At Japan's Yasukuni shrine, displays of nationalism – and prayers for peace

On the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II, the controversial war memorial was abuzz with activity, including visits by conservative lawmakers.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Visitors bow to pay respects to the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Japan marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Koichi Murayama never knew his uncle. He died in December 1944, 10 months before he was born, in a Kamikaze attack off the coast of the Philippines. His uncle was the pilot.

But that didn’t stop Mr. Murayama from addressing him on Saturday, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender that ended World War II, at the Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. The sprawling memorial enshrines the souls of Japan’s war dead – including 14 convicted "Class A" war criminals – according to the country’s native Shinto religion.

“First I told him, ‘thank you,’ ” Murayama says while reminiscing with friends at a crowded picnic table near the shrine’s main gate. “Then I asked him to please look after Japan to keep peace.”

Every Aug. 15th, thousands of Japanese visit Yasukuni to pay respects to their nation’s fallen soldiers and, as some believe, to speak directly to their spirits. Yet few are as committed to this annual tradition as Murayama, who has visited the shrine every year since 1955. He admits the war’s shadow over Japan has slowly faded over the years, but remains steadfast in his loyalty to an uncle he never knew.

“I feel pride for my uncle,” he says. “I’ll keep coming here every year as long as I’m alive."

While most of Tokyo appeared indifferent to the 70th anniversary on Saturday, Yasukuni was abuzz with activity. Dozens of passersby stopped to sing along to a small band playing gunka, nationalist hymns from Japan’s imperial days, underneath a row of cherry trees. A group of men dressed in military uniforms from the same era stood nearby.

Along the sidewalk outside the nearest subway station, conservative activists handed out flyers and booklets for a litany of political causes: from revising Japan’s pacifist Constitution to rejecting China and South Korea’s accusations about the country’s wartime aggression.

It was a lively scene for one of Tokyo’s most somber sites, if not for the elderly widows dressed in all black.

But the day was not without controversy. Visits by three Japanese cabinet ministers, the ruling party’s policy chief, and dozens of other conservative lawmakers drew harsh condemnation from China and South Korea. Yasukuni has long been a sensitive issue between Japan its Asian neighbors. They see it as a symbol of Tokyo's wartime militarism and inability to come to terms with its past.

That past was the focus of a widely anticipated speech delivered by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday. In his address, Mr. Abe said Japan must never again repeat the devastation of war. But he stopped short, controversially, of echoing past prime ministers' apologies or offering a fresh one of his own, and said that future generations should not have to make them, either. After all, Abe said, 80 percent of Japan’s population was born after the war. It was a line that resonated widely with the crowd gathered at Yasukuni.

Emperor Akihito, meanwhile, expressed "profound remorse" for Japanese aggression under the reign of his father, Emperor Hirohito – an addition to his formal statement each year on Aug. 15 that caught many listeners' attention.

“I know the older generation did bad things, but it’s not our responsibility to apologize,” says 20-something Rina Watanabe, who was standing in line to pray in front of the shrine. “We’re a different generation.”

Murayama agrees that Japan should no longer have to apologize for its past. As Abe put it on Friday: "History is harsh. What is done cannot be undone." It’s a hard truth Murayama knows far too well. By praying to his uncle, he just hopes history won’t be repeated.

Michael Holtz reported from Japan as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

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