Sunday, May 18, 2008

やすくに (Yasukuni - the film)

Disclaimer: I have not written this to offend anyone and i hope that my thoughts dont offend. This was an amazing experience for me and i wanted to share my thoughts about it.

So on Saturday i went to see the controversial film, Yasukuni. It is based on the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirits (kami) of the soldiers who have died fighting on behalf of the Emperor. At the Shrine, there is a book called the Book of Souls, which lists the names of around 2.5 million women and men who have served in the military and especially the ones who died in war. More info can be found at

Out of the 2.5 million enshrined at Yasukuni shrine, 1068 were convicted as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) in Tokyo in 1948. I found this website interesting to read.

Other controversy that the shrine has attracted focuses on the museum that is part of the shrine complex. Some say that it has a version of revisionist history in it. I will let you know what i think once i have visited it next weekend.

The film is only being shown at some cinemas in Japan. And i had to find one that had English subtitles which was a task and a half. I finally found one in Shibuya and so off i went. After the film finished i was not really sure what to think. As a westerner and a history major at university, I learnt alot about ww2 and one of these included the atrocities that happened during this war, both in Europe and Asia. That said i wanted to go into the cinema with an open mind. I didnt want my prejudices to influence what i was seeing on the screen. It was a fascinating experience but left me with more questions than answers.

It starts with an interview with the last sword maker of Yasukuni Shrine. At one time there were up to 90 of them at the shrine and he is now the only one left. He made swords during ww2 (total of about 8000)and these were given to soldiers who were sent off to fight. The swords are still made with a surprising lack of technology and in the very traditional Japanese handmade way. The interview with the last sword maker is intertwined throughout the film and at the end he says that the Japanese sword should not be used to spill blood unnecessarily or needlessly. So i guess for no good reason or carelessly is what he means.

The film includes the 60th anniversary of the end of the war on August 15th 1945. This includes perhaps one of the most perplexing parts of the film for me. There was a Japanese lady asking other Japanese who are visiting the shrine on the 60th anniversary to sign a petition that stated that the Nanking massacres never happened. Her father was one of those accused of carrying out these acts and she wants his name to be cleared. And what was even more confusing for me was that people actually signed it. Now much like the Holocaust, there is physical evidence and personal accounts that prove that the Nanking massacres did occur. At university, i took a course called Modern European History and part of my studies were the arguements some people have put forward denying the Holocaust ever happened. I had never before heard anyone say that the Nanking massacres never happened. It definately gave me something to think about.

Another major part of the film was based around a visit to the shrine by Prime Minister Koizumi. He said he was going to honour the Japanese war dead and not commend or encourage Japanese militarism. Interestingly, Koizumi apologized for Japan's conduct in ww2 in August of 2005 and he vowed his country would never again take "the path to war." He also spoke of the enormous damage and suffering caused by the Japanese on other Asian countries during the war. I personally have no problems with him going their to honour the Japanese war dead. However, i am not sure how i feel about it when i think about the war criminals(tried and convicted by an international court) which are enshrined there. I thought about if we had Australian troops accused, tried and convicted of such atrocities, would we still enshrine them in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I am sure it would be mentioned but i am not sure any honour would be given to them. So i am holding any judgement on this issue till i have been to the shrine.

Another part of the movie that made me think quite alot, was also filmed on the 60th anniversary. An American man who was concerned over his countries lack of comment on Koizumi's visit to the controversial shrine, came to the shrine to show his support for the Japanese Prime Minister.

Then what started as a nice sentiment by the American guy became a huge problem. He stood on the shrine grounds with an AMERICAN flag on the anniversary of the end of ww2 in the country that was devastated by the atomic bombs dropped by the USA. I mean did he think this out at all. I dont want to enter into right or wrong on the atomic bomb issue. But he was standing in the grounds of a sacred place of worship and a place where people come to honour and acknolwedge their dead family members and others who fought for the country. I mean what was he thinking. I think of it like this. If a Japanese man stood at the Washington Monument with a Japanese flag on a day when Americans commemorate their war dead, what would be the reaction of the Americans who came to the monument on that day, even if the sentiment was in good faith. I am not sure how i would feel. It is all a matter of personal perception and opinion.

Many Japanese people at the shrine on that day were happy to talk to this American man in English. And he received some very positive responses to his support of their prime minister. However, there were also some very very negative responses to him as well. One man followed him as he was escorted off the shrine premise, screaming "We will not forget Hiroshima" over and over again. Once again not judging anyone on their reactions other than to say i think the flag was a misguided decision on the American man's part and he could have been much more successful if he had not had it there with him.

There were also Jpaanese people who wanted their relatives names removed from the shrine register. This was for a range of reasons. One was because his father was conscripted even though he was a the head of a Buddhist temple and was sent off to fight. The Yasukuni shrine is a Shinto shrine and thus he doesnt feel it is the right place to honour his Buddhist father.

It was a very interesting film but i felt unsure afterwards. The director wanted it to be balanced and i think that he achieved this with astounding success. That said i will tell you how i feel about it when i have visited the actual shrine this weekend.

No comments: