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Japan marks 75th anniversary of end of World War II

August 14, 2020

Thousands of veterans, relatives of the dead and far-right groups will visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to commemorate Japan's surrender and the end of the war in 1945. Julian Ryall reports.

A general view of the Yasukuni Shrine
Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Nogi

Hiromichi Moteki can still recall the urgent ringing of the air raid alarm bell in his mountain village and, when the wind was blowing in the right direction, the very faint drone of American bombers approaching the distant urban sprawl of Tokyo and Yokohama.   

Now 79 years old, he will pay his respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on Saturday, the day on which the nation will mark Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

Read more: How a graphic novel illustrates Hiroshima's atomic disaster

"My memories are rather vague, but I know that I was evacuated from Tokyo to my father's village in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture in 1941," he told DW. "I remember we were all issued with thick padded hats and when we heard the alarm we all had to go outside and take shelter in a trench."

Aged just 4 when Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation for the first time and called on his subjects to "endure the unendurable" with Japan's surrender, Moteki says he has no recollection of the day itself — but he knows there was relief throughout his family that not one of their number had been killed in a conflict that claimed the lives of an estimated 3.1 million Japanese, both civilian and military personnel.

"My family was," he admits, "very lucky."

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Criticism from abroad

Nevertheless, he will go to Yasukuni on Saturday to pay his respects to all those who did die — and he brushes away criticism from some of Japan's neighbors that the shrine is a symbol of the nation's militaristic past and revels in memories of an empire which, at its peak, stretched across a vast swathe of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean.

"It is our duty to remember and pay our respects to all those who died for the nation," he said. "Our ancestors are enshrined at Yasukuni and it is important to me and, I would hope, most Japanese, that we reflect on their sacrifices."

Yasukuni Shrine was founded in 1869 and is dedicated to more than 2.46 million men, women and children who have died in all of Japan's wars since. It is controversial to neighboring states because it is also considered the last resting place of the souls of 1,068 convicted war criminals, including 14 who were tried and convicted of Class A war crimes in World War II. 

Read more: Japan fumes over 'comfort women' statue in South Korea said to resemble Abe

In part because of that controversy, the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has announced that, once again, he will not visit the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender but will send a personal offering instead. 

Abe has visited the shrine only once since he took office in December 2013, a visit that triggered outrage in China and South Korea, both of which insist that Japan has not done enough to atone for its invasion and frequently brutal subjugation of their populations in the early decades of the last century. 

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe
PM Abe has visited Yasukuni only once since he took office in December 2013, a visit that triggered outrage in China and South KoreaImage: Getty Images/T. Ohsumi

Conservative politicians

Even if the prime minister does not attend in person, dozens of conservative politicians will pay their respects at the shrine on the day. It is likely that Beijing and Seoul will both issue critical statements if any of the politicians are relatively senior, such as members of Abe's cabinet.

For Moteki, Japan's war dead deserve better. 

"The prime minister should be seen there and I also believe the emperor should pay his respects at Yasukuni every year," he said. "I know Queen Elizabeth attends Remembrance Day events in England every year; why should Japan be any different?"

On August 15 every year, the spacious grounds of Yasukuni are thronged with people paying their respects. There are still a few veterans who make the journey, some wearing their uniforms and their medals, but their numbers shrinking every year. Others are the relatives of soldiers, sailors and airmen who died, or the descendants of civilians killed in the bombing of Japanese cities. 

There are also always representatives of the far-right. Groups of shaven-headed men in military-style fatigues with armbands and combat boots march up to the steps of the main shrine, bow in unison and then march away again. On the fringes of the event are, inevitably, members of the "yakuza" organized crime groups that still proliferate and have nationalistic tendencies. 

Ken Kato is a Tokyo businessman and he will also be at Yasukuni over the weekend, to visit his grandfather, he says. 

Paying respects

"My grandfather died in the Philippines just one month before the end of the war, so he was very unlucky," he told DW. "So every year for the past 30 years or more, I have been coming here to have a little conversation with him and to pay my respects."

The Kato family endured great hardships in the years immediately after the war because the breadwinner had been killed, hyper-inflation raged and much of Tokyo had been laid waste by firebombs. But he agrees that it is important to remember the people who died.

"Japan is just like any other country; we believe it is important to remember and pay our respects to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the nation," he said. "I consider it my duty to go to Yasukuni once a year to be close to my grandfather's spirit and to remember what he and all those other people did."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea