Brewed in Japan
Brewed in Japan
May 7, 2015
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Bridging the Pacific


Narration for "Spirits of the State"
a 28-minute documentary film on Yasukuni Shinto shrine

Available from
Films for the Humanities and Sciences
Koizumi Produced by
John Nelson
University of San Francisco 

The narrative of the film, written by John Nelson, can stand on its own as a brief introduction to and discussion of the history and current status of Yasukuni Shrine. It can be downloaded and copied for classes, or posted on Blackboard for reference.

Instructors will note that the narrative can be divided into two parts, corresponding to about halfway through the film. I have found it useful on occasion, especially for classes unfamiliar with Japan or the issue of Yasukuni shrine, to pause halfway through the film and solicit questions and comments. This is also a good opportunity to inform students about what lies ahead in the concluding fifteen minutes.

(NOTE: Scene descriptions are in bold font)

Opening Sequence

Train to scenes of destruction

As we start a new century, we congratulate ourselves on accomplishments related to industry, technology, and social development.

Destruction, Opera Building in San Francisco, battlefield memorials, firebomb memorial

It's important to remember, however, these advances occurred during the same century in which it's estimated that 188 million people died because of wars, more than at any time in the history of the world.

War memorials are found everywhere, reminding us of the loss of life involved in various conflicts.

But there are also questions of meaning at stake. Visit any battlefield or cemetery and you'll find displayed messages concerning national values, courage, and heroic sacrifice. At cemeteries in particular, the bodies of those killed, wounded, or who served "with valor" are right there beneath your feet. Monuments to the war dead are symbolically charged with complex messages.....including this site in Tokyo, which commemorates victims of both the 1923 earthquake and over 100,000 killed in the March, 1945 firebombing.

Yasukuni Shrine air view, to gates

If it's hard to be objective about war, how can we assess fairly one of Japan's most important religious institutions, (title) Yasukuni Shrine , that venerates the military dead of a state responsible for one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century?

Omura statute to main gate

Yasukuni shrine was established in 1869 to house the spirits of soldiers who died during the civil wars that had given birth to the new nation of Japan. The name "Yasukuni" evokes a "peaceful nation" made possible by those who died for the sake of their country and emperor.

Gate opening to Meiji emperor and history

As we go further into the shrine, we'll see how the state created a new religious nationalism based on myths of divine destiny and Japanese superiority. Instilled over an eighty year period, this emotional combination led to an active participation by the Japanese people. As they modernized and industrialized their new nation, Japanese leaders followed models and precedents from Europe and where national agendas were bolstered by religious belief.

Festival footage

Yasukuni shrine draws upon the heritage of Shinto festivals and rituals similar to those found all over Japan. But the shrine's emphasis on honoring and worshipping the spirits of the military dead gives it a special status. It is much more than just a war monument..

War paintings

Hungry for resources and territory, and fearful of being colonized itself, Japan fought and won wars of imperialism with China. Almost overnight, Japan's soldiers, especially those killed in the line of duty, became heroes celebrated in paintings, songs, and poems. This heady combination of war victories and economic prosperity only fueled the nation's territorial ambitions.


Urban areas in particular were saturated with patriotic exhortations to serve the state that extended from childhood to adolescence to military service. Japan's divine destiny was to dominate the Pacific region...


...but the military's early victories turned to defeats, leading to a last sip of sake before becoming a human bomb hurled at the enemy, desperately defending the Japanese homeland.


Japan's military causalities were staggering, with over one million, one hundred seventy-five thousand deaths scattered throughout Asia. Soldiers fortunate enough to have their bodies retrieved would be cremated and brought home to the family grave. But in the last years of the war, this was an exception, not the rule. Perhaps it was comforting for soldiers to know that at least their spirit would be enshrined at Yasukuni.

Cherry Blossoms to shrine books for dead

Soldiers were symbolized by the delicate beauty of Japan's cherry blossoms, flourishing but impermanent and soon scattered. Their deaths were recorded at the shrine, and their spirits then incorporated as guardians of the nation.


In addition to their families receiving a pension, these spirits also received visits by members of the imperial family. It was the first time in Japanese history when emperors paid tribute to the spirits of commoners.

Military at shrine

During the course of Japan's wars, Yasukuni shrine and its priests were key proponents of the rewards of self-sacrifice. An 1882 Imperial Rescript stated that a conscripted soldiers' obligation of loyalty to the Emperor was heavier than the mountains, but that death was lighter than a feather.

High ranking military officers still attend yearly rituals at the shrine.


Yasukuni's priests consider themselves to be guardians of the nation's heroic spirits.

At least twice yearly, the shrine receives an official from Japan's Imperial household who presents offerings to the deities within. Daily offerings, prayers, and rituals--similar to those performed at any Shinto shrine-- are intended at Yasukuni to soothe and calm the spirits of the dead. While most Shinto rituals carefully avoid anything having to do with death-- leaving that part of the life cycle to Buddhists-- Yasukuni is an invented tradition ...instilling new content within familiar forms. Female shrine attendants entertain the spirits regularly in front of the main altar.

Visitors sequence

It's important to understand that, in Asia generally, spirits of the recently dead are believed capable of intervening in the world of the living. Military dead--those v ibrant young men and women cut down in their prime-- are highly volatile and unstable entities within this broad cultural tradition, especially in Japan. Many believe these spirits--which are confused, lost, or neglected on some distant battlefield--might seek retribution from the nation instead of those enemy soldiers actually responsible for their deaths. Priests and politicians alike say that Yasukuni shrine pacifies these spirits and thus keeps the nation secure.

People coming to the shrine may indeed share this belief, but they may also steer clear of the shrine's authority, choosing instead to appropriate the site for more personal religious practices or emotional needs. So, when observing what goes on among visitors to Yasukuni, we must allow for diverse levels of participation and beliefs.


Not surprisingly, however, some people are neither supportive nor neutral. There are many individuals and groups who vehemently disagree with the shrine's agenda...such as these radical students attempting to disrupt the shrine's August 15th ceremonies. Fueling protests both within and outside Japan was the 1979 enshrinement of military leaders convicted of and executed for war crimes. But from the shrine's perspective, they too should be rewarded for their "meritorious service to the nation."

Bereaved families

Every year on August 15, the day the emperor announced Japan's surrender, the shrine draws large crowds of people. Bereaved family members (the Izoku-kai), groups such as the All-Japan Alliance of War Comrades, or the Society Honoring the Glorious War Dead, and a variety of conservative organizations pay their respects through formal rituals within the shrine's main sanctuary.

Family members sometimes cry out, "brother, I am here!" For them, Yasukuni provides a place where their personal loss is valorized, legitimized, and even made sacred, despite the fact that Japan lost the war and caused tremendous suffering and damage to the people of other nations.


Even leading politicians, such as former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and the present prime minister, have paid their respects at the shrine. Despite Constitutional regulations that explicitly prohibit these visits, a politician's key constituency--such as the Bereaved Families' association or a veterans group--rally behind what is perceived as a prime minister's patriotic duty.

Saluting flag, bugle and song

The film can be paused here for discussion or questions

Part II

"Glorious War Dead" organization spokesperson interview

Yûshûkan Museum

Adjacent to the shrine is the Yûshûkan museum of war history and memorabilia. Its exhibits, seen here in 1995, convey pointed commentaries about sacrifice, honor, and loyalty, and further amplify those voices defending why Japan went to war and the soldiers who fought in it.

The museum was totally remodeled in 2002, but 50 years after the end of the war it looked like this. Personal items, detailed accounts of heroism ending in death, and photo portraits created a solemn and hushed atmosphere, as if a visitor were looking at the lives of the saints.

Mr. Furukawa interview / Portraits

It's hard for us to imagine the commitment of the Japanese state and people to the war, but it seems evident from these faces that duty and pride cannot be separated from a foreboding uncertainty about what lies ahead. From a young man just drafted who will soon be marching off to the front, to an officer and his soon-to-be widow, to a teenage kamikaze pilot, the museum elevates their deaths as noble offerings made for the sake of the emperor and nation.

