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A visit to Yasukuni Shrine

The idea of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Japan, had been floating about for some time. In 2019, I was asked by Dr Ernesto Priego to review The Citi Exhibition Manga マンガ  for The Comics Grid. I gave the journal my honest opinion: I liked the event. But I found that one video loop at the exhibition of some fighter planes morphing into birds quite disconcerting. It was a scene out of Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises.

You see, my father was born in pitch darkness in February 1942, as Mitsubishi bombers flew overhead in the Malaccan airspace to charge at Singapore. Anime or not, that aeroplane scene spooked me. But apart from that, I don’t think the Greater Asian War had any negative impact on my life. As a child, I was oblivious to that chapter of history. We were more concerned about the Cold War and Communist threats.

As for the shrine, I had to see it for myself because I don’t want to be swayed by slander in the news or trolling on social media. As I grew older, I learned more about my family history during World War 2. Things weren’t black-and-white.

Yasukuni Shrine is a short uphill walk away from the Kudanshita station. Image: ©Zarina Holmes

As for the shrine, I had to see it for myself because I don’t want to be swayed by slander in the news or trolling on social media.

I finally talked my twin into visiting the shrine whilst in we were on holiday Malaysia, in December 2022. She was putting together her ikebana made of local flowers – orchids, hibiscus and palm leaves – when I asked her for the second time if we should visit the shrine during our Tokyo trip. She pursed her lips. Without looking away from her ikebana, she said quietly: “I suppose they didn’t know how it was going to be like when they got here.” I took that as a yes.

A week before we departed for Tokyo in January 2023, I asked my parents during lunchtime if they’d mind us visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.

“Tugu?” My father responded. The war memorial?

“Yes,” I confirmed, “The war memorial for Japanese soldiers.”

“If you don’t pray there, it’s fine,” my mother said.

My father deliberated and then said: “You can visit.”

I didn’t have to ask them but it meant a great deal to me. I’m mindful of the circumstance of which he was born into. Also, my mother’s family suffered during the war. The nephew of her grandmother was executed by the Japanese. Towards the end of that war, her grandmother’s own brother was kidnapped and murdered by the Communists. The latter were supposed to be protecting us from the occupiers. They turned out to be criminals, too. Only common folks suffered during the war. Those with weapons profited over our suffering.

We made the trip to the shrine on our third day in Tokyo. It was Friday. We got out of the Kudanshita station and scaled up a hill towards Yasukuni. The torii gate loomed ahead. Some 100 metres ahead, I saw the shrine. I felt hot. Maybe it was the Tokyo Metro heat, maybe it was the winter sun, maybe I was nervous. My twin got more upset as she approached the shrine. I just got hotter and sweatier.

I peeled off my long Barbour jacket to reveal a gawdy yellow jumper with teddy bear motif. It was too cheerful for Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine visitors looked at me oddly. But they left me be. My teddy bears were no ordinary teddy bears. They were my barong, my bear animal spirit, a talisman of courage of my Javanese ancestors.

The shrine was rather peaceful. Quaint. The pavilion leading to it was lined with statues of deities. A statue of an ancient war hero greeted us before we approached the inner sanctum. Wooden plates bearing new year wishes swayed from the posts they were hung from. I found nothing wrong with the shrine. As an Asian, I understand the importance of paying one’s respect to dead family members and ancestors.

You might find some of the explainers in the exhibits economical in truth… However, if I put my anthropologist hat on, I’d say the British Museum could be just as offensive. It still houses artefacts looted from the colonies.

So where is the profanity in this place? In the reductiveness of the artefact descriptions at the Yasukuni Jinja museum? For 1000 yen, you get to experience 12 sections of the war exhibitions. You might find some of the explainers in the exhibits economical in truth. For example, there are only two description cards – big cards, though – explaining the Nanjing “incidents”. However, if I put my anthropologist hat on, I’d say the British Museum could be just as offensive. It still houses artefacts looted from the colonies. The only difference is, the British Museum is a secular institution. Any connotation to the First and Second Estates, and nationalism, are carefully distanced. At the British Museum, the loots sit on their pedestals passively.

