Monday 30 August 2010

I want my soul back

In Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg and the heart of old Prussia, there is a shrine, sacred to the memory of all those who fell for the fatherland. It’s the final refuge for their spirits, their souls. It’s also a celebration of militarism, a celebration of German martial achievements, without qualification. Among the millions of names you will even find those of Hitler, Goring and all those hanged at Nuremberg. Outside, in the main grounds, the guard marches up and down, dressed in Second World War uniform, including the old-fashioned coal scuttle helmet. Yes, they are there, goose-stepping up and down, a comfort to Germany’s nationalist right.

This is outrageous, don’t you agree, how could such a thing be allowed in the heart of the new Europe? It’s simply not possible. Forgive me; I’ve been misleading you; there is no such shrine, which would indeed be an outrage to the memory of all those who suffered and died last century at the hands of the Nazis. But the thing is there truly is such a place or something very like, though it’s not in Germany – it’s in Japan.

On August 6 every year the Japanese gather at Hiroshima to bewail their fate as ‘victims’. On every other day they can go to the Yasukuni Shrine, situated in the Chiyoda district of the capital, to celebrate the spirit of men who carried aggressive warfare across Asia, including former Prime Minister Tojo and all those hanged after the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. And the guard does march up and down under the flag of the Rising Sun.

Though never particularly generous in life to those who served with them – by force – the Japanese are generous in death; for the souls who have been ‘annexed’ include those of 21,000 Taiwanese and 28,000 Koreans, once colonial subjects of the Japanese Empire. They are there in this militarist Shinto paradise whether they like it or not.

Kim Hee Jong does not like it. Kim Hee Jong hates it so much that he has begun a court action in Tokyo to reclaim his soul. What? But how can the dead possibly do such a thing? The thing is he’s not dead, though he was mistakenly reported missing in action during the war. In 2006 he found out to his shame that his name was enrolled at Yasukuni;

I was so angry that I wanted to set fire to the shrine. The war deprived me of a chance to receive an education. That shrine means nothing to me.

As The Times reported on Saturday, Mr Kim is now involved in one of most unusual legal battles in history, a battle over the ownership of his own soul, not claimed by the Devil, though it may as well have been. He is one of eleven plaintiffs, though unique in that the others are the children of the dead. The Yasukuni authorities are resisting the action, claiming that once a soul has been enshrined it cannot be extracted, anymore than a drop of water can be removed from a pool.

This includes Mr Kim, who clearly enjoys the singular distinction of a man whose soul has effectively been stolen and placed in a kind of hell. The court case opens in November.


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  2. The Japanese may well bewail Nagasaki and Hiroshima and claim victim status, however it is beyond doubt that had the USA not used those bombs the casualty levels would have been millions higher, had the mainland been invaded.

  3. I heard a little about this Mr. Kim's legal battle but never know the details about it.
    The Japaness people's shrine "complex" has been notorious everywhere in Asian countries. Korea and Chinese government protest every year but Japan is getting so used to it that they no longer care. Many younger Japanese generations are used to the idea that Japan was a victim of WW2 (I still remember once I had problem on this issue with one of my Japanese friends).

    There was a brave woman writer Iris Chang exposed the dark forgotten history of WW2 in Asia in her book "The rape of nanking". I assume you knew her of course. She also committed suicide several years later after the book published. It was said that she had serious depression during and after she wrote the book. I don't even have guts to read through all the book.

    Even though I understand that history is very complicated issue and it's hard to look at it as black or white but, I totally agree with you that this kind of thing is absolutely outrageous.

  4. I guess this sort of falls in with your discussion of religious literalism in the last post. I don't know, I wouldn't disagree with either the Potsdam example (which doesn't actually exist) or the Japanese one, though I certainly disagree with interring someones memory in a place they or their family disagree with. The fact that religion is used as an excuse is shameful, because no god worth worshiping would be that small.

    I feel there is a value to valor, even if directed towards something evil, the fighting spirit, and the sacrifice of a person, that is frankly unconditional. I would honor Hitler as a good soldier in World War I, which he was, and the dead of every foreign enemy, no matter how outrageously wrong, simply because people are more then the sum of their actions and valor is more then a result achieved. Besides, not everyone fighting for the Germans was fighting for Nazi Germany, some of them were fighting for their own homes and families, just trying to protect mom, dad and brother, knowing that every merchant ship they sink is one less bomb dropped on their city.

    As long as it STAYS in Potsdam, I don't even mind the guards - it's what they fought and lived with. I believe in fierceness in war, but I also believe in serenity and respect in peace, and the honor that all valiant fighting men deserve no matter for whom it is they fight. They still had love for their comrades, gumption and fortitude in their souls, courage in their hearts, and strength in mind and body. This is not conditional, not on anything.

  5. Adam, a good theory, one that fits the historic, religious and cultural facts.

  6. QM, I wrote a piece about this on the anniversary of the Japanese surrender. I'll post it here tomorrow.

  7. Yuni Yi, yes, I know of her work. Have you seen City of Life and Death?

  8. Jeremy, the thing is that some of Japan's neighbours are still worried about resurgent militarism, worried by the symbolism of Yasukuni.

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  10. @ana, no i didn't. i have problem to watch/read any thing related to this part of chinese history. not only the brutality of killing part, but also how china could let it happened. i know that many of chinese people/soldiers were killed without a fight.

    @jj, i agree that there should be a value to valor spirit, and i am actually more disappointed of china's weakness back then(not only government) more than i hate the evil spirit of japanese militants. but, it still doesn't justify "evil" and yasukuni.
    japan is a country where individualism doesn't exist. most people cannot handle the difference between "valor" and "militarism". for them, every visit of that shrine is an justification of their "warfare" of ww2 and encouragement of militarism.
    the "craziness" of japanese militants (include many many japanese civilians) during ww2 was far beyond "valor", "passion", or "warfare". it has something to do with japanese culture, the type of culture that suppresses individualism and once the chances arrived the individuals would explode their selfs in an inhuman way, which beyond any imagination.
    china also has problems on this ww2 issue with japanese. i think china better just be quiet on protesting this yasukuni every year and doing some inner clean first.
    sometime history is too dark to look at.

  11. @Mister Garrie's One Nation,
    "why the Japanese have been able to get away with this for so long"

    I think there is much more to do with politics than religions. For what I learned after WW2, US tried to build up a front line against communist countries such as China, so it helped Japan, South Korea, Taiwan both economically and politically. Japan somehow was purposely pictured as "victim" of war (esp. the nuclear bombs) to western world instead of criminal.

  12. Yun yi, yes, I understand. I have a review here and on my Flixster page of both this movie and John Rabe, which deals with the same incident.

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  14. @Mister Garrie's One Nation
    I guess back then it was much easier to manipulate Asian countries than to European (Many Asian countries were so behind and they were eager to get US's help)
    US swiftly changed it's attitude to Japan right after ww2. Without USA's support (both economic and military ), Japan could not recover so soon.
    For what I know, Japan really has a "love and hate" relationship with US.