The Reenactment of Wartime Pasts in Yasukuni

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In Japan, August is the month of the dead.  It is the time of the year when spirits of the dead are believed to return home and when millions of people return “home” to greet them.   This past week, my family in Japan and I busied ourselves by cleaning the family tomb, sprucing up the household altar, and suffering half a day of bumper-to-bumper traffic to visit my mother-in-law’s hometown to pay our respects to both the living and the dead.

The month of the dead is also defined by the anniversary of the end of the war, which falls coincidently in the middle of the Bon (ancestor) Festival.     For the most part, the welcoming and sending off of the spirits of the war dead happens in the private spaces of the home and the family tomb, where the families welcome the dead, spend the week eating and drinking with them, and then send them off with some drink, fire, and food.

On 15 August, the spirits of some 3 million Japanese soldiers and civilians who were killed in World War II come home.  Most of the remembrance ceremonies for the war dead are private.  However, there are much more public ways of remember people who not only died for their families but also as a sacrifice for the welling being of the nation.  On 15 August, the spirits of the dead are coaxed to join people in more complex, raucous spaces of memorialization.  On this day, the Yasukuni Shrine complex serves as an important space for this kind of memorialization.  Built in 1869, the shrine lists the names of some 2.5 million Japanese war dead from 1869 to 1945, including 14 Class-A war criminals who were enshrined in 1978.

Daily memorial rites are performed in Yasukuni throughout the year, with little interest or interference from passersby.  My guess is that the daily schedule of the groups visiting the shrine for the day escapes most people’s attention.   When I took a group of year-abroad students to the shrine in June, we had to work at finding the places where Japan’s wartime past were inscribed in the landscape.  The markers are often subtle and require some ability in Japanese.   All of this subtlety is in danger of being lost in the confusion of 15 August.  On this day, the complexity of how Japan’s imperial past is presented seems to be bursting at the edges of Yasukuni.  The daily memorial services are drown out by a carnivalesque scrum of thousands of participant-observers.

Since the early-1950s, the official public remembrance of the ending of the war has been reserved at the ritualized and formulaic National Memorial Service for the War Dead (zenkoku senbatsusha tsuitôshiki), where state officials give thanks to the sacrifice that soldiers made for the postwar prosperity of the nation.  The service has been held in the Yasukuni grounds only once, in 1954.   I am surprised that the organizers gave it a go then, as they would have likely been overshadowed by raucous expressions of Japanese militarism.

Now these performances are often done in full costume, normally with chests thrust forward and in the the uniforms of the Japan’s imperial army and navy.  Some of these performances are done by people who served in the imperial military.  Most are performed by people much too young to have served.  Few of the performances are subtle.  There is little that is subtle about waving a flag with the imperial ensign.  In advance, I assumed that the men performing their nostalgia for Japanese militarism in full dress would be hostile of having their picture taken.  I was wrong.  Most of the men seemed to delight in the attention, welcoming the orgy of cameras that converged on them once they appeared.

While I regret that I haven’t been able to take my year-abroad students to Yasukuni at its most lively, I am frankly not sure how much pedagogical value there would be in bearing witness to the complexity of the event.  Do such reenactments encourage ethnographic history, or was what I witnessed a reenactment of the past in”funny dress,” as Greg Dening has suggested?   I have to be honest.  I was reluctant to engage in the theatre,  yet I often felt the pull of the re-enactment.   Was my being there legitimating their historical performance, giving more volume to their nationalist narrative?  Or is there something that can be drawn from the carnivalesque environment of the day that can be used to illustrate the complexity of historical memory?

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