Nothing Less Than a Challenge: Learning from Controversy
“The Japanese government’s attitude toward this shrine is a test of its ability to understand and confront its legacy of militarism and war crimes… We see the homage at Yasukuni as nothing less than a challenge — not only to us but to the world.”
– Cui Tiankai (Chinese ambassador to the United States, former ambassador to Japan)
Every few years another professor and I bring students from our college of art in Chicago on a study trip to Japan. The trip explores a variety of topics about cultural change and continuity, especially the idea of cultural identity and modernization in post-Meiji and postwar Japan. We engage with a diversity of materials ranging from early Shinto texts to the first Godzilla film, and visit sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum as well as the Yasukuni Shrine and Yushukan War Memorial Museum.
On our first trip our assistant, herself a Tokyo native, tried to dissuade us from visiting Yasukuni where, among the two-and-a-half million souls, fourteen Class-A war criminals are interred. As Ambassador Tiankai’s comments show, visits by Japanese officials to Yasukuni continue to create distrust among Japan’s Asian neighbors. Our trip assistant argued that since we were foreigners it might put the students at risk from belligerent nationalists who might also be at the shrine. We asked her if she had any negative experiences at Yasukuni. “Oh no,” she replied, “I would never go there!” And indeed, as our group made its way up the hill from Ichigaya station on that very first trip, she somehow disappeared.
The next day we recounted to her how we felt neither intimidated nor particularly welcomed at Yasukuni; as visitors we tried to behave as we would visiting any other shrine or spiritual site we visit during the trip – respectfully, but without “paying our respects.” On our next trip two years later, our assistant didn’t try to keep us from going to Yasukuni. In fact, she came with us and offered her own perspective to the students about the shrine, the war museum, and their relevance to Japan’s postwar identity and complex relationship with other Asian nations. Her attitude changed from avoidance to engagement.
This last summer we made another study trip to Japan. The morning before the Yasukuni visit three of our students, Korean nationals, suddenly refused to go. They had talked to their parents the night before and were told that it would be a shameful place for a Korean to go; their parents had essentially forbade it. We respected their decision and asked them to write an essay explaining what they knew about the shrine, its recent history, and exactly why they decided not to go, but educationally it seemed like a missed opportunity for them. The rest of the students, including a number of Vietnamese, Chinese, and also a few Korean students, found a balance between their personal discomfort and their desire to learn more through personal experience.
Is the main value of our visit to Yasukuni and the Yushukan because they are controversial? Yes and no. Such a visit doesn’t provide an important context “on Japan,” but rather on the complex interaction of historical memory, politics, and media that maintain Yasukuni’s symbolic role. In this way the nationalistic perspective that the museum puts forth is perhaps more significant that the shrine itself.
Domestic and international media alike make much political use of Yasukuni – from the visits of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the recent one by pop star Justin Bieber. Given the media spectacles that surround the shrine, is it possible for a visit to Yasukuni to not be a political statement? I believe it is. Visiting as a form of study provides an important and independent lens to gain a deeper understanding from their own perspective as critically-minded learners, rather than simply image consumers. As educators we have a responsibility to encourage students to bear witness to controversial issues intellectually, not just emotionally, and perhaps especially if they personally distasteful or challenging. Just as reporters seek understanding through first-hand experience, our students (in this case, future artists) have a crucial role to play in weaving the communicative fabric of our culture: making sense of its contested threads, mending its seams, and ultimately forming new patterns of meaning.