August is a loaded month in Japan. On August 6th and 9th, the country remembers the atomic bombings, on the 15th, the day of total surrender and the end of World War II. These dates still carry political significance for different groups: last week peace activists gathered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to protest the world’s nuclear arsenals, and this week, nationalists will mourn the loss of what they call “The Great Pacific War.” They will meet here at Yasukuni Jinja, which has always been associated with Japan’s armed forces, and though I won’t be here to witness the event, I have spent a few Sundays taking in the scene at Japan’s most controversial shrine.
The old folks have a harmonica rotation, each performer doing a few numbers before passing the microphone and enjoying a beer on the patio of the shrine’s food hall. When the music gets exciting, one of the other gentlemen rises from the picnic bench and sings along, a little shaky on his feet. I hesitate to assign these performers a certain political ideology just based on their choice of location, but the rising sun banner and old-fashioned repertoire give me the impression of nostalgia for the old Japan. These are the kinds of songs that right-wing activists broadcast from their black vans that race through Tokyo on the weekends. In fact, one of the vans is often parked at Yasukuni while the driver smokes, snacks, and chats with his crew. Then he is off, urging Japan to reclaim its lost glory, denouncing China’s expanding influence, and tormenting Korean nationals who have made their home in this city.
The shrine itself seems to share the nationalist sentiment. The military museum here tells of how the Japanese Army bravely fought to unite Asia under one roof. The weekly antique market is filled wartime memorabilia: flags, uniforms, helmets, and empty bullet casings. A few years ago the shrine hosted a song contest based on love of country, with submissions that celebrated kamikaze suicide pilots and the “Great East Asian Holy War.” Yasukuni even has its own patriotic souvenirs. These bean-filled sweets commemorate “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Abe’s new economic policy for shaking Japan out of its protracted slump.
Hanging around the shops and food hall are all kinds of colorful characters. One of my first times at Yasukuni, an older man sat down and lectured me on the bravery of Hideki Tōjō, the wartime Prime Minister and convicted war criminal who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. On another occasion, a friend of mine was approached by an American man ranting about how Obama was ruining the country. Apparently radical conservatives of all nations stick together. Almost every time I come here, there is a lone man in an Imperial Army uniform marching the parade ground with a shouldered rifle and rising sun flag.
At this point it would be fair to ask why I spend so much time hanging around this place chatting with right wing nationalists. I think part of it is history: my morbid fascination with the World War II era. But as Yasukuni demonstrates, those years are not a sealed and forgotten chapter. They hang heavily on the politics of East Asia, especially now as Japan is engaged in territorial disputes with both China and Korea. Every time a prominent Japanese leader visits Yasukuni Shrine, or the education ministry tries to change its history textbooks, these countries erupt in protests.
Within Japan as well, the signs of resurgent nationalism are impossible to miss. Earlier this year a prominent politician caused a stir by attempting to justify the use of sex slaves by the Imperial Army. Since then, conservatives have swung into power with such force that they are pushing for a long coveted goal: revising the American-drafted constitution that forbids the use of armed force. Conservatives have dreamed of amending this section since the day the occupation ended, and now it looks more possible than ever.
This is an interesting moment for Japan, and even though I return to my own country today, I will continue to follow events in this part of the world. Like all countries, Japan is struggling to define a national identity that can be a source of pride, and to understand past events in a way that gives those events meaning. Nationalism and nostalgia are a result, one that can be found in every nation. In that regard, Yasukuni Jinja is not so much an outrage, as a reminder of the power of memory and identity.