Glorifying the war or praying for peace?

August 27, 2010

On August 15, a few days after U.S. atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, then-Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced in a rare public broadcast that the nation had surrendered.

This surrender ended the Pacific battle of World War II and liberated Koreans from Japan’s often-brutal 1910-1945 colonization.

Since then, August 15 has stirred different feelings in the two neighboring countries: bitterness of defeat for one, joy of independence for the other.

Untitled from KH Kim on Vimeo.

I’ve worked as a Reuters photographer for the last nine years in both Seoul (five years) and Tokyo (four years). The contrasting emotions on display around the August 15 anniversary have been reflected in my pictures.

When I worked in Seoul, Korea’s relationship with Japan chilled as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi repeatedly visited the Yasukuni Shrine. A place which is dedicated to Japan’s 2.5 million war dead including about 1,000 war criminals and 14 Class A war criminals who were convicted by the Allied tribunal after World War Two.

On the anniversary of Independence Day in Seoul, I documented local protesters angry at Koizumi’s visit demonstrating in front of the Japanese embassy. They considered the visit to be honoring convicted war criminals.

South Korean protesters burn a flag at an anti-Japanese rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul February 21, 2006.  The flag reads 'Tokto islets belong to Korean territory, stop the visits to Yasukuni shrine'. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

South Korean demonstrators from all walks of life ripped and burned Japanese national flags and pictures of Koizumi. From that moment the shrine was stamped on my mind as a symbol of Japan’s military aggression, a feeling shared by many other Koreans.

Ironically, since I moved to the Tokyo bureau I have documented the Yasukuni shrine every year on this anniversary day.

But, the shrine which I have seen through my camera lens for the last four years is not the same as the image that had formed in my mind in Korea.

People pray at the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours millions of Japanese war dead, including some convicted as criminals by a post-World War Two tribunal in Tokyo August 14, 2009.   REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Even though the shrine played a central role in wartime state Shinto religion and mobilized the population to fight in the name of a divine emperor, and despite the Class A war criminals being regarded as gods at the shrine by the Shinto religion, there is no visible reference to this at the shrine.

Only the attached war museum which depicts the Pacific war as one in which Japan was forced to fight in self-defense links the shrine to Japan’s past militarism.

Every year, a 100,000 people visit Yasukuni on the anniversary date but it is impossible to define the purpose of their visit in a single word.

Right-wing groups chanting noisy slogans and flying the rising sun flag visit to glorify their war. A man in an Imperial army costume told me that Japan was a victim of nuclear attacks during World War II. He ignored the fact that Japan had invaded other Asian countries.

Right-wing activists carrying Japan's national flag visit Yasukuni Shrine, which honours wartime leaders convicted as war criminals, along with millions of war dead, on the 62nd anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two, in Tokyo August 15, 2007.    REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

But most visitors come with a more simple reason: to honor unknown soldiers who were sent to war by the Imperial military leadership, and to pray for peace in their country.

This year, current Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his cabinet avoided the shrine on the emotionally charged anniversary in an effort to improve relations with its Asian neighbors.

Former Prime Minister Koizumi repeatedly said he visited Yasukuni to pray for peace and to honor the war dead, not to glorify militarism.

Is Yasukuni a symbol of peace or of militarism? The shrine is only a physical place and its purpose will be decided by the people.

Visitors release doves at Yasukuni Shrine on the 62nd anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two, in Tokyo August 15, 2007.  REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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