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Yasukuni Shrine visitors' feelings mixed, agree tragedy of war must not be forgotten

Crowds gather to offer their prayers at Yasukuni Shrine on the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on Aug. 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- On Aug. 15, the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, the last of the Heisei era, people of all ages crowded to offer prayers at Yasukuni Shrine here, which has long garnered controversy as it enshrines Class A war criminals along with the souls of the soldiers and others who died in conflict.

From the time the sky began to lighten on the morning of Aug. 15, there were already people gathered at the towering gates to the shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, and before the clock even struck 6 a.m., the number of those waiting had ballooned to over 200 people. When the gates opened, a variety of people, from those using canes to support their stride, to young people, to parents with their children, all stopped at the entrance to offer the customary bow before entering the premises. The Mainichi Shimbun asked those gathered what they thought about the controversial shrine and what the end of the Heisei era may bring.

One such interviewee who had come to offer his prayers was an 80-year-old man, a resident of Tokyo's Suginami Ward. He has been making the yearly pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine for over 50 years. His older brother was a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy's air service, and he lost his life just two days before the war came to an end. All that was returned to their family was an empty wooden box.

"We're here now because of those who came before us. I wanted to offer my thanks (at the shrine) as early in the day as possible," the man said. While he does not feel any special division in the coming era-change with the abdication of Emperor Akihito next year, he said he truly feels the passage of time. "Not only those who were sent to war as soldiers, but even those who lived through the air raids are becoming fewer and fewer," he worried.

After 8 a.m., visitors clad in military uniforms and waving Rising Sun flags began to increase on the premises of the shrine. Some even played war songs. A car blaring messages also began to circle the roads around the shrine grounds.

"Around five years ago, there were more right-wingers (who showed up), and there was even a skirmish," a 60-year-old man living in Shinagawa Ward commented. "But now, the number of young people has increased." When asked if it was a sign that the tense relationship between Japan and its neighbors over the war was changing, he declared, "The Heisei era will end without war. The next should also be peaceful."

At the exit to the shrine grounds, a group of around 20 young people who had finished their prayers had gathered. The leader of the group was 36-year-old Nakano Ward resident Yujiro Sawada. The president of a company operating barber shops, Sawada had taken barbers in their 20s to pay their respects before opening shop that day.

"My ideology doesn't really lean right or left," he explained. "It just makes sense to mourn the people who were around our own ages that went to war and died for the sake of Japan." Sawada has been making the visits for the last five to six years. While Class A war criminals are enshrined among those young souls, "It's only a small proportion," he said, "I don't think we shouldn't pray here just because of that."

Asaka Yoshida, 28, and her mother came from Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, to pay their respects to the fallen. What prompted Yoshida, who was born in the first year of the Heisei era, to begin coming to Yasukuni Shrine some 10 years ago was the shock she felt upon seeing a play based on the "tokkotai," a special suicide attack unit commonly known in English as "kamikaze." She hoped that she too would be able to convey the tragedy of war.

Asked about the visitors dressed in military regalia, Yoshida said, hesitantly, "If they really have respect for the people who died, then I can't say that they are 'completely wrong.'"

An 85-year-old man dressed in just such attire revealed that the uniform was in fact a replica. He explained, "I have no experience going to war, but I would like to convey that soldiers fought throwing out their own self-interests."

When the clock struck noon, there was a moment of silence. One woman in the crowd, 88, who hails from Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, said that during the war, she worked at Naha City Hall. She attended to a military unit that fought in the Battle of Okinawa, cooking food and working as a nurse. She said she battled insects that gathered around the bodies of the soldiers and had other experiences she did not want to talk about.

"Taking interest in the war is a good thing," she said. "However, I want people to be careful not to look at it in a biased way trying to glorify what happened -- because people tend to lean toward radical talk or extreme philosophies easily."

"If only extreme language and behavior (surrounding the shrine) stand out, then this will not become a place where the people of Japan can come to pray," lamented Shinichiro Abe, 76, of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, in northeastern Japan. He visited the shrine after attending the annual national memorial ceremony for the war dead. His father died on the West Pacific island chain of Chuuk. His father's body was not returned. Recalling Emperor Akihito's continued visits to remote islands to pray for the Japanese who died there, Abe said he was overwhelmed with emotion.

The temperature rose above 30 degrees Celsius, and the sound of the summer cicadas grew deafening. While wiping sweat from his brow, 49-year-old Masaaki Egawa and his 12-year-old sixth-grade daughter Minori, of the suburban Tokyo city of Hino, made their way to Yasukuni Shrine to offer their prayers for the first time. They had come to the area for a different reason entirely, but decided to add the visit to their plans.

Egawa said that he had felt uncomfortable before about the enshrinement of war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine, but as time went by, those feelings had begun to fade. "I want to properly learn about my country," he said of why he came.

"I didn't just tell my daughter about the history of the shrine. I said, 'When (Japanese) politicians pray here, nearby countries raise objections. Let's research why that happens,'" he explained. "I think it's important to put in the effort so that (the next generation) has a proper understanding of what happened."

Minori seemed to have a new outlook after her visit. "I want to tell the people around me about what I learned and how I felt today," she said.

(Japanese original by Shin Yasutaka, City News Department)

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