The Last Refuge of Kamikaze Ideology

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Visitors look at some of the lanterns bearing individual names of war dead at an annual festival at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Were Wen Jiabao to visit Yasukuni in the course of his visit to Japan this week, he would find the Shinto shrine's cherry trees in late bloom, raining white petals with every breeze. But such serenity would quickly be disrupted by the contents of a shrine that honors Japanese war criminals, and of its adjacent Yushukan museum, which rewrites 20th century history to place much of the blame on China for its devastation by the Japanese military in the 1930s, describing the Nanking massacre simply as an "incident."

Of course, Wen would never go to Yasukuni, because China sees the shrine as a symbol of unrepentant Japanese imperialism. Beijing has made Yasukuni a litmus test — it was only when new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became purposefully vague on visiting the shrine that icy Sino-Japanese relations began to thaw. Yushukan perpetuates the lie that the war was unavoidable, and that the 5,843 mostly young men who lost their lives as kamikazes died for a transcendent cause, died to save Japan. The museum is a celebration of wasted lives.

Nor is the museum keeping such sentiments under wraps: Yushukan is one of the few museums in Japan that translates its impressive Japanese-language exhibits into English. Sample one of the opening epigrams, by the 8th century poet Otomo no Yakamochi: "We shall die in the sea / we shall die in the mountains / In whatever way / We shall die beside the Emperor." Visiting Americans also get a novel take on history in the museum's explanation that because the U.S. imposed heavy sanctions on Japan in 1941 and called on it to withdraw from China, Tokyo had no choice but to start the Pacific War.

And that is actually an improvement — until January, Yushukan had maintained that Washington tricked Tokyo into war in order to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression. That was deleted in a recent revision of the some of the museum's historical explanations, although Yasukuni officials deny that the changes were made to placate any foreigners. They certainly don't go out of their way to soothe the feelings of Asian nations that suffered far more than the U.S. did at the hands of the Japanese army. Yushukan's exhibits on Japan's colonization of Korea in the first half of the 20th century are an unapologetic endorsement of Japanese imperialism.

If Yushukan's only flaw were its distortion of 20th century history, it might not have become such a lightning rod for criticism. After all, the shrine is not government-controlled, and the museum's version doesn't represent Tokyo's official view of the war — let alone what most Japanese believe. What is truly disturbing about the museum is the implicit approval of the imperialist ideology that led to the deaths of millions throughout Asia — and a blatant celebration of the most extreme expression of that ideology, the kamikaze.

The very young pilots — many kamikaze were university students — are lionized in gleaming oil paintings and bronze statues, but the museum does nothing to contextualize the waste of their lives. The kamikaze, after all, did nothing to stop the American war machine from bearing down on Japan. Sending them to their death as suicide bombers was as brutally absurd as the "bulletproof" vest on display in the museum that is nothing more than a cloth shirt stitched with coins from shrines. It's bad enough to lie to foreign countries; to perpetuate that lie to your own people seems unforgivable.

The kamikaze lie will be given a new lease on life next month when a new movie, I Go to Die For You, takes romanticization of the kamikaze to the big screen. It was written by Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of Tokyo and one of Japan's most nationalistic politicians. That such a film would play in the mainstream and be made with technical support from today's Japanese military, which you'd think would steer clear of this particular subject, will be grist for the mill to those warning of a rise in "dangerous" nationalism in Japan.

In reality, there's no such rise. The vast majority of Japanese remain knee-jerk pacifists, and you'd have a difficult time finding anyone among Japan's disaffected youth willing to die for much of anything, much less for the emperor. But the past still matters. It would be right — to Japan's wartime victims and to Japan itself — to have a memorial that honors the war dead without honoring the ideology that cost them their lives. As peaceful a square as any you might find in Tokyo, Yasukuni shrine could be that place, but only with a radically different museum. And if that ever happens, perhaps even Premier Wen could spare a visit.

—With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo