Yasukuni Shrine, Part I
Yasukuni Shrine is extremely controversial. It is a Shinto Shrine that was built to commemorate Japanese war dead. Every country honors its fallen soldiers. So in that way Yasukuni Shrine is not unique. But what makes it questionable is that WWII convicted Class-A war criminals, performing crimes against humanity, are also interred there. And in the past few years, several Prime Ministers have gone to pay their respects to fallen heroes, not distinguishing between those who served the country honorably and those who abominably abused their positions of power. (1) Understandably, countries neighboring Japan are furious by the overt display of nationalism that these visits by Prime Ministers seem to suggest.
I personally detest war. Of course, I recognize any body’s need for an immune system, and a country’s obligation to protect itself. So, I understand the necessity of a military, even though I would love a world where the armed forces were obsolete: a world mature enough to dialogue solutions to conflict, and willing to work for the whole of humankind, not narrowly focused on national self interests. But that is wishful thinking, and I know it.
The other day a friend, a man who has practiced Kendo for years, told me of his recent visit to Yakukuni Shrine.
“Because the Japanese Mind is so strongly felt there.”
“The Japanese Mind?”
“Yes, Budou, ‘martial arts’, as you say in English. But that is not a good translation. It only touches the surface. The Budou Mind covers so much more, is so much deeper. It entails every ounce of our being, our keen focus, our complete Heart, our total Mind.
“But it is more than that, too. It is a discipline, a training that guides us to become not only single-mindedly focused, but also very intuitive. It is as if our whole being is open, listening, receptive. And in that state, we give, even as we receive what our surroundings have to offer and what we ourselves emit. It is a sacred experience. It is the unique Japanese way of being in the world.”
“Sorry, I don’t understand.” I said in wonder, “Is this allowed only to Japanese, or can others develop it also? Are Japanese born with it, or must it be trained into them?”
He went on to say, “We are this from before we were conceived. It is our soul. It is all around us. It is part of our traditional culture. It is how our society operates.
“One everyday example is gift giving. Whenever we meet someone, we take a gift. It is a way to honor that person. It shows our humility and respect for them. It is also a subtle way of honoring the gods. ‘I recognize the god in you’, as we bow before that person, offering our gift. In turn we receive the joy that can only come from giving.”
“But . . . but what does this have to do with your need to go to Yasukuni Shrine?” I asked, still uncertain.
“Budou energy is highly concentrated there. Even though it is often full of people demonstrating against war, the place is profoundly peaceful. Silent, deeply silent. Going there put me in touch with what it means to be Japanese in the truest sense of the word.”
“As a Japanese? Is that where you place your identity?”
“I place my identity not in this country, but in its Mind. It is subtle, it is deep, it goes to the core of my being. While at Yasukuni Shrine, I feel that power with every part of who I am.”
I thought about what my friend said, but was still very uncertain. I realized that my attitude was strongly influenced by what I had read of Japan in WWII. One small aspect of that complex and controversial issue was the plight of Kamikaze pilots. The militaristic government had taken the cream of what Japan had to offer — the best educated, the most cultured, the most intelligent young men — and had forced them to commit suicide for its own distorted purposes of nationalism, ego, and power. It covered over this vile abuse of the Budou Spirit by comparing those young men to the gracious, ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms. How can Yasukuni Jingu be a spiritual place if such poisonous energy is an integral part of it?
“Anne, Anne,” he said to me, “the men at the top of the military government during WWII were the epitome of evil. Their sick minds and actions caused tremendous suffering. There is no doubt about that. But you have to look deeper. If you go down to the very foundation of life itself, you do not find evil. You find purity. You find goodness. You find an openness that can only express the essence of God, manifested in the very soul of humanity.
“The Kamikaze pilots did what they had to. They were forced to do it. If they had resisted, not only would they have been tortured and killed, but their families and anyone connected to them would have been severely punished, most probably murdered. The Kamikaze pilots did what they did in order to protect those they loved and who loved them. That is where they were great. That is where they were heroes. That is where they manifested the Budou Spirit.”
My friend’s words fascinated me. And because I always wish to test my own beliefs, I have decided to go to Yasukuni Jingu and see for myself what the place has to offer.
(1) For Japanese anyone who died for the country immediately becomes a “Kami”, or a god. In fact, according to Japanese Buddhism, when we die, we shed our human element, and become pure, divine essence.