Ise Shrine, Racism, and Reporting

The former president of Akafuku, a traditional Japanese confectioner that sells its goods in the Okage Yokochō shopping area adjacent to Ise Shrine, apparently doesn’t seem to want foreigners coming around the place. According to this article, Hamada Masutane stated at a November 26 forum held in the city of Tsu: 

“I don’t want to see foreigners coming into Okage Yokochō. It’d be strange to see them there, don’t you think? I’m aware that we can’t come out and say ‘don’t come here,’ but we shouldn’t be posting signs in English and the like to make things more welcoming for them.” 

When interviewed by the Mainichi Shimbun and asked to clarify his remarks, he said: 

“Ise is the spiritual homeland of the Japanese people, and I want to make it a place pleasing to the people of Japan—this is what I was saying. It wasn’t discrimination against foreigners.” 

Hamada headed Akafuku until October 2007, when he stepped down as chairman following a food labeling scandal. (In local media reports soon after that he was quoted as saying that this was a temporary state of affairs: that he intended to keep his grip on power behind the scenes, set up lots of subsidiaries, and make his way back to the top office eventually.) He’s now president of a smaller company affiliated with Akafuku, and he has given the post of “special worshipper”—the 特別奉拝者 (tokubetsu hōhaisha) invited by the shrine authorities to take part in the Shikinen Sengū ceremony held every 20 years—to his son Noriyasu, currently president of Akafuku. 

So far the Western media coverage of Hamada’s statement has been kicked off by Martin Fackler’s tweet here:

facklertweet

He got the “no foreigners” part right, but it wasn’t the shrine that said it, and dogs don’t appear anywhere in the story he links to. But maybe 33% accuracy is the best we can ask for from him. 

The best we can ask for from Hamada, meanwhile, is to just go away already. It was his idea to build Okage Yokochō in the first place, and under his direction Akafuku invested some ¥14 billion to purchase the land and set up the shopping area in 1993, just in time for the last Shikinen Sengū event. (I’m assuming it was not under his direction that the company prepared an English-language website for all us non-Japanese folks.) The guy seems to see all this as a reason for him to offer iffy input on how the district should be managed today. Let’s hope the district ignores him and continues welcoming all visitors to one of the country’s most important shrines.

