What we talk about when we talk about ‘War Dead’

Posted on 17.06.2015


Japan is the second country I’ve lived in that lost a world war. I’ve also lived in two that were on the winning side of them. Something I’ve noticed about both of the ‘losers’ is how they talk about WW2, and how they talk about their war dead. I actually wasn’t thinking about it much over here, but then I had an interesting conversation with a student about a recent news article, and it got me thinking (and very cautiously asking other students about it).

I didn't take this photo.

I didn’t take this photo.

A while ago, Akie Abe took a trip to Yasukuni Shrine. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands (I’m sure) shrines in Japan, but this one is by far one of the most controversial. It’s a shrine dedicated to the nearly 2.5 million ‘war dead’. Of course, in that number, there are some war criminals:

“The shrine now lists the names, origins, birth dates, and places of death of 2,466,532 men, women and children, including 1,068 war criminals; 14 of whom are considered A-Class, leading to controversies. The Honden shrine commemorates anyone who died on behalf of the empire, including not only soldiers, relief workers, factory workers, and other citizens, but also those not of Japanese ethnicity such as Taiwanese and Koreans who served Japan.”

Controversy: Japan has it.

We talked about it because Akie caught some serious shit from South Korea for going to that shrine, which is conveniently located just across the moat from the Imperial Palace, and therefore very close (within walking distance!) to my office. Photos of me visiting that place will come soon.

1368502643152Akie’s got an entire wikipedia page dedicated to her which tells us about her support for LGBT rights (awesome), but doesn’t really mention her family history past her parents and where she probably met her husband.

I mention that because I have an uncle and a grandfather who served in different wars. My sister works for a military base. So does her fiancé. Half of the people I grew up with work on that base, or another one like it. The joke about the USA is that we’ve all got a family member in the military, and I’m definitely the rule, rather than the exception in this case.

But what about Akie, or anyone living in Japan? Maybe they don’t have current family members in the military (or ‘self-defense force, since they can’t have a military, technically), but I bet they have a bunch of dead extended family members who fought or died in a war.

This shrine names ALL of the dead, whether they died in battle, a bombing, or by accident. They died. During a war. So if her great-grandfather (or uncle, or second cousin, twice removed) died in any of the previous wars, she has a right to go there to pay her respects, as it’s what they do here.

South Korea gets angry anytime anyone important goes to that shrine, and they have good reason to. They’ve got plenty of grievances about the wars and Japan’s part in them that deserve to be aired, and have been. It’s an ongoing discussion about monuments, days of remembrance and comfort women. But it seems a little tactless and insensitive to attack the Prime Minister’s wife for going to the shrine.

In short, who the fuck cares?

In the US, we have holidays to celebrate our war dead. We have barbecues, pool parties, parades, etc where we drink tons of beer, wave flags and celebrate our country. Technically, once the people who served at Abu Ghraib will be dead, and then they’ll be among the people we’re waving our flags for on Memorial Day. Is that going to be ok?

I wonder if Japan had won the war, or at least been on the winning side of it, if South Korea would still be as vocal about their issues. I wonder if it would end up in history books then. There’s a saying: History is written by the winner, and it makes me wonder what would be written about the USA, had the tables been turned.

Germany doesn’t talk about it. They talk about it in schools, where they teach WW1 and WW2 very honestly, and teach the students that this can never, under any circumstances, happen again. But the veterans who lived don’t get to talk about it. They’re not celebrated. They don’t get to seek help or therapy for their PTSD. When they’re buried, it’s in the far corner of the cemetery, with the other veterans who fought a losing battle.

I’m upset because the .0004% of the names listed at the shrine who were war criminals mean that the other 99.5% don’t (or shouldn’t) get visits or prayers that they might, just by association. I’m upset that people can’t mourn or celebrate their dead. I’m also upset that going to a shrine has to be a political concern.