Amidst the packed throngs of Tokyo, tucked away from the hum of traffic and commerce, sits the Yasukuni Shrine, a token of a bygone era and a bygone Japan holding firm against the beating stream of time. Upon entering the shrine’s sprawling grounds, one can almost feel an aura of floating stillness seeping into the marrow of his or her bones, so calm and orderly are the grounds, so gentle the curves of the buildings. At the heart of this dreamscape lies the honden, the main structure of the shrine complex. The honden instills a sense of transcendence in its viewers, drawing gazes upwards to the curving skyline of a heavy and intricate roof, deep brown meshing with foam blue and looming over the space below it. This space below, the body of the honden, sinks inwards from the arms of the roof, a hobbling collection of thin, vertical wooden beams with white, paper-thin walls stretched between them—a structure seemingly too frail to support the behemoth structure dominating the skies. Yet somehow this emaciated body does lift its roof into the air, breathtaking in its enlightened breach of reason. It is in this hondenthat the shrine’s kami are stored, nearly two and a half million spirits, all of them enshrined and eternally revered for their service to the now all-but-nonexistent emperor of Japan. One expects such a breathtaking historic landmark to receive a few visitors. The Yasukuni shrine’s visitors, however, do not treat the shrine as they would any other guidebook stop. They treat the anachronistic shrine with a special reverence and devotion, and one cannot help but wonder why.
As suggested by the statues sprinkling the shrine’s grounds, such as those to the Meiji era warrior Ōmura Masujirō, a kamikaze pilot, and a war widow, spiritual enshrinement was granted for military service—a reflection of the age in which the shrine itself was built. The Meiji era (here referring to the 1868—1945 era of Japanese imperialism initiated by Emperor Meiji) shifted Japan from a feudal and isolated nation to one avidly participating within the global trade network. Shockingly, the formerly isolationist and only lightly unified Japanese people took to this new life with great zeal, which was epitomized in the nationalizing and imperializing reforms of Emperor Meiji. Under his leadership, Japan thrust itself into a modernizing effort more swiftly than any other nation, adjusting to industrial life and international relations by developing an undying admiration for and devotion to a deified emperor. The army served Meiji with unbending willpower, discipline and loyalty in order to put down internal rebellion, reinforce the values of the new era, and claim territory. Out of respect for such virtuous actions, the emperor began construction of the shrine at the end of his revolutionary climb to power in 1869. The shrine would grant state Shinto priests an ideal compound in which to pay homage to the dead, and in which the people of Japan could come to view the image of service and its eternal rewards of glory and bliss. It was in this shrine that Emperor Meiji first embodied the values of the new Japan, the land of a newly united and purely Japanese people, no longer divided by clan, but centered around a common self-image, a common historical birthday, a common father in the emperor.
This way of life, though, came to an end in 1945 with the United States’ invasion of Japan and the imposition of a new, American-style constitution upon the Japanese people. The constitution stripped the Japanese people of their Meiji values. The emperor was depoliticized, relegated to a figurehead role. The military, the hub of imperialism and loyalty, was stripped down to an impotent “defense force.” The separation of church and state prevented Shintos’ involvement with political life. Finally, the Yasukuni Shrine, home to spiritual life, was forced to end its relations with the state; it became fully religious and therefore almost taboo for the secular government. Thus the shrine was removed from the flow of time as Japanese society became rapidly more commercial and peaceful, more secular and individual, leaving the values of unbending service and honor to the past. Perplexingly, though, this shrine, an esoteric piece of cultural history, historically revisionist and controversially populated by the spirits of convicted war criminals, remains one of the most visited and popular memorials in Japan.
Astoundingly, what one may call “the Yasukuni syndrome”—the flocking of people to a seemingly obsolete memorial—is not an uncommon occurrence; the shrine merely offers an example of this conundrum for analysis. In an attempt to reason out this puzzle, the concepts of Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s essay “‘We Would Not Have Come Without You’: Generations of Nostalgia,” serve to explain, in part, the compulsion of the Japanese people, from layman, to Shinto practitioner, to the prime minister, to visit a shrine commemorating dead they have little or no relation to and wars falling into the realms of distant history.
Hirsch and Spitzer’s work addresses the nostalgic longing for a lost home in exiled Holocaust survivors and their children. They note that even those children who know nothing of the lost home from personal experience feel nostalgic yearning. Hirsch and Spitzer’s analytic journey provides explanations for this yearning without acquaintance, and a cure for yearning in returning to the lost home. This account gives a basis by which one may diagnose the Japanese as suffering from a collective and specific case of nostalgia (and then seek a cure).
Though modern Japanese people are far removed from the events of the Meiji era and its values, they possess what Hirsch and Spitzer call a “postmemory” of the time. Such postmemory refers to “a mediated relation to (in Stefan Zweig’s phrase) a lost ‘world of yesterday’ that [descendants have] inherited from parents and grandparents …,” who had grown up indoctrinated with the values of the Meiji and the fresh memories of imperial collapse (256). This postmemory, though, is dissimilar to the postmemories inherited by most societies as Japan’s history broke sharply at 1945. Overnight, their values were overthrown by a foreign constitution limiting the ways in which they could relate to their state, religion, and society. This sudden shift in socio-political interactions caused a historical rupture, which jerked the nation into the future with no bridge to the past.
