Secular Memorialization

My last post on the Yasukuni documentary got me looking around for other stuff on the politics of war memorials in general. While I have mostly found so far that I will need to go to the library and check out actual books, I did come across an interesting article on Sino-Japanese relations in a 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, which contained the following intriguing paragraph with a suggestion on how to handle the Yasukuni issue:

[C]onferences … involving academics from neutral countries such as Canada as well as Asian specialists from within the region, could improve relations by fostering less-politicized discussions of the war. Germany and Poland, as well as Japan and South Korea, already have joint textbook commissions that could serve as models for China and Japan. An initiative such as this could be particularly effective at de-escalating tensions in the wake of progress in the strategic dialogues outlined above. To help those dialogues along, moreover, U.S. officials should refrain from making casual pronouncements on the delicate matter of wartime commemoration in Japan. As Koizumi has noted, many personal issues are involved in such events. The Japanese people themselves, however, deserve the broadest possible range of options about how to remember the war. For several years, there has been spirited discussion about building a national secular war memorial to supplement Yasukuni, and this deserves serious consideration. Such a model has worked well in both Hiroshima and Okinawa. Apart from providing a way to commemorate the sacrifice of civilians and other heroes of past conflicts not enshrined at Yasukuni, a secular memorial would clearly help improve Japan’s relations with other countries in the region and provide foreign leaders with a way to gracefully honor the past sacrifices of the Japanese people.

-Calder, Kent E., “China and Japan’s Simmering Rivalry,” Foreign Affairs, 85(2)

(emphasis mine)

It would be interesting to see if a “secular” version of a war memorial would actually placate critics of Japan. While I fully agree that the Japanese need to have a space to come to terms with their own dead, I’m not clear on how having a secular memorial would be different enough to prevent criticism. It has not been my impression that critics of Yasukuni solely object to it because of its connection with nationalistic Shinto, though that point is often brought up by the more knowledgeable ones, but instead object more viscerally to the idea that Japan should honor its war dead in any way.

Of course, a major advantage to a new, secular war memorial would be that it would not necessarily function as such a flashpoint for the small but vocal extreme right-wing activists in Japan, due to its lack of historical presence. Part of Yasukuni’s problem is that it is too old; it has been through too much history, and too much has become associated with it in its relatively recent years to overshadow its past as well. A memorial constructed after the fact, with more public input, as well as political and social forethought, would have the chance to present the recognition of war dead in a less controversial light.

Then again, as came up last time in discussions of this issue, these things are always harder in a country that lost. The US tried to construct a more-or-less unmessaged memorial in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, but even so it has certainly been no stranger to controversy. At least one of the articles I skimmed today called it “nihilistic” and reviled its attempt to remain neutral. And of course the US is currently in the midst of another similarly ambiguous war, already beginning to lead to further arguments over how to memorialize our many dead.

-posted by Dana


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