. Look at the link at the bottom of this post in February.

    According to the logic of the anti-Yasukuni crowd, that would mean that every time the President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, he is an implicit supporter of the South’s system of slavery.

  10. Bender said


    Thanks. Didn’t know that. Good question for “cash cab”.

  11. Aceface said


    “Here’s one reason why I like living in Japan. I went to a small party in Japan not so long ago…..”

    Well,perhaps after you’ve left,the couple you’ve mentioned might gave that gentleman a glass of fruit punch with their spit inside smiling.Kidding.

    You know,the left-right division happens here in the land of rising sun all the time too.In a way more harsher and the divide between the camp much more deeper.Remember,the grass is always greener.

    I’m a bit regretting about Cristobal.I was looking back my own post and I’ve got freaked out.You just should not write something after working for 26 hours.Poor man must be scared to death.
    “Oh!No!I’ve been caught by some jingoist in the other side of the world and he won’t let me go!”.That guy could be a good teacher but definitely not a student of the “No kids are left behind”school.That I can tell you from my first hand experience.

    The expats are funny people.They can always distance themselves from local politics and it’s scheme of political correctness,and yet probably because of that,they want to chime in from green zone.When they get fed up with it,they do AWOL.

    Expat bloggers are same.They can either blog about funny English T-shirts,bitching about the what’s-wrongs about host nation and share some good laugh with your fellow expat,or commit deeper by sharing local people’s agony and blog things seen from the other side.You,in my opinion,belong to the latter few.I don’t know whether you would take this as a compliment though.

    Anyway,best of luck,get some sleep and work on your matsuri post tommorrow.I got to go to my shift from now.

  12. ampontan said

    Lyrt: The software prompted me to approve your post, and it did, but then I messed it up. Here it is. Sorry about that.

    Speaking of memorials and people celebrated there, I don’t remember the Vietnamese cutting off their fingers for that:

    Lieutenant Colonel, United States Army Frank Akeley Barker, Jr. was born on January 26, 1928 and joined the Armed Forces while in New Haven, Connecticut. He served in the United States Army and in 18 years of service, he attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. On June 13, 1968, at the age of 40, Frank Akeley Barker, Jr. perished in the service of our country in South Vietnam, Quang Ngai. NOTE: Colonel Barker was the Battalion Commander at the My-Lai “Massacre,” but was killed before the incident was made public.

    On 16 March 1968, at about 0800, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry of the Americal Division assaulted a hamlet in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province called by the Vietnamese Thuan Yen but known to the Americans as My Lai 4. On this morning, Charlie company was part of a temporarily assembled strike force called Task Force (TF) Barker, named for its commander Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker. The mission of TF Barker was to locate and destroy Vietcong main-force combat units in an area on the coast of the South China Sea known to be a VC political and military stronghold. The company met no resistance as it assaulted the hamlet, but by noon every living thing in My Lai that the troops could find—men, women, children, and livestock—was dead.

    According to South and North Vietnamese sources, 504 civilians were killed in and around My Lai. Charlie Company suffered one casualty, the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. The company’s after-action report claimed 128 enemy killed and three weapons recovered.

    For over a year, the event lay dormant, but after a letter was sent to the Army and members of Congress by a recently-discharged soldier, the Army began an investigation and Seymour Hersh broke the story in the press. A number of soldiers from Charlie company were charged with murder. All were acquitted or had their charges dropped except for Lieutenant William Calley, a Charlie Company platoon commander, who was convicted of premeditated murder by a court martial and sentenced to life imprisonment. After various reviews and appeals, he served only four and a half months. Twelve officers were accused of covering up the incident. Only one was tried by court-martial, and he was acquitted.

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