Hence, the Japanese people become exiles in time, suffering from what Hirsch and Spitzer specifically call “resistant nostalgia,” in that they suffer “longing inherent in all nostalgic constrictions ‘for a home that no longer exists or has never existed,” and then, having no reference to the actual past but, “…inherited shards of memory,” the unknown home becomes “valued as somehow better, simpler, less fragmented, and more comprehensible than its alternative in the present,” through a clash of the old and new ideas (which arose from nothing, with no sense of history or value) (256, 258, 263). Furthermore as resistant nostalgia—and all nostalgia—may be, “triggered in its victims through sights, sounds, smells, tastes—any number of associations that might influence them to recall the homes and environments they had unwillingly left behind,” (258) the daily contact with physical Meiji cultural remains may cause perpetual nostalgia, hence perpetual memory/identity crises, in many modern Japanese citizens. This constant pressure increases the urge for release.
The common knowledge about nostalgia, resistant or otherwise, Hirsch and Spitzer claim, is that, “returning the ‘homesick,’ the ‘nostalgic,’ to their origins,” leads to, “its [nostalgia’s] restorative ending,” in that it bridges memory, postmemory and perception, fusing the painful nostalgic fracture (258). With this cure in mind, the Japanese come to the Yasukuni Shrine seeking not to memorialize the dead, but momentarily to inhabit a lost temporal home. They want the shrine’s museum to tell the spirits’ stories and grant truth and humanity to postmemory. Viewing the stories of the past and witnessing lost traditions carried out by the Shinto priests allow the visitor, “[…] to bear witness to and participate in their transitory acts of memory, acts that [allow] – for some moments, at least – conflicting recollections to coalesce,” reconciling the conflicting relationship of the known “now” and the postmemory’s “then,” and sealing up resistant nostalgia’s painful gashes within the modern Japanese citizen (Hirsch and Spitzer 263). However, this relief proves fleeting for Japanese visitors who return regularly in the same state of confusion, whereas Hirsch and Spitzer’s memory rifts were healed at Czernowitz. Some integral difference, then, makes Czernowitz a cure to an ailment and the Yasukuni shrine merely a treatment of a symptom. The difference may arise from the approach to personal connection and fact within the structures, a different number of people suffering from varied postmemory types, or some blend of these complications.
The trip to the Yasukuni shrine is typically a lonely pilgrimage. Whereas Hirsch and Spitzer, at Czernowitz with their parents, “finally internalized …the reality of what we now euphemistically refer to as ethnic cleansing,” the Japanese come to the Yasukuni Shrine alone, unaided by personal connections to the Meiji era (271). Thus they often end up reinforcing their own distant conceptions of Meiji values, reaching no real consensus with the past but instead a stylized mental recreation. In this way, they internalize no fact or truth, but only further idealize the past, especially through the revisionist history prevalent in the exhibits and rituals of the shrine—the closest experience to personal contact there. Without such a personal component to the trip, such as the parents of Hirsch and Spitzer, or of a living link to check the “narratives … generated when the present intrudes upon the past,” the Japanese tend to deify their ancestors’ memories and further fracture their own worldviews (Hirsch and Spitzer 257). The museum uses the pretense of authentic connection to voices of the past to promote a utopian view of the Meiji era and reinforce, not reconcile, resistant nostalgia by historical revisionism. Voiceless, the limited path between “then” and “now” crumbles; visitors jolt back from the old world to the present day, but no bridge supports their rapid transition and so they succumb to resistant nostalgia once more.
Hirsch and Spitzer’s journey to their bridge between past and present was that of one family to one personalized location. Czernowitz held a special application to their story alone. The magnitude of those suffering from postmemory (and hence resistant nostalgia) in Japan, though, defies this approach. The core postmemories of the Japanese are much vaguer than the postmemories of the Hirsch family, which allows more room for individual modification. Family ties, upbringing, or personal inclination will slightly alter the broad cultural postmemory into a personal variant within each sufferer. Each, then, requires a separate resolution and one shrine, however artfully crafted or layered, cannot hope to appeal to the needs of several million variations upon a core postmemory. This would be similar to claiming that all Holocaust survivors’ children should visit Czernowitz alone as the ultimate restorative ground. Thus, the sheer number of souls touched by a vague, cultural postmemory—each slightly altering it through their modern, personal lenses—cannot be served by the intent or story of one shrine. As Czernowitz limits its restorative scope to a fraction of Holocaust survivors (possibly only the Hirsch family), so the Yasukuni shrine may only serve a fraction of Japanese people.
While the views of Hirsch and Spitzer provide insight into motivation for visitations to the Yasukuni Shrine, they do not lead to the same, sure resolution as Hirsch and Spitzer’s visitation to Czernowitz. Though useful in assessing modern Japanese cultural identity, the concept of a core cultural postmemory leading to a single, curable resistant nostalgia does not do justice to the individualized postmemories of each Japanese citizen. While postmemory is certainly at play in the social discontent of the Japanese, the idea that visiting one shrine may resolve the resistant nostalgia of every Japanese visitor proves absurd. The absurdity of the claim does not diminish the draw of the shrine, though. The basic collective postmemories and nostalgic yearnings may lead to an overall collective view of the situation. Thus, seeing a cure for one sufferer incites a belief in a universal cure. So the one sufferer went to the Yasukuni Shrine and found peace and so now they all flock there, hoping that a generalized remedy may cure their individual cases. Ironically, this readiness to accept and promote unity is a Meiji ideal, and embracing it only furthers temporal resistant nostalgia’s effects. In this light, the purported cure, the Yasukuni Shrine, may only serve to further damage their personal reconciliation of “then” and “now.”
Hirsch, Marianne and Leo Spitzer. “We Would Not Have Come Without You’: Generations of Nostalgia.” American Image 59 (2002): 253-276.