Men wearing period Japanese Imperial Army and Navy uniform gather outside the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on August 15, 2020, on the 75th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

TOKYO – When the clock struck noon on Saturday, silence fell on Japan.

At the Budokan Hall, where Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the annual ceremony; at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery where families remember the dead; at the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine where dead soldiers are enshrined as gods, a moment of silence was observed to commemorate the end of World War II. 

Seventy-five years ago – on August 15, 1945, at 12pm – Emperor Hirohito broadcast via radio an unprecedented announcement: Japan was surrendering and would fight no more.

The announcement marked the end of mankind’s most terrible war. It also marked an end to Japan’s gambit to dominate Asia.

The Pacific War started with Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, then expanded with an assault on Europe’s Southeast Asia colonies and the US fleet in 1941. After years of cruelty and courage across vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean and the Asian landmass, it ended with the firebombings and atomic bombings of Japanese cities, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and Korea.

Some 2.5 to 3.1 million Japanese perished in those years. Many millions more were killed, predominantly in China, but also across Southeast Asia, India and the Pacific.

While the sitting emperor and prime minister spoke at the ceremony, it was a surprise voice from the past – from a 96-year-old retired prime minister – that might have had the most profound resonance on this day of days.

A uniformed man wearing a protective mask with the rising sun flag walks in the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo on August 15, 2020 on the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Photo: Charly Triballeau / AFP

Dwindling numbers

The number of people alive who remember Hirohito’s historic broadcast grows fewer every year. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers attending memorial ceremonies at the Budokan Hall, an iconic arena, were about a 10th of the normal turnout.

Though Japan boasts the world’s oldest populace, according to the Ministry of Health, roughly 80% of today’s Japanese were born after the war. However, Saturday’s ceremony was broadcast over the internet for the first time in history, allowing many people to take part in the solemnities virtually. 

The national focus on the novel coronavirus dampened both the expected turn-out and the attention paid to the date. Almost no weekly magazine ran a feature on it; even newspapers were thin in content; few took time to analyze the causes of war.

The left-leaning Tokyo Shimbun was one exception, running a long interview with a 99-year-old veteran who lamented torturing and then shooting a Chinese prisoner of war. 

That’s not a voice the rulers of Japan want to hear. Those expecting Abe, who many accuse of revisionist leanings, to issue some modicum of apology to the suffering Imperial Japan inflicted on the world were left unsatisfied by his speech.

Abe is unlikely to preside over these ceremonies again as the Prime Minister of Japan. His support ratings are 32%, the second lowest in his long term, and his declaration of victory over the coronavirus weeks ago rings more hollow every day. He is widely expected to resign later this year; his term ends next year.

In Japan, a democracy, there is a wide spectrum of opinion about the past. Many express their shock and remorse about the past but there are also those who downplay atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre and the activities of biological warfare Unit 731. And there are those who insist Japan’s imperial mission was just. 

Japanese troops exult the former Chinese capital of Nanjing after the city’s conquest in 1937. The Japanese stand accused of perpetrating horrific atrocities in the Chinese city. Photo: AFP

This spectrum was on display at two different shrines of remembrance on Saturday.

‘Those evil bastards’

The moment of silence at noon felt particularly long at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which unlike the famous/infamous Yasukuni Jinja – a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead – is known to few people either inside or outside of Japan.

The forested, park-like cemetery, where the remains of actual soldiers are buried close to the moat of the Imperial Palace, is where visiting dignitaries go to pay respects.

From the opening of its gates this morning, a steady stream of elderly Japanese and their families visited, quietly offering flowers and silently putting their hands together to offer prayers to the lost.

Takayoshi Kitaoka, 82, travelled all the way from Saitama to pay his respects at noon. He was in second grade the day the war ended.

“We didn’t have a radio in our house in Miyagi (Prefecture) so four families gathered in a neighbor’s house to listen to the Emperor speak,” he recalled. “I had no idea what he said; he was speaking in some very fancy Imperial lingo.”

Kitaoka says that on the walk home, his mother explained that the war had ended and he was relieved. As he grew up, he came to understand the horrors of war from listening to those who came back. He has been visiting the cemetery for decades. 