101 Writing Tips

  1. Every sentence should make sense in isolation. Like that one.
  2. Excessive hyperbole is literally the kiss of death.
  3. ASBMAETP: Acronyms Should Be Memorable And Easy To Pronounce, and SATAN: Select Acronyms That Are Non-offensive.
  4. Finish your point on an up-beat note, unless you can’t think of one.
  5. Don’t patronise the reader–he or she might well be intelligent enough to spot it.
  6. A writer needs three qualities: creativity, originality, clarity, and a good short term memory.
  7. Choose your words carefully and incitefully.
  8. Avoid unnecessary examples; e.g. this one.
  9. Don’t use commas, to separate text unnecessarily.
  10. It can be shown that you shouldn’t miss out too many details.
  11. Similes are about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
  12. Avoid ugly abr’v’ns.
  13. Spellcheckers are not perfect; they can kiss my errs.
  14. Somebody once said that all quotes should be accurately attributed.
  15. Americanisms suck.
  16. Capitalising for emphasis is UGLY and DISTRACTING.
  17. Underlining is also a big no-no.
  18. Mixed metaphors can kill two birds without a paddle.
  19. Before using a cliche, run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes.
  20. There is one cheap gimmick that should be avoided at all costs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . suspense.
  21. State your opinions forcefully—this is perhaps the key to successful writing.
  22. Never reveal your sources (Alistair Watson, 1993).
  23. Pile on lots of subtlety.
  24. Sure signs of lazy writing are incomplete lists, etc.
  25. Introduce meaningless jargon on a strict need-to-know basis.
  26. The word "gullible" possesses magic powers and hence it should be used with care.
  27. The importance of comprehensive cross-referencing will be covered elsewhere.
  28. Resist the temptation to roll up the trouser-legs of convention, cast off the shoes and socks of good taste, and dip your toes refreshingly into the cool, flowing waters of fanciful analogy.
  29. Don’t mess with Mr. Anthropomorphism.
  30. Understatement is a mindblowingly effective weapon.
  31. Injecting enthusiasm probably won’t do any harm.
  32. It is nice to be important, but it is more important to avoid using the word "nice."
  33. Appropriate metaphors are worth their weight in gold.
  34. Take care with pluri.
  35. If you can’t think of the exact word that you need, look it up in one of those dictionary-type things.
  36. Colons: try to do without them.
  37. Nouns should never be verbed.
  38. Do you really think people are impressed by rhetorical questions?
  39. Pick a character style, and stick with it.
  40. Sufficient clarity is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient.
  41. Less is more. This means that a short, cryptic statement is often preferable to an accurate, but drawn out, explanation that lacks punch and loses the reader.
  42. Sarcasm—yeah, I bet that will go down really well.
  43. The problem of ambiguity cannot be underestimated.
  44. Never appear cynical, unless you’re sure you can get away with it.
  45. Many writer’s punctuate incorrectly.
  46. Colloquialisms are for barmpots.
  47. There is a lot to be said for brevity.
  48. To qualify is to weaken, in most cases.
  49. Many readers assume that a word will not assume two meanings in the same sentence.
  50. Be spontaneous at regular intervals.
  51. The era of the euphemism is sadly no longer with us.
  52. Want to be funny? Just add some exclamation marks!!!
  53. Want to appear whimsical? Simply append a smiley 😉
  54. Some writers introduce a large number, ∞, of unnecessary symbols.
  55. Restrict your hyphen-usage.
  56. Choosing the correct phrase is important compared to most things.
  57. Some early drafts of this document had had clumsy juxtapositions.
  58. Try
    not to leave a word dangling on its own line.
  59. The number of arbitrary constants per page should not exceed 4.
  60. Use mathematical jargon only if the necessity is positive.
  61. And avoid math symbols unless you have an |need| for them.
  62. Poor writing effects the impact of your work.
  63. And the dictionary on your shelf was not put there just for affect.
  64. If there’s a word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite pin down, use a cinnamon.
  65. If somebody were to give me a pound for every irrelevant statement I’ve ever read, then I would be very surprised.
  66. Strangely enough, it is impossible to construct a sentence that illustrates the meaning of the word "irony."
  67. Consult a writing manual to assure that your English is correct.
  68. It has been suggested that some words are absolute, not relative. This is very true.
  69. Be careful when forming words into a sentence–all orderings are not correct.
  70. Many words can ostensibly be deleted.
  71. In your quest for clarity, stop at nothing.
  72. Complete mastery of the English language comes with conscientious study, notwithstanding around in bars. Moreover the next page.
  73. Sporting analogies won’t even get you to first base.
  74. If you must quote, quote from one of the all-time greats (Cedric P. Snodworthy, 1964).
  75. In the absence of a dictionary, stick to words of one syllabus.
  76. Steer clear of word-making-up-ism.
  77. Readers will not stand for any intolerance.
  78. If there’s one thing you must avoid it’s over-simplification.
  79. Double entendres will get you in the end.
  80. Vagueness is the root of miscommunication, in a sense.
  81. Don’t bother with those "increase-your-word-power" books that cost an absorbent amount of money.
  82. Self-contradiction is confusing, and yet strangely enlightening.
  83. Surrealism without purpose is like fish.
  84. Ignorance: good writers don’t even know the meaning of the word.
  85. The spoken word can look strange when written down, I’m afraid.
  86. Stimpy the Squirrel says "Don’t treat the reader like a little child."
  87. Intimidatory writing is for wimps.
  88. Learn one new math word every day, and you’ll soon find your vocabulary growing exponentially.
  89. My old high school English teacher put it perfectly when she said: "Quoting is lazy. Express things in your own words."
  90. She also said: "Don’t use that trick of paraphrasing . . . [other people’s words] . . . inside a quote."
  91. A lack of compassion in a writer is unforgivable.
  92. On a scale of 1 to 5, internal consistency is very important.
  93. Thankfully, by the year 2016 rash predictions will be a thing of the past.
  94. There is no place for overemphasis, whatsoever.
  95. Leave out the David Hockney rhyming slang.
  96. Bad writers are hopefully ashamed of themselves.
  97. Eschew the highfalutin.
  98. Sometimes you publish a sentence and then, on reflection, feel that you shouldn’t ought to have been and gone and written it quite that way.
  99. Practice humility until you feel that you’re really good at it.
  100. If there’s a particular word that you can never spell, use a pnemonic.
  101. Sometimes, a foreign phrase can add a little "je ne sais rien."
  102. Make sure that your title is accurate.
  103. A strong ending is the last thing you need.
  104. Oh, and avoid afterthoughts.

