TOKYO – Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated on Friday July 8. Sunday I went to Yasukuni Jinja to pay my respects and see who else might be there. Yasukuni is the shrine founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to commemorate Japan’s war dead.
Among those dedicated to Yasukuni are wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and others convicted of war crimes by the International Tribunal for the Far East after World War II.
Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served in Tojo’s cabinet and himself became prime minister in 1957, was imprisoned for three years as a suspected war criminal but was not judge. In 1960, Kishi was stabbed six times by a would-be assassin but survived.
Abe visited and made offerings to Yasukuni both as prime minister and as a private citizen. He was strongly—notoriously, in the opinion of Koreans, Chinese, and pacifists—identified with Yasukuni and with a lack of contrition for the Japanese Empire’s wars and colonialism.
The ground was not crowded when I arrived and the visitors were ordinary people of all ages, most wearing the informal clothes they usually wear on a summer weekend. Security – a few shrine guards and police, an occasional police cruiser – was visible, but nothing out of the ordinary.
If right-wing or militarist groups had come, they must have come on Saturday or at some other time when I was not there. I didn’t spot any.
I rode from Kudanshita station on the Tokyo subway and entered the shrine through the huge torii gate up the slope. A torii symbolizes the passage from the ordinary to the sacred at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Shinto (the way of the gods) is the indigenous religion of Japan. This torii also creates an impression of great power.
A little further on is the statue of Masajiro Omura, the student of Western medicine, military technology and tactics who became Deputy Minister of War under Emperor Meiji. Omura was attacked and killed by reactionary samurai who opposed the westernization of Japan.
I walked between walls of yellow lanterns being assembled for Mitama Matsuri, a popular festival marking O-bon to be held July 13-16. O-bon honors the spirits of deceased ancestors, who are believed to return to visit their loved ones during the festival.
The Mitama Matsuri has 30,000 lanterns and attracted around 300,000 visitors each year before Covid. If you would like your name lit on a lantern, apply in advance to the shrine office next year. Prices are currently 3,000 yen ($22) for a small lantern and 12,000 yen for a large lantern.
To the left, under a wall of lanterns, I saw a man dressed in black. He was setting up a memorial to Abe – a picture and flowers on a small white table with a banner behind it saying “Prime Minister of Beautiful Country, Last Visit to Pray at Yasukuni Shrine”.
The man said his name was Taniguchi. I asked him if it was his own personal memorial. He said yes, and that Abe had been the last prime minister to visit Yasukuni, implying by his tone of voice that it was regrettable.
Abe visited Yasukuni in December 2013, causing such outrage in Korea and China that he never did so in an official capacity again. He surrendered as a private citizen in September and October 2020, shortly after his resignation as Prime Minister, and again on August 15, 2021.
“Towards a beautiful country” was one of Abe’s slogans and the title of a book he wrote about his political life, his philosophy and his vision of society. The book was published in 2006, just before he was first elected Prime Minister.
One after another, people stopped at the memorial to bow and take pictures with their cellphones.
Taniguchi is a musician who plays his ocarina at Yasukuni on Sunday afternoons. He played a Japanese folk song, Furusato, and the American song Swanee River by Stephen Foster for me. He is an excellent player with a good sense of melody and a beautiful sound.
He asked me where I was from. When I said America, he told me he had been to Okinawa recently, where there are a lot of Americans. The water there is beautiful, he says, “emerald green, cobalt blue”.
I said yes, that’s true, and told him that my father had also visited Okinawa, where he had lost his right arm to a hand grenade; that my Japanese hosts from Keio University had brought me to Yasukuni during my first visit to Japan in 1976; that I had been very impressed; and it’s been one of my favorite places ever since.
Taniguchi said the war is still in people’s memory. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, almost 77 years ago.
I said I would come back to hear him play.
I walked to the shrine, where people line up to pray. Walk up the stairs, toss a coin into the box, salute twice, clap twice, pray silently, salute once more, then make room for the next person in line.
On my way out, I heard traditional Japanese music on the left. Twenty or thirty people, mostly elderly, sat on folding chairs under a canopy, watching and listening to singers accompanied by a bamboo flute player on a covered wooden stage with a painting of a pine tree on the wall behind.
When I arrived, two women were about to sing Ama-no-Hara (Field of heaven).
Follow this writer on Twitter: @ScottFo83517667