Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Sukehiro Hirakawa

【#207】 Prayers for the Japanese Killed during the War

Sukehiro Hirakawa / 2013.08.12 (Mon)

August 12, 2013

        August 1945 was atrociously eventful for the Japanese. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were totally devastated by the American atomic bombings. The Soviet Union suddenly attacked us. Emperor Hirohito’s broadcasting message on August 15 fortunately ended the War. August is also the month of the prayers for the dead, as it is the traditional season of the O-Bon festival, which is a sort of All Souls’ Days for Japanese Buddhists and Shintoists. Let us think again about the requiem for the Japanese killed during the War.

Interpretation of war differs from country to country
        The majority view in the world has described Japan as a bad guy in the Pacific War and responsible for the calamities caused by the war in Asia. It is true that there are some right-wing Japanese who claim the United States as worse by far. Their allegations, though sometimes vocal within Japan, are, however, minor opinions in the world. My view is that the Japanese military that ignored repeatedly their civil government decisions in the 1930s, were mostly responsible for the catastrophe. I stated this opinion not only in my recent book “Takeyama Michio to Shōwa no jidai” (Fujiwara shoten, 2013) but also in my English book “Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West” (Brill, 2011).
        This part of Japan’s responsibility admitted, I would still like to say that I do not endorse many of the views expressed by the judges representing the Allied Nations concerning the war guilt of the Japanese class A war criminals. As a junior high school student, I witnessed the indiscriminate American bombings of Tokyo, causing one hundred thousands of citizens’ death. The Meiji shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji was intentionally burned down by incendiary bombs on April 14, 1945. That infernal night was a Dantesque scene. Tokyo citizens were surrounded by walls of fire and killed by fire bombs. I could not accept the “victor’s justice.” It was humanly impossible for me to admit the fairness of the Tokyo Trial that ignored the inhumanity of the American atomic bombings. I agree with a French writer who wrote in his diary that until Hiroshima Japan was the villain, since August 6 1945, the situation was reversed, it was the United States, who replaced Japan as the bad guy.―This seems to me a very reasonable view. I do not, however, want to assert his view vocally; neither do I claim openly that Japan still reserves an ethical right to drop two atomic bombs on American cities of Nagasaki size. I am a positive supporter of the Japan-U.S. alliance and I approve the present situation, knowing that Japan is protected by the American nuclear umbrella.
        I also remember my ambivalent reaction when death by hanging was sentenced to seven class A war criminals on November 12, 1948. On hearing the sentence, Marxist historian Hani Gorō declared triumphantly, quoting Schiller, “Weltgeschichte ist Weltgericht.” Is the world history really a judgment by the world? Citizens of Fukuoka did not approve the death sentence of Japan’s pre-war prime minister Hirota Koki. When the Occupation Forces were gone, they erected their fellow citizen’s statue in Fukuoka’s central park. As well as many Japanese, pre-war American ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, appalled at the unexpected sentence, appealed Douglas MacArthur for reconsidering Hirota’s case, ending in vain. Together with Fukuoka people, I was a little relieved seeing the innocent Hirota’s statue erected in kimono. As a matter of course, there were people both inside and outside Japan who found the erection of Hirota’s statue displeasing.

Yasukuni is the Japanese Arlington
        It is inevitable that belligerent nations differ over how they view war or who were responsible for their war. I myself think that the greatest of the war criminals is he who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on a nation that had already expressed its will to surrender. But there is no problem for Truman, as the United States won the war, and no American would ever be held responsible for any war crime. In American military cemeteries those bombers who were killed during their mission of inhuman slaughters are buried and commemorated, too. However, even if the names of those who committed wartime atrocities are engraved on the tombstones, a prime minister of Japan should place a wreath of flowers on Arlington National Cemetery, on his visit to Washington. As we know, religious acts are different from political acts.
        We should pray for the wartime dead regardless of their deeds. The value judgments of good and bad vary with the passing of time. Religious requiem is beyond the temporary turmoil of political judgments. When I am asked by foreigners, “What is Yasukuni shrine?” I answer: “Yasukuni jinja is the Japanese Arlington.” Memorial service for the war dead is to be performed regardless of their acts. The living should not make a distinction of the dead. The modern ethical objection to Shintō is that “in its ritual both good and evil Kami are to be respected”(“Naobi no mitama,” 1771). I find, however, in this tolerant interpretation by the Shintō scholar Motoori Norinaga a profoundly human wisdom.
        During WWII American wartime propaganda denounced the Shintō and the “God-Emperor” as the archenemy of the Western civilization. They were regarded as the backbone of the Japanese ultra-nationalism, and for that reason American super flying-fortresses intentionally bombed the Meiji shrine. Americans, however, have realized their wartime prejudice. Japanese Emperors were not the incarnation of heathen devils. President Ford paid visit to the Emperor when he officially visited Japan and three other presidents, Carter, Reagan and Bush Jr paid visit to the Meiji shrine. In 2009 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Meiji shrine. When a reporter asked her why she had undergone a purification ceremony, she responded, “To show respect toward the history and culture of Japan.” It will be the same with Yasukuni shrine, and misunderstanding may be resolved one day. When Japanese soldiers of the Self-Defense Forces, in their multi-national missions for peace-keeping, die and are enshrined in Yasukuni jinja, heads of state of allied nations will come and pay respect for them.

Sukehiro Hirakawa is Director, Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo