"Spirits of the State"
A Film by John Nelson, Ph.D. about Japan's Yasukuni Shrine
The film opens with observations on war, casualties, and remembrance in the 20th century before focusing on how one nation--Japan--used the deaths of conscripted soldiers to enhance nationalism and reverence for the emperor. One of Japan's oldest religious traditions, Shinto, was appropriated by the state in order to become the spiritual "engine" driving the vehicle of Japan's race towards modernity and industrialization. Patriotism, indoctrination, and state-centered ideology are shown using historical footage and photos of Yasukuni shrine, built in Tokyo as a religious site to enshrine the spirits of the military dead but also as a place of pageantry and state-sponsored ritual. Using ethnographic footage compiled by the filmmaker as well as images from public relations films made by the shrine in the 1970s, the film provides a rare glimpse of the shrine's priests conducting rituals for the spirits of the dead. Viewers then see how Japan's early war victories turned to retreats and defeat (the "kamikaze" special attack squads are shown) with soldiers promising each other to "meet again (as spirits) at Yasukuni shrine." The film then turns to the problematic status of the shrine in the postwar period, due in part to the inclusion of Class-A war criminals and constitutional prohibitions against the collusion of religion and the state. Audiences see how the shrine, its priests, and its spirits of the military dead remain a powerful resource for politicians espousing patriotism, sacrifice, and nationalism. But these associations are also a source of considerable controversy both within Japan and elsewhere in Asia. The film concludes with scenes from well-known Tokyo landmarks (the City Hall, Shinjuku, Shibuya) that suggest the Japanese are at a crossroads in how they deal with the history of the war and how they choose to commemorate those who lost their lives for a failed cause.