The craftsman washes the clay from his hands. He boils some water for tea, and reaching for a teacup knocks it off the shelf. It smashes on the floor. He cradles the broken pieces, and carefully puts them back together again with gold lacquer. He holds it up to the sun. Where there were once cracks, there are now veins of gold.
The Japanese keep apologising for their part in the Second World War. The incumbent Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, expressed in 2015 at the U.S. Congress his “deep repentance” for Japan’s actions. A very large number of his predecessors have said much the same, all along the lines of deep regret and heartfelt remorse.
But international outrage and disbelief followed Abe-san’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, which lies in the heart of Tokyo and houses the spirits of the Japanese war-dead. Enshrined there are also those whose names live in infamy, such as Hideki Tojo, chief architect of the Pearl Harbour raid, and Iwane Matsui, the general who presided over the “Rape of Nanking”. Prime Minister Abe has also denied that the Imperial Japanese Military forced ‘comfort women’ from occupied territories into sexual slavery and has said that Class A war criminals “are not war criminals under the laws of Japan”.
Earlier this year, I went to the Yasukuni Shrine. A statue of a Japanese airman greeted me first, with drink offerings at his feet. While he may not have represented a kamikaze pilot- that is, a particular type of World War Two-era pilot famous for having flown explosive-laden planes into American battleships- it is certainly the image conjured up in the universal imagination at the sight.
Next was a memorial to Judge Pal, an Indian judge who was appointed to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East to try the accused Japanese war criminals of the Second World War. These are often dubbed the ‘Tokyo Trials’, and were the rough equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials in Europe, at which senior members of the Nazi party were tried. Pal’s presence at the shrine might at first seem confusing, until you learn that he was the only one on the tribunal to submit a judgement asserting the innocence of the Japanese.
Inside the shrine’s museum, there were yet more thought-provoking displays. First, a haiku poem, glorifying Japan’s Yamato race, an idea used in much the same way as Hitler’s Aryan race; then, letters from kamikaze pilots, expressing their pride in dying for their country:
“For my nation’s sake
Together with my beloved aircraft
I shall come to my end
As a missile crashing
Into the enemy’s ship.”
There was also a room dedicated to the ‘China Incident’. The Nanking Massacre was made somewhat conspicuous by its absence. Two paragraphs described the Japanese military’s intent to “discourage the Chinese from continuing their resistance”, and noted that the city fell after “confused battles”. General Iwane’s orders to “maintain strict military discipline” were highlighted. The Massacre has long been a controversial subject, as there seems to be a great deal of evidence condemning the Japanese. Photographs, news articles from Japanese newspapers and eyewitness accounts from Westerners, including a Nazi named John Rabe, in the city at the time testify to the mass rape and slaughter of Chinese civilians; females of all ages, even the young and elderly, were sought out and gang-raped, while Chinese soldiers were systematically executed.
The Nanking Massacre was made somewhat conspicuous by its absence.
Intriguingly, upon leaving the shrine, I noticed there were kamikaze headbands on sale in the gift shop. Later that day, I heard the megaphones of the uyoku dantai, Japan’s far-right nationalist groups, preaching their message in Shibuya, the equivalent of Piccadilly Circus or Times Square. I would go on to hear them at various places in the city four times in seven days.
The impression I was left with at the shrine and in the city more generally was one of defensiveness. This is perfectly understandable; the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki undoubtedly still contribute to this feeling, along with the lesser-known Firebombing of Tokyo, which remains the single deadliest bombing raid in human history. In the famous Studio Ghibli anime “Grave of the Fireflies”, the grief of Japan at the gross loss of life at the time is concentrated into the story of a young boy and his sister, who starve to death after watching their mother die from burns sustained in the bombing raids.
Moreover, not all of the dead enshrined at Yasukuni were the monstrous demons they have been made out to be. I know an elderly lady whose grandfather was a kamikaze pilot; most Japanese people alive today must have some personal connection to the war just as she does, and feel their relatives have a right to a final resting place. The general Iwane Matsui was also repentant over the whole incident at Nanking, once offering his ‘sympathy, with deep emotion, to a million innocent people.”
It would seem that the horrors of the Second World War still exist in the Japanese collective consciousness like an open wound. However, I believe that it can be sewn shut. There is a particular tradition in Japanese pottery, of all places, which may help to demonstrate. Kintsugi, literally ‘golden joinery’, is the practice of repairing earthenware with lacquer and the dust of a precious metal. It stems from the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which values imperfection, modesty, and asymmetry. In short, broken pottery is not thrown away; rather, it is repaired, and, with golden glue, made to look much more beautiful.
Hiding the truth for fear of shame can only be destructive
Just as broken pots can be restored, and not only restored but improved, so can the nation of Japan. Hiding the truth for fear of shame can only be destructive, as exemplified in the recent calls for the statue of a ‘comfort woman’ outside the Japanese embassy in South Korea to be removed. What is more, it is certainly not necessary to cover up the crimes of the war: the Japanese people alive today are not actually responsible for their ancestors’ crimes. Only tyrannical legal systems hold someone to account for another’s wrongdoing.
Ernest Hemingway, in his A Farewell to Arms, wrote that “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
This is true for both people and nations. Everyone is in need of fixing, and those who do not know it must be reassured that at the end of this path of restoration lies real healing and vast improvement.