The History of Yasukuni Shrine

I wrote this thing to be posted on Nippon.com as part of this series of articles on Yasukuni. When the Japanese document I was half-translating, half-simply-eyeballing as I put this together got tossed in the reject bin, the English went along with it . . . so here I am with a big thing to share on my own site.

There may be problems with the text. The standard approach to producing content for our website is to create (or commission) a Japanese document, check it for accuracy, edit it as a piece of Japanese writing ready for publication, and then send it to the translator. The first English draft goes to a native Japanese-speaking checker, who looks at the English and Japanese side by side to spot problems that crept in at this stage. We make needed corrections and send it to another native English speaker, who edits it for style and readability. Then we turn it into HTML and find lots of other little problems to deal with. The essay below has only gone through the first translation phase, and that was done from a Japanese document that didn’t make it to the site because of all the problems in it. So I can’t promise you’re getting top-shelf stuff here. If you spot something wrong, by all means, let me know!

Yasukuni Shrine
(Photo by camknows.)


Yasukuni Shrine, located just north of the imperial palace grounds in central Tokyo, could have been just another of Japan’s quiet Shintō facilities known as a place for New Year festivities, summer festivals, and cherry blossom viewing in the spring. Indeed, the trees that bloom in Yasukuni’s grounds are the very ones used by the Japan Meteorological Agency to declare the official opening of the blossoms in the nation’s capital.

But Yasukuni is different. Each year when August rolls around, it draws major attention throughout Japan and even in other countries from watchers eager to see whether the prime minister or members of his cabinet will visit the shrine on August 15, the date of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Yasukuni was founded in 1869 as a shrine to commemorate Japan’s war dead, and today these souls number some 2.5 million, including those who perished in battles from the Boshin War—fought between the waning Tokugawa shogunate and forces seeking to restore political power to the imperial throne—up through the Pacific War. But today these war dead are held to include 14 Class A war criminals executed or imprisoned following the war, and when Japanese leaders pay their respects at the shrine, it provokes angry criticism, particularly from China and Korea.

Yasukuni has thus become a divisive factor at the heart of the tangled issues of war memories, historical perceptions, and contemporary East Asian geopolitics. Below we trace the history of the shrine to paint a fuller picture of its religious, historical, and political significances.

Birth as Tokyo Shōkonsha

Yasukuni Shrine has its beginnings in a proposal by Takasugi Shinsaku (1839–67), a samurai who had played a key role in the 1865 civil war in the Chōshū domain that helped bring about the 1868 Meiji Restoration, for a shōkonsha—a shrine dedicated to the spirits of the war dead—to honor members of Takasugi’s Kiheitai militia who had fallen in the fighting against the pro-shogunate forces. Following the 1868 Boshin War, a ceremony took place at Edo Castle (now the site of the imperial palace) to honor the spirits of the pro-imperial forces hailing from the western Japan domains of Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Bizen. Concurrently, the souls of the lost soldiers were enshrined in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto.

This touched off a nationwide movement to honor and console the spirits of those who had perished in the Meiji Restoration struggles. Ōmura Masujirō (1824–69), the “father of the modern Japanese army,” recommended that Emperor Meiji establish a shōkonsha in Tokyo. The emperor responded in 1869 by founding the Tokyo Shōkonsha in today’s Kudanshita area of central Tokyo, and 3,588 souls of the Boshin War dead were enshrined together—a process known as gōshi. It was only in 1872 that work actually began on constructing the shrine, which was renamed as Yasukuni in 1879. (No actual remains are interred at Yasukuni; the shrine is a place of repose for the souls of the dead.)

The aim of the shrine was originally to honor only those who had fallen in battle while fighting for the sake of the emperor. This means that famous military figures including Saigō Takamori (1828–77), killed in battle while opposing the Meiji government in the Satsuma Rebellion, and Etō Shinpei (1834–74), who had launched the Saga Rebellion in 1874, were branded as rebels and not included in the honored souls at Yasukuni. Members of the famed Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Squad,” who fought against the Meiji government in battles in the Aizu domain (today’s Fukushima Prefecture) and committed suicide when faced with inevitable defeat, have similarly been passed over for enshrinement.

This does not mean that the shrine’s gōshi policy has been applied consistently through the years. Yoshida Shōin (b. 1830) and Hashimoto Sanai (b. 1834)—both executed in 1859 as part of the Ansei Purge carried out by the Tokugawa government against opponents of its trade treaties with foreign powers—are enshrined at Yasukuni, despite their deaths coming well before the Boshin War. Takasugi Shinsaku, despite dying of tuberculosis rather than in war, is also enshrined in this monument to the war dead. This inconsistent approach to candidates for gōshi inscription in the shrine’s rolls of souls has been a subject of debate—and a source of friction—right up through the inclusion of the class A war criminals in 1978.

For the main part, though, Yasukuni continued in its role as a place to offer respects to those who died on behalf of Japan in its wars through the years. Their number includes not just fallen soldiers, but others held to have died in service of the empire: civilians involved in battle zone relief efforts, workers in factories producing war materiel, Japanese citizens believed to have perished in Soviet war camps following their capture in Japan’s continental holdings at the end of World War II, and crew members and evacuees killed when their vessels were sunk. From 1879 onward the shrine was under military control, with the Ministry of the Military and later the Ministry of the Interior in charge of shrine personnel decisions and the Ministry of War and Ministry of the Navy (the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, respectively) handling all ceremonial functions. Shrine officials state that a total of nearly 2.5 million souls have been subject to gōshi over the years, as detailed in the table below.

Yasukuni’s Enshrined Souls
Boshin War and Meiji Restoration (1867–69) 7,751
Invasion of Taiwan (1874) 1,130
Satsuma Rebellion (1877) 6,971
Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) 13,619
Boxer Rebellion (1900) 1,256
Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) 88,429
World War I (1914–18) 4,850
Jinan Incident (1928) 185
Mukden Incident (1931–37) 17,176
Sino-Japanese War (1937–41) 191,250
World War II (Incl. Pacific theater and Indochina; 1941–45) 2,133,915
Total 2,466,532
Note: Conflicts and numbers of souls are as listed in Yasukuni Shrine documents.

The Shrine’s Postwar Rebirth

Initially Yasukuni Shrine was conceived as a place for the repose of the souls of Japan’s war dead. As the nation went through the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I, though, the nature of the shrine shifted, and it gradually became a place to pacify the spirits of the deceased, and then to honor them publicly. During World War II in particular, Japanese soldiers would head off to battle with promises to one another to “meet again at Yasukuni.” With this, the shrine had become a spiritual touchstone for Japan’s fighting men. In the militarist atmosphere of the day, it was also defined as a place to honor the “heroic spirits” of those who had died for Japan.

Following Japan’s defeat in the war, though, the victors stepped in to change this. On December 15, 1945, the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers issued the so-called Shinto Directive. This established freedom of religion and sought to sweep away vestiges of militarism by abolishing State Shinto, which had brought the native religion under control of the imperial government and made it a tool of state policy. In 1946 the newly passed Religious Corporations Law provided the basis for turning Yasukuni into an autonomous religious corporation with no ties to any state authorities.

During the postwar era the shrine continued to add the souls of the dead to its rolls, performing gōshi rites to add them to the enshrined deities as new war deaths were discovered.

Politics Steps Back In

Yasukuni Shrine attracts considerable attention today when key politicians—notably the prime minister or members of his cabinet—visit the shrine to pay their respects to the war dead. In the postwar era, this first took place on October 18, 1951, when Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, members of his cabinet, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the president of the House of Councillors visited en masse to offer prayers at the Shūki Reitaisai, the autumn festival that is one of Yasukuni’s main annual events.

In 1955, however, the government set forth the position that the prime minister and other ministers of state were not allowed to visit the shrine in their official capacity, as this would fall afoul of Article 20, Clause 3, of the Constitution: “The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” The formal view on the official visits by members of the government was that while they could not be definitively described as either constitutional or unconstitutional, there was an undeniable possibility of the latter. For this reason, Japan’s government has claimed a consistent position on the matter, stating that state ministers are not to pay their respects at the shrine in an official capacity given the sensitive nature of the facility.

