Yasukuni war shrine is Japan’s ultimate taboo subject. A symbol of the country’s militaristic past, the shrine is revered by nationalists, despised by Japan’s Asian neighbors, and rarely mentioned in public by anyone else.
That taboo faced a test yesterday with the Tokyo premiere of a documentary film that has drawn protests from right-wingers, spooked theater owners and won praise from Japanese who say it’s time to openly discuss the shrine.
Yasukuni focuses on Aug. 15, 2005, when thousands thronged the shrine to mark the 60th anniversary of Tokyo’s World War II surrender. The shrine honors the 2.5 million Japanese who fell in wars from the late 1800s until 1945.
Like the shrine itself, which has a museum depicting Japan’s wartime conquests as a noble enterprise, the film has been a magnet for controversy.
The Tokyo opening was accompanied by a heavy police presence, but the sold-out screenings passed without incident as of early afternoon.
The film, partially funded by ¥7.5 million (US$73,500) from a government-linked agency, was directed by a Chinese citizen, and includes graphic footage of Japanese soldiers executing civilians — three elements that have earned the ire of nationalists.
“The film is anti-Japan, and an insult to Yasukuni and our devotion to it,” said Hiroshi Kawahara, who heads the nationalist group, Doketsusha. “But Yasukuni’s dignity cannot be shaken by a film like this.”
Pacifists and the victims of Japanese aggression — such as China and the Koreas — abhor Yasukuni as a glorification of militarism and a symbol of Tokyo’s failure to fully atone for its past imperialism in the region.
Nationalists and many conservative Japanese, however, see the shrine as a legitimate way to honor the war dead just like other countries honor their fallen soldiers, and accuse critics of trying to cow Japan into paralyzing war guilt.
The opposition nearly scuttled the opening. The threat of right-wing violence intimidated several theaters in Tokyo into canceling plans to show it, and the distributor delayed the original April 12 premiere by several weeks.
The film’s supporters say such trouble is typical in Japan, where a high value on consensus discourages open debate, and threats of violence or embarrassment can easily stifle free speech.
Those tendencies, critics say, mean that controversial issues rarely get a public airing, particularly those dear to nationalists, such as Yasukuni, the imperial family and Japan’s wartime conquests.
The film does not shy away from the ugly side of Japanese imperialism, but shows both sides of the dispute.
Nationalists in military garb shout prayers to the war dead, while bereaved families of the former Imperial Army soldiers bow before the shrine. Then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi is also shown worshipping there.
But the shrine’s critics are also shown. Pacifist protesters are injured in a scuffle with police, and Taiwanese and Japanese families are shown arguing to have their relatives’ names removed from the shrine’s list of honorees.
The film has already been shown at festivals, including Sundance.
“I’m so glad that the screening started safely,” Argo president Yutaka Okada said. “So far we haven’t had trouble at all, and I hope this continues throughout the day. We’ve provided ample security to cover all possible problems.”
Midori Matsuoka, a 62-year-old actress, arrived early yesterday to buy tickets. After emerging from the theater, she said the movie was “well done” and didn’t deserve the controversy it has attracted.
“It’s not anti-Japanese, it’s anti-war,” she said. “I didn’t think much about what kind of shrine Yasukuni is. But after seeing the movie, I thought I should learn more about the history of my own country.”
For director Li Ying, a Chinese citizen who has been based in Japan for nearly 20 years, the film could help the country finally confront unresolved aspects of its own history.
“This is a test for Japan’s ability to overcome the Yasukuni problem and develop a healthy pride and become a truly civilized nation,” he said last month.
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