August the 15th is the anniversary of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II.
Every year on this day 1000’s of people go to the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Kudanshita to pay their respects to the war dead (including the 14 class A war criminals whose souls are intered there).
I have been there every year for the past few years to take photographs (see HERE and HERE) and watch the pantomime that ensues between the hundreds of Uyoku Dantai and the Police that inevitably occurs sometime in the late afternoon.
This year, however, was a little different from other years.
All of the usual elements were present and it was on one level as disturbing a view of the Japanese people as it always is, but this year I had 2 strange experiences that fundamentally changed my views, if not of the controversy surrounding Yasukuni, then at least of some of the people there.
The first was a conversation I had with this wonderful 70 year old lady.
She approached me as I was standing on a bridge over the road that runs directly past the entrance to Yasukuni shrine.
Below us was a particularly vocal right-wing nutcase with a megaphone shouting his hateful message of racial intolerence and bigotry.
“I’m sorry for my fellow Japanese” she said, I was a little taken aback, this is not the opener one expects from a Japanese old person at the best of times let alone then and there.
I thought I had misunderstood her, my Japanese is not what it should be after 3 years in the country, and asked her to repeat what she said.
There was no mistake.
We proceeded to chat for about 10 minutes with her explaining that she didn’t understand people like our vocal friend beneath us and that she thought most of the people there hadn’t really studied history very well if they thought Japan was anything but the aggressor in WWII.She also said she was disappointed in the Japanese people for not thinking for themselves and being so easily lead by the media and politicians.
She kept telling me she was odd for a Japanese old lady, holding the views she did, and I was forced to agree.
She didn’t speak English at all and I’m sure much of the subtlety of what she said was lost due to my lack of understanding but the salient points were very clear.
She stopped a passing foreigner and asked him to take our photograph and then demanded my address so she could send me the picture, she actually hugged me when she left to go on her way (that simple act speaking volumes as it unusual to see even close friends hugging in Japan, let alone an old lady hugging a foreigner she has only just met).
I was genuinely moved by her warmness and candor and wandered off to take more photos feeling a little shaken from my preconceptions.
But, if I had imagined that was it for surprises I was about to be even more shocked.
I headed for the road that leads from Yasukuni down towards Kudanshita metro station and stopped to admire the many groups spouting opinions of varying degrees of ridiculousness.
Not least of them was a group I remembered from previous years collecting signatures and shouting about how the 3rd generation Korean and Chinese residents of Japan shouldn’t be given the vote as “Japan is only for the Japanese”.
Though of course they use that catch all term for anyone who isn’t Japanese, Gaikokujin (at least they remembered the ‘koku’:-), which always gets my back up a little as being a Gaikokujin myself their impassioned ranting always seems to be directed at me too.
I was approached by one of them, who told me in perfect English, that he remembered me from last year.
Actually I remembered him too, last year (when the above photo was taken) he had used some very unpleasant Japanese to berate me for taking his picture.
He asked if he could tell me something, expecting the worst, I said why not.
He then began to explain that many “Caucasians” , he meant Americans and Germans mostly, he elaborated, came to Yasukuni on this day to disrespect the shrine.
The shrine contained the souls of war dead, he told me, as if I was a 5 year old with no idea, and in Japanese culture they must be worshiped or they will rise up again and do “bad things”.
“well, not always bad things, but they will rise up” he said.
That was why everyone was here and what the “Caucasians” didn’t understand.
I told him that I was not here to disrespect anyone, just to take photographs and enjoy the spectacle.
I asked if I could explain something to him.
He was surprisingly amenable and we moved a little away from his group, though he brought the banner he was holding with him.
I continued that I thought what some of my fellow ‘white devils’ were maybe seen as disrespecting was the fact that there were 14 class A war criminals intered at the shrine too and although we too gave our respects to our war dead we didn’t to the war criminals.
Our conversation spiraled off into discussions about his groups use of the word Gaikokujin (if you mean Chinese and Koreans then say that otherwise all of us foreigners feel attacked by you) and the recent Nori-p case and the media assertion that her boyfriend had gotten his drugs from ” a foreigner in Shibuya” despite the fact that her brother was a convicted Yakuza drug dealer and she comes from a Yakuza family.
He told me that there were “no good people in China or Korea” and I retorted that there were bad people everywhere including Japan. He looked a little angry at that until I pointed out that the Japanese Communist party was made up of Japanese people and I was sure he thought they were “bad” people, he reluctantly agreed.
I said I thought it was Politicians in every country (including Japan) that were the bad people, the “people” of each country were just like him and me, human beings were human beings no matter where they were from.
It was all shocking polite and like an actual discussion.
Suddenly an unrelated Japanese guy walking past, hearing my conversation partner with his banner and I having a conversation in English came over and started shouting at me “This is Japan, speak f*&king Japanese”.
Before I had a chance to react, my banner wielding friend turned on him and told him in some of the most colourful Japanese I have heard outside of a Yakuza movie to “f*&k off, I want to speak to him in English you stupid bastard”
The other guy was quite taken aback as was I at being defended in this way.
The gentlemen started apologising profusely and backing away, but not before I too had summoned my best Yakuza Japanese and called him some impolite names and asked him why he was only apologizing to the banner guy and not to me.
“stupid bastard” banner guy said to me and smiled as the other guy skulked away.
That simple act had left me bewildered.
Had this well spoken but clearly bigoted crazy I was talking to just defended me to a fellow Japanese??
This wasn’t how that was supposed to go.
It may not seem like much, but to me it was a huge moment.
The guy was still a closed minded xenophobe, a fairly hateful little man, but he had shown me that he was also an intelligent, thoughtful and almost reasonable human being. By showing me that he respected me enough to defend our conversation to another Japanese person and laugh at the guy after I had berated him he did more to improve my view of the Japanese people than anyone has done for as long as I can remember.
Our conversation continued for a little longer before my conversation partner moved off to rejoin his group, “Are you staying for the show?, its starts about 4pm” were his parting words.
‘The show’ he was referring too is the demonstration that takes place towards the end of the day every year when the 100’s of riot police who have been quietly sitting in their police vans, the Uyoku Dantai and interestingly in the last few years some opposition left wing groups (yes such a thing actually exists in Japan) have a staged, pantomime like ‘fight’.
(Many videos can be found with a simple youtube search)
This year however I wasn’t staying, I was hot and tired and I had actually already got more than I’d bargained for and wanted to leave with those more positive experiences in my mind.
If you read too much and attend events like Yasukuni on the 15th it is easy to become very cynical and depressed about living in Japan as a foreigner, I find myself looking at everyone with the assumption they are a right wing xenophobe and my whole world becomes a little like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
My two meetings this year had forced me to open my mind a little again and I was very thankful for that.
The releasing of the doves at the beginning of the day seemed like more than a drop in an infinite ocean.
There was a faint flicker of hope.