This does not mean that ministers have followed this guideline over the years. There have been numerous visits by members of the cabinet, made in both their official and private capacities. Emperor Shōwa, meanwhile, went to Yasukuni eight times after the war ended: in 1945, four times in the 1950s, twice in the 1960s, and for the final time in 1975—the last time an emperor has visited the shrine.

War Criminals Become an Issue

The nature of Yasukuni Shrine and the debate surrounding it changed considerably in 1978. On October 17, the shrine carried out gōshi procedures for 14 men who had been executed or died during imprisonment for class A war crimes as defined in Article 6 (“There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest . . .”) and Article 10 (“. . . stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals . . .”) of the Potsdam Declaration, which dictated the terms for Japan’s surrender.

The 14 men, convicted of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trials), included Tōjō Hideki, general in the Imperial Japanese Army and prime minister for much of World War II; Hirota Kōki, who served as foreign minister and prime minister during the 1930s; and Hiranuma Kiichirō, who was prime minister in 1939, as well as president of the Privy Council. Yasukuni officials described these men as “the Shōwa martyrs” in adding their names to the rolls of enshrined souls. Some of them, including Hirota, were civilians, and none of them had died during wartime, making their inclusion an exceptional case in the history of the shrine.

A complex historical trail leads to the enshrinement of these war criminals. Immediately after the war, there were more than 2 million war dead who had yet to be added to the rolls. Surviving family members pressed for the gōshi rites to be applied to them, too, but the shrine cited legal difficulties in doing so due to its status as an autonomous religious corporation. It was not until the mid-1950s that the process began for these millions of souls.

In 1959 Yasukuni began formal inclusion of the souls of class B and C war criminals. In the early 1970s, the shrine’s congregational congress agreed that gōshi would be undertaken for the class A war criminals as well. As shrine officials feared the impact of this move on national sentiment, however, it was postponed until 1978—and even then was not formally announced to the public until the following year.

Even the inclusion of this group of 14 souls did not dissuade a number of politicians from paying their respects in person while serving as prime minister. Fukuda Takeo (in office 1976–78) and Ōhira Masayoshi (1978–80) went once each, Suzuki Zenkō (1980–82) three times, Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982–87) 10 times, Hashimoto Ryūtarō (1996–98) once, and Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001–6) six times. Of these, Fukuda’s visit took place on the day following the gōshi rites for the class A war criminals, and he stated he was unaware of their inclusion in the shrine’s rolls. Miyazawa Kiichi (1991–93) and Abe Shinzō (during his first term in office, 2006–7) have not confirmed whether they visited the shrine while in office.

There have been no imperial visits since 1975. The reason for this is generally held to be Emperor Shōwa’s displeasure at the gōshi rites for the class A war criminals.

The Nakasone Years Onward

The year 1985 was one with special historical resonance for Japan, marking the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the eightieth anniversary of its victory in the Russo-Japanese War. Prime Minister Nakasone’s shrine visits accordingly took on additional significance. There had been little opposition to his visits up through the one he made on April 22 that year, but on August 14, the day before he was scheduled to mark the anniversary of Japan’s defeat with prayer at Yasukuni, the Chinese government issued its first formal statement of concern about Japanese leaders’ official visits to the shrine.

Nakasone went through with his visit, praying at the shrine alongside 17 members of his cabinet. This visit became a lightning rod for criticism in part because the prime minister made an offering of flowers paid for with public funds. The backlash was fierce, both in Japan and overseas, and this put an end to prime ministerial visits on August 15 for the next 21 years.

Relations with China and Korea remained rocky for some time following this, a situation the ruling Liberal Democratic Party sought to assuage by convincing the shrine to undo the gōshi rites for the 14 men in question, or to enshrine them separately. Yasukuni officials rejected these suggestions, stating that once added to the pool of kami, souls could not be un-enshrined.

Regional relations were not improved by the arrival of Koizumi Jun’ichirō in the prime minister’s office in 2001. During the LDP presidential election held in April that year, he had declared his intention to pay his respects at Yasukuni on August 15 no matter what criticism this would draw. He shifted the date of his visit that year to August 13, however, ostensibly to avoid the Chinese and Korean backlash. On that day he released a statement that said in part: “Following a mistaken national policy during a certain period in the past, Japan imposed, through its colonial rule and aggression, immeasurable ravages and suffering particularly to the people of the neighboring countries in Asia. . . . Sincerely facing these deeply regrettable historical facts as they are, here I offer my feelings of profound remorse and sincere mourning to all the victims of the war.”