I surveyed the exhibits and examined the artefacts like any anthropologist with interest in material culture would. The entrance housed a Mitsubishi fighter plane, green in colour with red circles on the wing. As the elevator transported me to the exhibition on the first floor, I turned around to have a good look at it. If it weren’t for that plane flying over my infant father, I wouldn’t have been at Yasukuni Shrine. It was karma, I suppose.

Section 1 displays samurai artefacts, to prep us for what’s coming in the next 11 sections. I find the bronze vajra or ‘thunderbolt’ on display fascinating, if not ironic. Vajrayana was one of the Buddhist schools that thrived in my country in a time long gone.

The personal effects of soldiers grab my attention. Image: ©Zarina Holmes / Yoshukan Museum

The next few sections explained the origins of the Russo-Japanese War and the Sino-Japanese War. Here, I also learned that when Japan invaded Malaya in 1942, they were really low on natural resources. It appeared they had only three-month supply of rubber. In my opinion, the invasion was unnecessary. They could have asked. The Malay rulers, already perturbed by the republican proposition of the “Malayan Union” sanctioned by the British – a way of dismantling the monarchy like they did to kingdoms in India – were already mobilising for freedom. But Japan invaded anyway. That tune didn’t change much in 1942 as it was centuries ago: we were plundered by our own rulers and by Westerners over our natural resources. That was duly noted.

In my opinion, the invasion was unnecessary. They could have asked.

The main exhibit is the middle of the museum was a grand showcase of a fighter place, a tank painted in white and a massive torpedo. My interest, however, was on the sideshow: the personal effects of soldiers found in the trenches and battlefields. Helmets with bullet holes, rusty water bottles, pots, pans, belts… My heart sank. These were similar to the personal effects that my father had when he was a soldier. Ah, the realisation. They were all soldiers, but on different sides, at different points of time.

The last few sections were dedicated to the dead. On the description cards were excerpts of letters sent by sons to their mothers. ‘Our prosperity is built on the tears and suffering of mothers and it will continue to be so,’ laments one letter. One description quotes the poem of a man who laments his fate of being away for 14 years from his mother. This man was a kempeitai. He died in prison in 1948 whilst awaiting trial in Java, Indonesia.

The very last section featured photographs of some of the war dead. From 1939 to 1945. I wondered: do people really know the suffering these men had gone through in our country? And the horror we had gone through in those three years and eight months? My chest tightened. I did what my mother said I shouldn’t do at Yasukuni. I prayed. I prayed for these souls, should they be innocent, or if moments before their deaths atoned for their sins, to be at peace. I prayed for their descendants to be at peace. I prayed for my people to be at peace.

‘Our prosperity is built on the tears and suffering of mothers and it will continue to be so,’ laments one letter.

I exited the museum discovering that my twin had already left. She found the whole things too sad. She didn’t want to inspect the exhibits with me and ate instead. As a sign of forgiveness, she had sorbet at the museum’s café. A very Malaysian gesture, an indirect way of extending the olive branch. She then bought some souvenirs and left.

Peace offering. Image: ©Zarina Holmes / Yoshukan Museum

The tears didn’t hit me until days later in London, whilst I was researching the origin of the Geneva Convention. I discovered that it has its origin in the Tokyo Draft, a proposal put forward by the International Red Cross in 1934 in Tokyo. The aim was to protect the civilians and prisoners during a war. It didn’t get ratified in time. The war in Europe broke out. Then the Greater Asian War broke out. I wept, ruing the fact that lives were devastated because the older generations sat on their hands.

My people, at their most primal, are believers of spirits. Being island people, they’re quick to anger but also quick to relent. They recognise and admire courage, even in the enemy. They adopt the spirit of their opponent if they find it fearsome and magnificent. In the past, this literally meant taking their heads home. Nowadays, the gesture is more symbolic. The day after my visit to Yasukuni Shrine, at a shop in Shinjuku, I saw a jumper with tiger motif. I thought: I’ll have something of this land’s spirit. I’ll have that tiger. That evening, I left Tokyo for London wearing the jumper. I have no intention of taming it, but the tiger spirit was coming home with me.

I have no intention of taming it, but the tiger spirit was coming home with me.


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