“I went to Yasukuni Jinja once or twice,” he said. “But I remember reading in the paper that they had enshrined those evil bastards responsible for the war there and I never went again.”  

Kitaoka did clarify that while he would never worship at the shrine, he had, out of curiosity, visited Yasukuni’s adjunct war museum, where the exhibits include a suicide plane and human torpedo.

“It was a bunch of fact-twisting, war-glorifying bullshit,” he said. “The kind of stuff that shows in bad novels or movies.” 

Worshippers at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery after the nationwide minute of silence. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Imperial Disneyland

Yet, on Saturday, it was clear that Yasukuni has a much bigger following that the obscure Chidorigafuchi. Though there are no physical remains here – this is a house of spirits – it is likely the only place many ordinary Japanese know about where they can pay respects.

A Shinto shrine exclusively dedicated to war dead, Yasukuni was established in 1869. But in 1978, a rogue bureaucrat worked with Yasukuni to add wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and other convicted war criminals to those enshrined there as heroes. The political and diplomatic reverberations of that act echo down to the present.

Since 1978, no emperor has visited Yasukuni. Now, the Imperial Family and more liberal politicians usually express their condolences to the war dead at the National Cemetery. Since 2013, even Abe has not visited Yasukuni – which is also an issue of stormy contention in those nations colonized by or invaded by Japan – though four cabinet ministers did visit to today.

The long line to enter the shrine stretched for over a kilometer. It comprised families, groups, couples, crying kids under the heat of the day. Signs which nobody seemed to be following urged social distancing.  

Many were in costume – Shinto priest garb, contemporary military uniforms and yukata robes. Activists passed out leaflets urging Yasukuni be made Japan’s official shrine to the dead. Material piled on impromptu tables argued that ex-colonies Korea and Taiwan should thank Japan for helping them build their infrastructure. 

The ambience was of an Imperial Disneyland.

One bearded man in his 80s wearing a white naval uniform, who asked to be called “Captain Kato,” insisted that Japan’s shattered plans for a “Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” would have benefited the world. 

“Ask yourself, what would the world be like if Japan had won the war? A better place I think!” he argued. “Look at the world now! China is a despotic super-power destroying democracies and putting minorities in concentration camps. It released a virus that killed millions.”

Looking beyond the region, he said: “Your president is a Nazi, who lies all the time and will steal your elections… global-warming is destroying the earth. A world where Japan became a super-power would be much better.”

While photographing those lined up, this correspondent was accosted by an official who demanded press credentials. When I told him I represented Asia Times, I was politely but firmly escorted off the premises.

Though activities at the privately-run Yasukuni are certainly in the public interest, prior permission to report is apparently absolute.

Demonstrators hold Japanese national flags as they march during a protest in support of the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. Image: Getty/AFP Forum

Voice from the past

At the Budokan Hall, 500 participants listened as Naruhito delivered a speech urging that “the ravages of war never be repeated.”

Abe, who has largely avoided referring to Japan’s wartime responsibility since taking office in 2012 did not disappoint his followers. He primarily made reference to the sufferings Japanese endured, thanking those who sacrificed themselves. 

“Never repeat the tragedy of war,” he said. “We will continue to remain committed to this resolute pledge.”

 Saturday also marked another important anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama delivered a legendary speech, known sometimes as the “Murayama Statement,” which did much to smooth Japan’s relations with its neighbors.

It was the first speech to fully acknowledge Japan’s responsibility for the war and express regret for those actions. 

Then, Murayama said: “Japan, following a mistaken national policy, advanced along the road to war, only to ensnare the Japanese people in a fateful crisis, and, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations…. Allow me also to express my feelings of profound mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, of that history.”

Murayama, who is now 96-years old, and who, unlike Abe, actually experienced the war, felt compelled to issue another statement on Saturday.

Noting that Abe and his supporters consider looking back upon history as “self-abuse” Murayama said:  “It honors Japan to humbly question its past. In truth, it is the stance that refuses to admit Japan’s invasion and its colonization of other countries that demeans this nation.”