Yasukuni shrine, the most troubling and troublesome place in all of Japan, the most potent symbol of the national Japanese neurosis, was back in the news last week. As usual, controversy took the form of a question that would be ridiculous in any other country: Should the Prime Minister visit the memorial to the war dead?
Every Japanese leader confronts that unlikely dilemma. Nationalists demand that prime ministers pay their respects at Yasukuni, but politicians all know that doing so will provoke rage in countries where Japan committed war crimes, especially China and Korea. The question often gets framed as a test of courage: Is the national leader brave enough to endure foreign protests? Most prime ministers evade the issue, but last week newspapers around the world showed Junichiro Koizumi, after only five months in office, entering the shrine in morning coat, striped trousers and stockinged feet, a Shinto priest at his side. It was a compromise; he had planned to visit two days later, on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan's surrender, but his advisors decided that would be too provocative. He took care to stay only a few minutes. Still, he visited, and thereby implicitly endorsed the sentiments expressed at Yasukuni.
Those sentiments are astonishing. Put plainly, the Shinto priests and militarists who run Yasukuni believe Japan's wars were justified, that the Japanese of today owe their peace and prosperity to their wartime heroes, and that their war criminals were not war criminals -- they were martyrs, "cruelly and unjustly tried by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces," as the Yasukuni Web site puts it.
Nothing about the building's modest facade, on a street just north of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, suggests its sensational contents. My first visit was an accident: 14 years ago my wife and I were staying at an inn nearby and we wandered on to the grounds of Yasukuni without knowing what it was. Soon we were engrossed in the museum on the site. After an hour it was clear that those 15 display rooms added up to an intensely educational exhibit.
Museums usually deal with familiar subjects and ideas. Whether they display Vermeers or old railway engines, they show roughly what we expect. Yasukuni isn't like that. It opens the visitor to a new and unsettling consciousness of Japan. Elsewhere, Japan registers as a peaceful, modern democracy living in an exciting present -- or, sometimes, in a distant past that is elegant and brilliant. Yasukuni, by contrast, surrounds you with a perverse militarism that is otherwise available only in books, old films or embittered memories. If you walk into the building loving Japan, you may still love it when you come out, as I do; but your love will be layered with fresh complications.
Yasukuni was founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji. Its name means "peaceful country," but the exhibits are dominated by guns and swords or by pictures of warships and fighter aircraft. Nowhere is there a hint that those who used these weapons did anything wrong. Yasukuni even venerates General Hideki Tojo, one of the madmen from whom Japan was saved by the atomic bomb. As late as April, 1945, well after the firebombing of Tokyo had demonstrated that the Americans could burn the whole country to the ground, Tojo was still recommending that the war be fought to the finish. He was tried and executed for war crimes in 1948, but at Yasukuni he's been resurrected as a heroic figure. It is as if Berlin had a shrine for Hitler.
Every month the Yasukuni Web site quotes from a farewell letter written by a dead Japanese serviceman. This month's letter comes from an infantry captain who tells his children, "If Father should die in battle for the sake of the country, my soul is eternally at Yasukuni." When he died, in 1938, this captain was part of the brutal army that was trying to conquer China. But "conquer" is a word not used at Yasukuni. The writers of its texts display the Japanese talent for euphemism in an extreme form. They call the invasion of Manchuria in the early 1930s "the Manchurian Incident." They call the invasion of China "the Chinese Incident." They call suicide bombing "special attack operations." The exhibition shows a human torpedo and a photo of proud young men preparing to take off in kamikaze (it means "divine wind") flights against the American ships that were approaching Japan.
This benign view of Japanese militarism appears elsewhere, but usually through omission. The texts in Hiroshima's peace museum tell you about the bomb dropped there but don't explain why the Americans would do such a terrible thing. In the Tokyo-Edo Museum, opened four years ago, there's a heart-stopping display on the firebombing but hardly a word suggesting why American bombers were flying over Japan.
Yasukuni expresses at its most florid Japan's resistance to public discussion of the 1931-1945 period. Japanese novels and movies may involve introspection and self-criticism, but public life operates on a different plane. The claim of Socrates that "the unexamined life is not worth living" means nothing in Japanese politics. In public, at least, the Japanese appear to think that the unexamined life is not only worth living, it is the only way they can live as a nation.
Yoichi Funabashi, a columnist in the Asahi Shimbun, wrote last week: "The occupation, the post-war era, the Showa era, the Cold War and the 20th century ended without Japan clarifying the responsibility for its defeat, for starting the war and war responsibility itself ... We just drifted along ..."
It's not hard to find the reason. Hirohito, the emperor from 1926 to 1989, was central to Japanese war-making. But the constitution imposed by the Americans after 1945 reduced him from a divinity to a constitutional monarch and threw a cloak of retroactive innocence over the first two decades of his reign -- an era ironically called Showa, or "enlightened peace." An honest assessment of Japan's past will involve revealing Hirohito's personal guilt and examining the imperial family's role in modern history. That's a process so extensive, and so painful, that few Japanese can consider facing up to it, even this late in the day.