Mr. Furukawa

"After visiting Arlington Cemetery and seeing the pious expressions of the American public, I feel sorry for Japanese soldiers. That's why I'm full of gratitude for everyone who comes to the museum."

Woman interview / Portraits

Grieving individuals might bring to the shrine a paradox of emotions: loyalty to the nation mixed with anger, bitterness, or regret regarding their personal loss. It's the role of the Yûshûkan museum to structure these feelings and memories into a more stable perspective.

Women's roles

Since women played vital roles in a wartime society--raising, educating, encouraging, and mourning soldiers, as well as performing labor of all sorts-- they too receive the museum's praise. Nurses who died at the front have their short lives well documented.


Then there are those haunting portraits of the special attack forces, the tokkotai or kamikaze pilots.

Here we see the famous camaraderie of two pilots enjoying a last bite of rice, smiling and relaxed in the face of imminent death. Their bravery is mirrored... .

Gen. Anami sequence

... by the exhibit of General Anami Korechika, who took his own life when faced with defeat. His uniform, sword, and blood splashed upon his farewell poem, are material extensions of his body, producing a powerful emotional message for the visitor about loyalty and the tragedy of Japan's defeat.

Young woman interview

civilian suffering painting, photo of child

Nowhere does the museum acknowledge the destruction and loss of life caused by Japanese forces throughout Asia. It seems that when the nation's redemption is at stake, historical facts count very little.

right wingers (groups that specialize in forgetting)

Selective memory and forgetting is a specialty of ultra-conservative individuals and groups. They have turned the war into a simplified, dramatized myth, and they're not shy about broadcasting it. Yasukuni shrine provides a gathering place for their ear-splitting sound trucks as they champion patriotism, the emperor, or any cause made to resonate with their nationalistic agendas. .

tables and books

The shrine also permits on its grounds the sale of books and brochures that promote historical revisionism about all aspects of the war's origins, effects, and conclusions. Judgments about war crimes trials conducted by the victors, or about Japan having responsibility for the war, are especially challenged.

Organizations espousing these views, such as the Japan Association, are also affiliated directly with the shrine.


On August 15, old soldiers and young aficionados of war parade back and forth on the shrine's main approach. It's their way of honoring deceased comrades and sharing again in the self-satisfying pride of military service, actively praised by Yasukuni.

"Fifty years ago, I was wearing something like this. I want to wear what my friends who died wore, not the formal uniform you see over there...I want to console the spirits of the dead, and to try and feel what they felt... so that's why I'm wearing this outfit."

Selective remembrance, consolation, and pacification of Yasukuni's spirits helps rescue and redeem this part of Japan's past from the harsh judgments of history.

Like war itself, the bugle calls forth both exhilarating and somber displays of emotion. For over 130 years, Yasukuni shrine has been a place produced and choreographed by the state where individual, family, and collective memories intersect. Contradictory and unresolved, its rendition of the war will remain open to periodic reassessment with each change of government and each coming generation.


Just how this assessment is done will remain problematic and controversial as long as politicians continue to use Yasukuni shrine and its constituencies of spirits, bereaved families, and affiliated organizations for political gain.

Bike balance to Tokyo City Hall

The balancing act between nationalism and civic duty, between elite and popular versions of the war, and between myth and history, is never stable.

At present, Yasukuni shrine and the Yûshûkan museum advance only those versions of the war that their visitors and patrons can tolerate.

Shibuya Station area

While some Japanese are anxious to move on, or actively question a resurgent nationalism that in 2003 sent troops overseas for the first time since 1945, for most people the issue of Japan's wartime past remains at a difficult crossroads.

Until an equally empowering and emotionally satisfying position is promoted by the government--similar to what Germany has accomplished--we should not be surprised if Yasukuni shrine continues to provide solace and legitimacy through its seductive embrace of nationalism, religion, and selective commemoration.

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