VOX POPULI: Japan needs a simpler way to honor its war dead

December 30, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

Gazing up at the cloudless sky over the Kanto Plain on Dec. 28, a famous poem by Junzaburo Nishiwaki (1894-1982) popped into my head.

Titled "Tenki" (weather), it goes, "The morning was like an overturned gem/ A few people are at the door, whispering to someone/ This is the birthday of God."

The imagery is solid and simple in a classic way. Since this poem is in a collection titled "Girisha Jojo-shi" (Greek lyric poetry), I presume the god referred to here is a god of ancient Greece.

The word "god"--or kami in Japanese--stands for quite different things in different regions. Wanting to ascertain what sort of being kami is in Japan, I turned to the scholarly works by linguist Susumu Ono (1919-2008), who specialized in the early history of the Japanese language.

Kami is not a single entity. In fact, there are countless deities in Japan. Ono theorized that the word kami derived from "kakurimi," which denotes an invisible, hidden presence. Kami are believed to descend upon "yorishiro," an object, such as a tree or rock, that is capable of attracting divine spirits, when people bring offerings of food and drink when they pray there.

Japan's myriad of gods reside in the mountains, hills, roads, rivers and seas all over the land. Our ancestors held them in fear and awe for their terrifying, supernatural powers. Defying the will of kami was believed to lead to certain death. Objects of fear like thunder and wolves were also believed to be kami.

The faith of the ancients could not be simpler. Novelist Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996) wrote, "Ancient Shinto was as clear and plain as fresh water. There was no need for official dogma; kami was ever present in all corners that were kept pure."

I am stunned by the difference between ancient Shinto and state Shinto that came later. In the latter, what flowed copiously was human blood, not water, and soldiers who died in action were deified.

It is completely human to mourn the dead. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Dec. 26 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead are deified along with 14 Class-A war criminals, is beginning to make Japan friendless in the international community.

Our country has no choice but to work out a much simpler and far less controversial way of mourning and honoring the war dead.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 29

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts, social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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