It was in 2006 that Koizumi paid the first August 15 visit to the shrine as prime minister in more than two decades. The Chinese and Korean governments reacted with fury, with Beijing describing his visit as an “act that gravely offends the people in countries victimized by the war of aggression launched by Japanese militarists and undermines the political foundation of China-Japan relations” and Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade expressing the nation’s deep disappointment and anger.

Opting for Ambiguity

Later prime ministers responded to this foreign blowback with a more ambiguous approach to worshiping at Yasukuni. During his first term in office, Abe Shinzō attended the Shunki Reitaisai (annual spring festival) in late April 2007, making an offering of a sacred sakaki tree branch and ¥50,000 of his personal money. When this came to light in the following month, though, he merely stated that he would not comment on whether he had made an offering or not. He was similarly ambiguous when asked about future plans to visit the shrine. Premiers from the Democratic Party of Japan, in power from 2009 to 2012, did not visit Yasukuni at all, although some of their cabinet ministers broke rank to pay their respects on August 15.

This ambiguity has remained in effect at the top of the government, but the members of the National Diet have not felt so restricted by the prime ministers’ decisions not to go. On April 23, 2013, a total of 168 legislators from the upper and lower houses attended the Shunki Reitaisai—the first time for a group of more than 100 Diet members to visit the shrine at once since October 2005.

The Need for a National War Memorial

Is there a way out of this situation for Japan? Removing the class A war criminals from the shrine’s rolls has been suggested as a possible solution to the Yasukuni problem, but the shrine has rejected this, and given the separation of state and religion, the government cannot force its hand in the matter. During the administration of Obuchi Keizō (1998–2000), Chief Cabinet Secretary Nonaka Hiromu proposed changing the shrine’s status from an autonomous religious corporation to a tokushu hōjin, or special public corporation, and then reversing the gōshi of the 14 problematic souls. This plan, too, fell by the wayside.

Another proposal is to construct a secular, national war memorial facility where public figures can pay their respects to the war dead without controversy, but this has not happened either. In 2001, under Prime Minister Koizumi, the Advisory Group to Consider a Memorial Facility for Remembering the Dead and Praying for Peace began discussions, in the following year issuing a report [which I translated, I think] stating that “a national, nonreligious, and permanent facility where the nation as a whole can remember the dead and pray for peace is necessary.” Work never moved forward on such a facility, though. People around the world have places where they can offer their respects to those who died in the service of their country, such as Arlington National Cemetery in the United States. Japan does have the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, located near Yasukuni, but this is a place to house the remains of the unknown Japanese war dead, including civilians as well as military and support personnel. The country has no state-managed facility for paying respects to its fallen soldiers.

August in Japan

A little something we published in Japan Echo in 2005, the sixtieth year after the end of the war. I like to revisit it when August rolls around.

Remembering Hiroshima

August has arrived. Soon Hiroshima will commemorate the anniversary of its atomic bombing. At 8:15 in the morning on August 6, a call for silent prayer will be intoned, and the Peace Bell will be struck. It is a moment that aways makes my heart heavy.

My father was originally from Hiroshima, and when I was a child, I always spent the summer there. My grandparents’ house went up in flames in the bombing, and my grandmother had a keloid scar from a burn on her arm. An aunt and a cousin had miraculously survived the impact. A number of more distant relatives had died, along with many other people connected with my father, such as his teachers. So the atomic bombing felt close to home.

Even so, the annual memorial ceremony leaves me with a strange feeling. Especially when a pair of elementary school students come forward and declaim a pledge of peace with an artificial intonation, I find it almost too much to bear. I am not upset with the schoolboy and schoolgirl delivering the pledge but with the adults who have them do so.

Why does this bother me? There are a number of reasons. For one thing, I wonder if the victims of the atomic bombing are so special. To be sure, the bomb probably killed more people in a stroke than any other event in human history. Furthermore, almost all of them were ordinary civilians. The dropping of an A-bomb on Hiroshima and of another on Nagasaki a few days later indubitably constituted a pair of truly extraordinary horrors. But history is full of horrors. Some 50 million people were killed in World War II as a whole. Nazi Germany slaughtered some 6 million Jews. The Japanese also killed and were killed in large numbers. And in the prewar through postwar years, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong are said to have caused the deaths of tens of millions of their own people. In our own day people continue to suffer horrible deaths, whether from human-caused troubles in places like Africa and North Korea or in natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami. Are the A-bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki really that special by comparison with the countless victims of other horrors?

