Victoria, Brian: war remembrance in Japan (two parts)

Victoria, Brian

War remembrance in Japan’s Buddhist cemeteries, Part I: Kannon hears the cries of war‘, Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 13, Issue 31, No. 3, August 3, 2015; ‘Part II: Transforming war criminals into Martyrs: “true words” on Mt. Kōya‘, Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Vol. 13, Issue 34, No. 3, August 24, 2015

These articles are linked to the Honest History site, first, because Australia’s war history necessarily includes the history of the aftermath of wars in countries whom we fought against as well as at home and, secondly, because we are interested in how history is manipulated for political reasons – a phenomenon which has many common features across countries. Thirdly, there are parallels across countries in the links between religious faith and the waging of war. Doug Hynd dealt with that issue in relation to Australia.

It is a truism to state [says Victoria in Part I] that the leaders of every country, even in defeat, seek to portray their nation’s wars, and the soldiers who fought and died into them, in the best possible light. Wars ending in defeat, however, pose special challenges of remembrance, including the question of who was to blame? Nevertheless, win or lose, ordinary soldiers who fought on the battlefield are uniformly eulogized as “heroes” who valiantly and patriotically sacrificed themselves for the nation and its people. At a pragmatic, if not emotional, level these actions are readily understandable, for in their absence it would be more difficult to recruit a new generation of young men, and now women, to fight and die in the nation’s next war. Additionally, there is the need to foster “patriotism/nationalism” among the general populace, especially as they will be required, through their tax dollars, to finance the nation’s wars.

The articles look at how dead Japanese soldiers are valorised and eulogised in Buddhist temples and cemeteries, including how war criminals have been transformed into ‘martyrs’ who died for their country. Victoria notes the selectiveness of commemoration.

While the regret and sadness at having lost their comrades in the Asia-Pacific War is palpable [on a memorial he describes], what is striking is that there is no hint of reflection on the roots, meaning or consequences of Japan’s war of aggression, let alone the vast destruction it brought to millions of Asian peoples not to mention Japanese soldiers and civilians.

Victoria concludes by noting that collaboration between religion and war is not unique to Japanese Buddhism but something common across faiths.

On a personal note, I remember visiting a number of war memorials located in small towns in rural South Australia. The memorials listed the names of soldiers from the town who died in Australia’s modern wars, beginning with World War I. Inevitably, there would be an additional inscription, this one from the Bible: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Though unspoken, the implication was clear, no matter how many of the enemy were killed, or the circumstances of the war, if it were done in order to protect one’s fellow soldiers, and by extension, one’s country, then it was a Christian act. This is despite the fact that Jesus is also recorded as having said: “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them who despitefully use you” (Luke 6: 27-28).

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