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.