Kamikaze shrine that turns history on its head

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The Independent Online

When the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, appears on television to condemn terrorists and suicide bombers that plague American troops in Iraq, Ayako Nishimura switches it off in anger.

"He's full of contradictions," says the local councillor and peace activist. "One day he says he stands side by side with President [George] Bush in fighting terrorism, and the next he's worshipping some of the worst terrorists that ever walked. How can he keep a straight face?"

Mr Koizumi, of course, does not see things this way when he walks once a year in full state regalia through Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo to sign his name to a visitors' book and "honor Japan's war dead."

But the contradictions of his position could not be starker in the slick, 4bn yen (£21m) war museum just yards from the shrine's inner sanctum.

Western visitors can regularly be seen wandering around the museum staring slack-jawed at its audacious rewriting of history. In this looking-glass world, suicide bombers are heroes, America is the enemy and the Emperor, supposedly reduced to mortal status after Second World War, is still a deity, directly descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu.

Here, at least, Japan was not the brutal aggressor but the liberator, fighting to defend itself from the US and European powers and free Asia from the yoke of white imperialism. Imperial troops were not guilty, as most historians suggest, of some of the worst war crimes of the 20th century, but the "normal excesses" of armies everywhere.

Japan's 5,000 dead suicide bombers - most, like the self-immolators of the Middle-East, barely old enough to take their first legal drink when they died in a fruitless attempt to turn the tide against the US military juggernaut - are venerated in photographs and in testimony from comrades who survived. On a giant video screen, Iwao Fukugawa, who was just 48 hours from detonating his plane against a US ship when the Emperor announced Japan's surrender in August 1945, says he would have been happy to die for his country. "I was sad and ashamed we lost the war."

British visitors are stunned to see pride of place given in the main entrance hall to a black locomotive, used to pull a Japanese military train along the infamous Burma railway, which took the lives of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. But the loudest groans of disbelief and anger come from the thousands of Asian visitors.

Visitors from Korea, which was occupied for half a century by Imperial Japan and suffered millions of war deaths, can take comfort from the museum's message that they invited the Japanese military in. The Chinese, meanwhile, can read that they prolonged the war unnecessarily by not coming to terms with their conquerors. The dwindling band of surviving "comfort women", the 200,000 sexual slaves from across Asia forced to service wartime Imperial troops, can see themselves described as "prostitutes".

This aura of raw military symbolism and unresolved history that hangs over the whole of Yasukuni Shrine like a pall is the reason why Mr Koizumi's visits so enrage the rest of Asia and divide Japan. While the Prime Minister and his supporters argue that he is only doing what Tony Blair, Mr Bush or any other Western leader does when they honour their countries' war dead, many others say the comparison is wrong. One letter to The Japan Times yesterday says: "Yasukuni is not a memorial in any sense of the word: it is a temple where visitors go to worship."

Mrs Nishimura says: "The people who founded it [the shrine] were nationalists who supported racial superiority and state-sponsored religion. The people who run it now don't accept that Japan did anything wrong in World War II. They still believe they are protecting the 'real' Japan. When Mr Koizumi goes there, he reminds people of this past."

The fact that the shrine's custodians view themselves as the guardians of Japan's soul helps explain the controversy over the 14 class A war criminals venerated there. In 1978 Yasukuni's high priest installed memorial sticks, symbolically representing wartime leader Hideki Tojo and 13 other soldiers and government officials, among the 2.5 million other war dead at the shrine, bringing them back into the national fold. Japan specialist John Nathan recently wrote: "Its effect was to heighten the symbolic significance, political and emotional, of the official visit to the shrine."The Prime Minister is well aware of this when he steps into Yasukuni.

Until now, pacifists like Mrs Nishimura could find little establishment support. But in a ruling yesterday, a district court in Fukuoka, southern Japan, ruled that Mr Koizumi's first of four visits to the shrine since he has taken office "breached Japan's constitutional separation of religion and state".

In a stunning piece of reverse logic, Mr Koizumi said he took the ruling to mean that he has won the case because the court turned down the plaintiffs' demand for compensation, adding that he found the ruling "good" and that he intended to keep going. The fact that the 211 plaintiffs include relatives of war dead, as well as Buddhists and Christians, will add to Mr Koizumi's misery. Much of his political support for the visits depends on the backing of the politically important, million-strong war Japan War Bereaved Families Association.

The leader of the plaintiffs, Tsuneaki Gunjima, said the ruling was "fantastic". The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has become accustomed to court cases ruling against their interpretation of Mr Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, said it hopes "Japanese leaders will keep their promise to reflect on Japan's history of invasion". Many are wondering whether the ruling will dissuade Mr Koizumi from further visits, but they are popular - one poll in 2001 recording an approval rating of more than 80 per cent.

Mr Koizumi also partly speaks for a revisionist movement that has gathered steam in the four years since he came to power. Supporters of this movement have already thrown their support behind the first postwar dispatch of Japanese troops into a war zone.

The revisionists have also been at work at enrolment ceremonies at public schools in Tokyo this week, where dozens of teachers have been disciplined for refusing to stand for the same national flag that fluttered on Second World War warships and tanks across Asia. And they have helped build a grassroots movement to change the teaching of history that would bring textbooks more into line with the arguments on display at Yasukuni.

The movement's leaders want to end Japan's "masochistic" emphasis on its atonement for the war. Nobukatsu Fujioka, a professor of education at Tokyo University, says: "We believe the emphasis on teaching about the wrong that Japan did in the war is leading to the moral decline of our young."

Yasukuni is the symbolic battleground for the soul of Japan as it struggles to reinvent itself. Every time Mr Koizumi walks into the shrine's inner sanctum, he helps tip the balance in favour of the revisionists' view.