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Editorial: How Japan should mourn its war dead

Once again, Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, is upon us.

It was on this day in 1963 that the Japanese government started holding the Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead to pay tribute to the country's war dead. The yearly Aug. 15 service is a state event remembering the 3.1 million Japanese war victims from the time of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and is undertaken with a vow against war, but the proceedings at Nippon Budokan hall in Tokyo, where the ceremony is held, last for just one day.

Of the war dead, some 500,000 victims were townspeople who died in aerial bombings -- including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war enveloped areas from the distant South Seas to the corners of Japan. Yet there is still no permanent memorial site in Japan encompassing all of the victims. Why is this?

In February 2008, House of Representatives legislator Makoto Taki called for the construction of a national monument to remember air raid victims.

The Cabinet of then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, however, responded that it had no intention of building such a monument, on the grounds that government representatives attended a peace prayer service at a memorial in the Hyogo Prefecture city of Himeji dedicated to the victims of the aerial bombings during the Pacific War.

The Himeji memorial was constructed in 1956 in a joint project by local bodies that were hit by the bombings. It was partly a reflection of protests that no state consideration was being paid to the innocent civilians who died -- in contrast with military personnel and civilians employed by the military.

Some government officials, including a parliamentary vice-minister from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, have indeed been sent to attend the ceremony. But the annual attendance did not start until 2003, so it's hard to say that the government's stance has been consistent.

The devastating firebombing air raid of March 10, 1945 killed an estimated 100,000 people in Tokyo. In low-lying areas of the capital home to small independent shops and factories, small memorial facilities have been set up in many areas. One of them is the Yao Tama Jizo monument in the Morishita district of Tokyo's Koto Ward, which was erected the year following the war's end. "Yao Tama" means "800 souls," and the monument's name derives from nearly 800 victims.

Many families faced lifelong separation, and there were many whose remains did not return to their families. So two years ago, a gravestone marking the names of all of the war victims in the area, based on Buddhist temple death registers, was placed next to the small shrine. Minoru Tsukiyama, an 88-year-old resident who was involved in erecting the gravestone, described the jizo monument as a substitute grave for many families.

In this way, mourning for the souls of civilian war victims in Japan has probably owed much to the spontaneity of local bodies and the people living in those areas. No firm state will is evident in such moves.

We may conclude that the divide in perceptions of the meaning of the death of war victims is what forms the backdrop to this issue. Are people considering them as those who gave their valuable lives for the state, or are they thinking about them as those who were sacrificed as a result of the state's mistakes? Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo represents the former category. The emotional wounds of bereaved families are not healed without confirmation that the deaths of their husbands and sons were not in vain. One can understand them feeling that the shrine is a central facility to console the souls of the war dead.

The most important function of Yasukuni Shrine, however, is to honor those who sacrificed themselves for their country. Sorting of the deceased according to whether or not they made such achievements for the state inevitably accompanies this approach.

Those enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine include many who starved to death in operations that took no account of supplies, as well as those who killed themselves in accordance with the "Senjinkun" military code issued to Japanese military members that deemed it a shame for a soldier to become a prisoner of war. Honoring these people does not clear away the sins of the state.

At one stage after the war, Yasukuni Shrine moved toward a pacifist approach, but in 1978 under Nagayoshi Matsudaira, the shrine's head priest at the time, Class-A war criminals were enshrined there along with the war dead. Since then, there has been a move to hold down all internal and external criticism, and it appears that the shrine itself has shunned moves toward becoming a central facility to mourn the war dead.

Another code known as the "endurance doctrine" has also hampered debate on a memorial site. This line of thought takes the view that the public must equally endure sacrifices accompanying the wartime state of emergency, and denies state responsibility for the damage suffered during air raids.

The signature song of Japanese folk singer Ryo Kagawa, who passed away in April this year, is "Kyokun 1" (Lesson One). A translation of a few lines from this song, which contain a hint of sarcasm, goes, "Though we perish for the nation / It'll be around for a long time yet, won't it? / They'll say, 'Sorry about that' and that'll be it."

From the perspective of other countries in Asia, Japan is an aggressor. Following the reunification of Germany, which was similarly defeated in World War II, German officials in 1993 rededicated a memorial to all of the war dead as the "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship."

It was former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa who first made mention of Asia in his speech at the Aug. 15 Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead. After him, other prime ministers followed in acknowledging responsibility for Japan's aggression in Asia, but from 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently avoided mention of it.

The state exists as a joint body of the public. Even if the state's will changes, it must bear a responsibility toward the public. From the end of World War II until this day, Japan as a state has been unable to bring different flows of thought together regarding the commemoration of the war dead.

Under current circumstances, without a permanent national monument, this gap won't be filled. The government needs to make an effort to overcome historical backgrounds and differences. Doing so will increase the strength of Japan's "vow against war."

Needless to say, the 72 years of peace Japan has seen since the end of the Pacific War lies upon its war dead. Providing an environment in which victims can be equally mourned without regard to their standing or circumstances is probably a way of fulfilling the responsibility toward those who perished.

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