Patriotic martyrdom as religion

“Araw Ng Kagitingan,” which we celebrate every year as a public holiday on April 9, used to be known as the “Fall of Bataan” or simply “Bataan Day.” The change in name was done primarily to appease critics who think that no nation proud of its heritage should commemorate defeat in battle. But, I wonder if the commemoration of this event fails to evoke enduring meanings just because of the name. I wonder how much of it is due to the confused memories and emotions that are evoked in its remembrance.

By contrast, Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine and Yushukan Museum are bursting with clear meanings and deep memories. These places may look ordinary to the average tourist, yet they are perhaps among the most controversial in that country. Originally built to honor the imperial forces that fought against the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1869 Boshin War (the civil war that led to the restoration of emperor rule in Japan), Yasukuni was meant to be “a shrine that invites the spirit of the war dead to be appeased there.” As an imperial shrine, it fostered the religious belief that the spirits of the war dead become deities guarding the nation and maintaining peace and order throughout the country. This explains why a simple visit by Japan’s highest officials is taken to signify a shift to militarism in government policy, and instantly provokes contentious debate.

What is it about the Yasukuni Shrine, as the whole place is now conventionally known, that conveys such powerful feelings? More specifically, how does contemporary Japan portray its aggressive military past and its humiliating defeat in World War II to its people, particularly to the young generation?

By chance and with these questions in mind, I recently had the opportunity to visit Yasukuni twice—the first time with fellow Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, who is a visiting professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, and the second time with a longtime friend, a senior Japanese professor who has done extensive research on the impact of Japan’s economic presence on Southeast Asia. For some reason or other, it was the images from those two visits that dominated my reflection on the significance of Bataan Day.

As I went through the visual narrative of the Yasukuni war museum, I remembered strongly feeling a common cause with a China that was mercilessly plundered and destroyed by an insatiable Japan. Today, of course, the shoe is on the other foot, and, by a twist of history, we now find ourselves on the same side as Japan against a rising China. But, while Japan fortifies and spiritually steels itself, we still look to the United States for protection, hoping that our old ally will abide by its treaty commitments.

The Yasukuni Shrine leaves no doubt about how a country like Japan comes to terms with its past. No remorse is expressed. Everything is explained as a logical consequence of the nation’s interests, and its quest to preserve the Asian way of life against encroachments from the West. Even in defeat, national pride remains strong. Martyrdom for one’s country is extolled as the highest virtue, and those who die fighting for the fatherland are regarded as the nation’s permanent guardians, maintaining its unity through many transitions. To them is reserved not only a place of honor but also of reverence.

At the end of the war, America’s occupying forces stripped the emperor of all governmental powers. They demoted Yasukuni Shrine from an imperial shrine to a mere religious corporation. Many Japanese saw this as an attack on Shinto, the religion of ancestor worship. But, the religion that Yasukuni promoted was more than ancestor worship: It was the worship of the nation, in its imagined purity. Offering one’s life for it in battle was its highest expression.

Hand in hand with the promotion of patriotic martyrdom was the valuation of military technology. Yasukuni is not a mere museum; it is a museum of military traditions and weapons, beginning with the “spirit of the samurai.” Outside the museum building stands an imposing statue of a kamikaze pilot, proud and smiling, the clearest personification of the nobility of patriotic martyrdom.

The Yasukuni account of World War II sees the war entirely as a noble enterprise undertaken in pure self-defense. In an afterword to the printed version of the exhibit, Prof. Kobori Kei-ichiro sums up the whole event thus: “The Japanese fought bravely in a tragic war for three years and eight months. Our predecessors faced the bitter hostility of the Allied Powers, led by the United States, toward Japan for more than 100 years. The existence of Japan was a clear obstacle that would block their movement toward self-expansion. Facing the explosion of hostility by the Allied Powers, their economic blockade, and declaration of war against Japan, we had to fight our way rather with resignation to our inevitable fate than with return demonstrated hostility.”

This kind of nationalism became the mother of all imperialism. But, there can be no question that, at a certain stage in the evolution of societies, national pride does play an essential role in the development of a people. This was something we Filipinos obviously failed to fully nurture in the course of our own progress to nationhood. That is why when Bataan fell, we knew to whom we had lost the war, but it didn’t seem as clear in our hearts which country we were fighting for. It is heartbreaking to know that when the war ended, many Filipinos who fought valiantly against the Japanese demanded recognition for service rendered to America.

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