Another point that bothers me about the memorial ceremony is the sense of seeking justice that is an undercurrent running through it. Most Japanese have become tired of hearing China’s relentless demands for Japan to take responsibility for its past misdeeds. I certainly have. Yes, Japan hurt China. And we have apologized time and again. So the Chinese should stop their insistent refrain. I feel this all the more when I see signs that the demands are driven by a political agenda. But wait a moment. Here in Japan, every summer we express our “special feelings as the nation that suffered atomic bombing.” Is this not similar to the sense of victimization that China keeps expressing toward our country?

One of my American friends, who is Jewish, has told me of feeling a similar sort of discomfort with the ongoing emphasis of some other Jews on the Holocaust. Nobody questions the horror of the slaughter that the Jews suffered. But the more today’s Jews go on about it, the more they seem to be setting themselves up as “special.” And some day this may cause them once again to become isolated. This is my friend’s fear.

The final point that troubles me is the fact that 60 years have passed since the A-bombs were dropped in 1945. This may be a short span by some standards. But it is long enough that the vast majority of today’s Japanese are people with no direct experience of World War II. The dropping of the A-bombs has become an abstract historical event. Some say that is precisely why we must strive to keep the memory alive. They are probably quite right. But nothing softens human sadness as much as the passage of time. Perhaps a period of 60 years is not enough, but it does represent a milestone of sorts.

Death, in my mind, is a very personal and religious matter. The horror of the A-bombs should not be measured in the numbers of people they killed. The same goes for all the deaths caused by the war. In that light, now that six decades have elapsed since the war ended, shouldn’t we be able to console the spirits of the war dead in a quieter manner? Memorial ceremonies for the A-bomb victims are fine. Visits to Yasukuni Shrine to pray for the war dead are fine too. But when it comes to talking about the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the deaths in Nanjing, or the deaths elsewhere, I wish that those on the left and those on the right—along with the mass media, including this newspaper—would refrain from trying to push their particular views on the rest of us.

On the evening of August 6, when all the official commemorative observances are over, countless small paper lanterns are set afloat on a river in Hiroshima. The sight of all their lights reflected in the river as they flow downstream etched itself deeply into my memory as a child. August also brings the Bon festival, during which the spirits of the dead are believed to visit their families. I hope that, as we commune silently with these spirits, we can both reflect on the past and at the same time affirm our modest hopes for the future. (Agawa Naoyuki, Professor, Keiō University)

Translated from “Sengo 60 nen no tōwaku,” Mainichi Shimbun, August 3, 2005. (Courtesy of the Mainichi Newspapers)

Translators in an Italian dungeon

The Telegraph has an article on some of the more interesting working conditions I’ve heard of in the translation business: “Dan Brown’s Inferno: the hellish conditions endured by those translating author’s new blockbuster.” The guy’s latest “mysterious religious/artistic stuff happens but brave American academic is up to the task” novel is going to be released simultaneously later this month in multiple languages. To make this happen, the publisher(s?) brought all the translators to Milan and stuck them in an “underground bunker” to get the job done without sharing any details on it with the outside world.

When they arrived in February 2012, they were put into ‘lockdown’, as one official put it. Their mobile phones were confiscated and they were placed under strict instructions to reveal nothing of the plot of the book.

To prevent leaks to the outside world, the translators had limited access to computers, were banned from taking any notebooks or papers out of the bunker and had to hand in the manuscripts they were working on each evening.

Minibuses transported them to and from the hotels they were staying in.

They were accompanied by security guards and ate in a staff canteen in the headquarters of Mondadori, the Italian publishing giant that is owned by Silvio Berlusconi.

I can’t imagine doing a lot of work in a dark pit without access to the internet, but maybe a novel like this can be done that way. (Although I’d guess they’d need to have various paper reference materials on hand to confirm details from Dante’s work and whatnot). Maybe there was one connected terminal and a thuggish guard looking over their shoulders to make sure they didn’t write IT WAS THE ILLUMINATI ALL ALONG into a Gmail window.

Translators' view
Translators’ view