You know it’s August 15th when as soon as you pass through the ticket barriers at Kudanshita Station on the Tokyo Metro — while still underground inside the station — you see a member of the riot police on duty.
Today is, of course, the day that marks Japan’s defeat to the Allies in the Second World War, often known locally as the anodyne Memorial Day for the End of the War. And the only place to be on this day is Yasukuni Shrine.
Above ground, the visitor to Japan’s controversial shrine to the war dead in central Tokyo was greeted by a motley collection of leafleters giving out literature on a range of issues. Some were plain anti-Chinese — the Nanking Massacre is a fabrication etc. — while others were campaigning for Falun Gong and other victims of Chinese government oppression. There were some people handing out leaflets about North Korean kidnappings and others raising awareness of how Taiwan is listed as a “Chinese territory” in school textbooks. On the same subject (if you will excuse the pun), several stalls were canvassing signatories for a petition to have the Kono Statement reversed.
The whole Kudanshita area had been locked down, with large sections of pavements blocked off and many side streets barricaded by police. All routes leading to the shrine had checkpoints, manned by riot police officers in full gear or regular policemen, watching who was coming in.
As you entered the shrine itself there were bilingual signs informing visitors that certain acts like handing out leaflets and raising flags were prohibited in the grounds. That being said, several flags were being openly paraded.
Uniformed police were almost always visible somewhere, along with plain-clothes security police, immediately obvious by their own “uniform” of white shirt and black slacks.
In the morning politicians had already come to “pay their respects”. This is controversial because the shrine is dedicated to the spirits of the war dead, including convicted war criminals. The more innocuous (and nationally-run) Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery is ironically within walking distance and is free from the religious taint of Yasukuni. Yasukuni Shrine is actually a private corporation and also houses the revisionist Yūshūkan War Museum.
Inside, a long line of visitors quietly waited to pray at the main part of the shrine. Elsewhere old men — surely too young to have fought in the war — had dressed in uniforms and went through mock military marching drills. It was pure cosplay; I saw one older gentlemen dolled up in a German army uniform. A young guy sang old songs from a tiny tome, alone. Music could usually be hear coming from somewhere. If not for all the police and barricades, it might have been just a peculiar carnival.
The queue of people waiting in the humid August afternoon were cooled down by a large fan. Even in this most sensitive and sacred of places, the Japanese ability to pay attention to the details of hospitality manifested itself.
Towering over the shrine is part of the Hōsei University campus, a private college historically with a strong New Left student movement but which has been in recent years cracking down on protest activities. (See my article in The Japan Times for more background.)
Everywhere in the shrine and walking around the Iidabashi/Kudanshita area you could hear the sound and fury of the nationalists’ black sound trucks. Belonging to various different groups from around Japan, they formed mini motorcades as they toured the area, music blaring out of the speakers or male voices screeching slogans or epithets at the police. The stone-faced riot cops manned the roads around the shrine, carefully steering the vans away in certain directions so they could vent their noisy pageant but not cause trouble.
Yasukuni is a queer montage of colliding images. Rising Sun flags carried by men and women, old and young. An elderly ultra-nationalist in his jump suit taking a break from chatting to his peers to pick up a grandchild with glee. A foreign tourist couple posing for a photo in front of the shrine while holding ice creams.
A strange place. A strange day.
For more (and much better!) images of August 15th on past years, see photographer Damon Coulter’s archive.