Uncertainty: Visiting Yasukuni and Yūshūkan

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So close, yet so far away: Standing the closest I’ve ever been to my grandfather’s service as an Imperial Japanese Army aviator in WWII.

 

This weekend, my dad and I visited Yasukuni and Yūshūkan, the Tokyo war shrine and accompanying museum that honors two-plus million Japanese war dead. You may recognize the place due to the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 visit to a place that honors, amongst others, 1,068 war criminals — including fourteen Class A war criminals. Not ambiguously bad, either. But death-by-hanging for seven, 20-to-life for five, died-before-conviction x 2 level of bad.

I was conflicted about going to Yasukuni at all. But if intent is a measure of human action, then know I went only to understand. We only recently learned that my dad’s father was a Japanese Imperial Army enlisted aviator. Which means that not only do I have a great-uncle who died as a U.S. Marine on Tarawa; I also have a grandfather who fought on the other side of WWII. While I’m pretty damn familiar with U.S. military history and how we think about service in this country, I have no clue about Japan other than it seems a taboo subject. Yasukuni seemed an essential place to visit if one wants to get a feel for the complex relationship Japan has with its military history.

Lacking the context of its history, Yasukuni might just seem like an oversized Shintō shrine. I suppose maybe that’s how a global pop star ends up posting what he thinks is a nice pic on Instagram like it’s no big deal. This is gong to come off as maybe odd or self-exonerating, but I purposefully avoided the main shrine, which is where the Japanese go to offer their prayers. The idea of doing so made me feel even more complicit than I already felt with pen and notebook in hand.

I entered the accompanying Yūshūkan museum thinking maybe I’d find some nugget of information regarding my grandfather. Standing in front of the Zero pictured above seemed like a promising start. But I left off-balance, having spent two-plus hours immersed in a version of Japanese military history I struggled to rectify with what I know to be true. In this version, Nanking did not happen, comfort women didn’t exist, and Hirōshima was barely worth mention save its relationship to the end of the war. Several rooms were dedicated to the heroism of the Special Attack Units, or tokkō-tai. You might know them by the aviation-specific tokkō-tai: kamikaze. Suicide attackers. In the final rooms, beneath ten thousand portraits of war dead, I read death letters. At least one of whom was written by a man slated to be executed for war crimes the following morning. It was like walking through a museum I thought only possible in the pages of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: unsettling.

I’m still trying to come to grips with that I learned at Yasukuni and Yūshūkan. What I know is that my grandfather was somehow a part of it, in whatever role he served. And he lived to consider that role as the controversies surrounding Yasukuni evolved in the decades until his death in 1987. What he thought, though, is more than likely the answer I’ll never find.

 

 

 

 

 

Remnants of the Tsunami

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I’m not sure where I end and the picture begins.

A true professional would never say that he/she wanted to run away from his/her subject. But on my last day in Kesennuma, I visited a local museum that had a tsunami exhibit. It was one of the last things I did during my time in Tōhoku (the last was sit down for a re-interview that I thought would take fifteen minutes but ended up over an hour long.) The museum was, to say the least, difficult.

We’re supposed to be objective, unemotional, detached. Yet we’re are also supposed to remain human. I’m not sure how that’s possible.

One of the fundamental aspects of storytelling is the recognition of what makes us human. Loss, grief, love: these are just a few of the things that we connect with when we read a story, then pass it along. The best stories stay with us.

I suppose it helps to not have a personal connection if you want to remain objective. And in this case, the storyteller by necessity retreats. The story takes precedence. Nobody remembers the writer; everybody remembers the story.

I suppose that in my case — which is to say, the three stories I’m to write — I’m hoping for a happy medium; an even balance of story and teller. I want you to know that I’m invested. But I also want you to be able to look beyond the authenticity factor of my own experience and recognize something beyond the primacy of the narrator. I get it: it’s a tall order. But I am nothing if not aspirational, if not hopeful.

Here is where I say something smart. Where I reference my betters, or the type of story I aspire to write. But I have none of that for you this day, folks. All I’ve got is a personal story, researched to the extent possible given a working life, and a passion to get it done. I’m not sure that’s enough to go the distance. But in the next few months, you’ll be able to judge for yourselves. I hope you find that my words are equal to the task.

What Remains

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Obā-san two and a half years before she died

Everybody dies. But not everyone dies in a natural disaster. Still, this does not make that that life more valuable, or special; nor am I made unique by relation to it. I’ve told myself this, over and over since 3.11.11 in order to resist giving in to the worst kind of narcissistic writing instincts.

But unlike dying at home in bed, in a hospital, or even in war; in a natural disaster the conditions surrounding the death, or fate for that matter, are often unclear. 24-hour media overloads you, by design, floods your mind with information. But never the information you want. That’s what it was like on 3.11.11 for my family. Imagine being halfway across the world, turning on the television, and seeing only a glimpse of a tsunami hitting your home town before the footage switches to something else even more horrifying before it cuts to yet something else before swapping with a talking head in a cool, air-conditioned studio. Do this, and you are now empathizing with my father. There is no information; the phones are down and so is the power. No one is reporting from Tōhoku; rather, they are reporting from above it. It will be days before you learn whether your loved ones survived, before you learn the tsunami took your mother.

We always had a rough idea of what happened to Obā-san, but I felt the need to distill this idea into the fact. Why I felt the need to do so has been the question I’ve struggled to answer on this trip. Because it makes a better, more complete story? If so, then I become the worst kind of profiteer – the kind who makes good on the suffering of others.

You should know that I found what I was looking for. But I’m still trying to answer that question about why I needed to know in the first place.