Japan’s Cult of Death

Fanatic Jap soldiers welcome death because to die in battle is to be worshipped as a god. A Canadian tells what these Japanese are like


Japan’s Cult of Death

Fanatic Jap soldiers welcome death because to die in battle is to be worshipped as a god. A Canadian tells what these Japanese are like


Japan’s Cult of Death



IT WAS a bright August morning in the heart of busy Tokyo, only a stone's throw from the great feudal walls of the Imperial Palace

which seem to shut out time and space and life itself from the Emperor’s hallowed domain. The roads seemed to move with the bicycle wheels that spun over them — hundreds and thousands of bicycles speeding down the pavements, loaded sky-high with firewood or furniture, rice or ribbons, lacquer, china, fish or other burdens. All the little island of Japan seemed to be moving past the Imperial Palace on thin rubber tires.

I stood at a corner watching the review of bicycles and men with Uyeno, a young Japanese student, when suddenly two machines collided. There wTas a clanking and clattering as the two men and their machines and their loads of boxes and cloths crashed to the pavement. The street for half its width was a mass of broken boxes and tangled cloth.

I expected there would be a fight, harsh words or, at least, an argument.

But no. First, one driver bowed low and said, “I’m sorry; it was my fault.”

Then the other bowed lower and said, “Indeed, I am sorry; but it was my fault; please excuse me.” “Ah, no,” the first one said, “I was looking the other way ...”

“Excuse me, I was travelling too quickly and my brakes would not hold . . . ”

And so they bowed again, and yet again, picked up their boxes and bales of cloth and tied them back on their bicycles with surprising dexterity. Then they bowed once more, and, wdth a quick “Sayonara”—which means not only “farewell,” but also, “since it must be so”—they rode on.

When I expressed surprise at this peaceful end of an incident which in my own country probably would have ended in a you-see-my-lawyer dispute, Uyeno smiled and said :

“We aren’t a litigious people, and we don’t quarrel much. At least, most of us don’t like to.

“It’s a pity that there are so many soldiers in Japan now, for they seem to care nothing for those things that we ordinary people like. The Japanese are funny that way: keep them in a kimono, and they get along well with everyone. But once you put them in a uniform, or even in a European suit, something happens to them. They take on the worst characteristics of soldiers and Europeans (and I suppose there are enough of them), and they seem to forget the best in both !”

My friend went on to say that not even the Japanese cab drivers swear. “There are no profane words in the language !” he explained.

I went to Japan in the summer of 1940 as guest of the Japanese Government and the Japan Times, having been one of the winners in an essay contest on the subject of Canadian-Japanese relations sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Office.

Although I was made welcome, I was not above suspicion. For days I was shadowed by the secret police. With the help of a British-Indian student who knew Japan well, however, I was able to shortcircuit my government-arranged schedule sufficiently to see something more than “official Japan.” My first contact with Japanese officialdom was characteristic. As our ship entered Japanese waters a customs officer, bowing profusely, inspected my bags. “Only books,” he said, as he fished about, seeking to discover what reading material I had brought with me. He carried away the four books I had, and took them to the dining salon. Ten minutes later he returned, smiled, bowed and said, “All in order.”

Some two weeks later, in talking with a student in Tokyo, I referred to a passage of John Gunther’s book, “Inside Asia.” To prove my point, I brought out the book. I looked for the page, but looked in vain; the whole first chapter of the book on the Mikado had been neatly carved out by the knives of the polite Japanese censors. So polite, in fact, that they had mentioned not a word of it to me.

Soldier Gods

THE VENEER of politeness is one of the most obvious characteristics of the Japanese. Another is their at titude to suicide—hara-kiri, as they call it. A Japanese will commit hara-kiri because he has been insulted and has “lost face,” and will subtly choose to disembowel himself on the doorstep of his enemy. He will commit suicide for the loss of a

lover, and his refusal to face the world will be deemed noble. He will destroy himself if, in so doing, he will also succeed in destroying the enemies of his Emperor.

A former professor of the Imperial University in Tokyo told me that the answer to this national attitude to hara-kiri, which appears unreasonable to the Western mind, is'to be found in Kami-no-Michi or Shintoism. “This,” he said, “is the inherently Japanese religion of the Mikado, and means, literally, ‘the way of the gods.’ ”

In recent years, since the building of the “New Order,” the word Kami has been changed to Bwhido, so that Shintoism today means not “the way of the gods” but “the way of the warrior.” Shintoism holds out great rewards to the soldier who lavs down his life in the service of t he Mikado. The

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Mikado is not only the mundane ruler of the Japanese; he is also the personal deity to which all prayers are addressed. Shinto promises immortality, worship in perpetuity at the side of the Emperor, and a place in the nation for the soul of every soldier who dies in battle. Every such soul which is released in battle merges in the great national soul at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

“Our attitude toward death,” a young Japanese student-soldier told me, “is very much like that of the early Mohammedans, I think. Our zeal to fight for our Emperor is even stronger than the zeal of the early Mohammedans. Our rewards, however, here on earth and in heaven, are not nearly so rich ...”

I visited the Yasukuni Shrine to which every Japanese soldier goes before he joins battle. It is here that all who lay down their lives on the battlefield for their sovereign and their country are canonized as a kami or deity—not in the figurative sense alone, since every dead soldier is believed actually to become a god.

You walk through a long parkway and pass under the great brass tori, or arch, to come to the simple structure which is the shrine. It is disappointing, built of brown unpainted Cryptomeria—the trees which grow about it. It looks like a bandstand in one of our local parks. In the centre stands a round mirror in which it is alleged the spirit of Japan is reflected. A few tables and a few wreaths complete the sacred picture.

In front of the shrine is a wide trough, and it is in front of this that the worshipper stands. First, he bows low; then, clapping three times with his hands, he signals to his ancestor that he has come to worship him. A coin is tossed into the trough which is scarred by the hundreds of thousands of coins which have been thrown by the hands of the faithful and cynical alike. Then the Japanese bows low, prays a moment, bows again, and walks away.

In the park in which the Yasukuni Shrine is situated there has been built a great military museum, for the purpose not only of acquainting the children of Japan with the military weapons and tactics with whichit has been unhappily successful, but in order to enshrine more tangibly the soldiers who have fallen for the Emperor. About the building stand great bombs and sleek torpedoes with their tails pointed to the sky. Along the walks are tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft guns, giving the whole place the appearance of a mighty arsenal. The inside of the museum is even more threatening.

The first room is given to a display of first-aid equipment and technique. Waxen figures which look like fresh corpses are used to demonstrate the methods employed. Whole rooms are devoted to poison gases, where figures display the blisters of mustard gas and the effects of phosgene. Figures of people crippled and in visible pain leer out of glass cases over

which a short legend describes the gas, its qualities, effects and methods of combating it. Modern gasproof houses are shown—perhaps the only ones in Japan—together with airraid shelters of many types. The latest gas masks, which I was later to see carried under the kimonos of a few of the more wary citizens of Tokyo, are likewise displayed.

There were many great halls filled with airplanes, showing the progress of flying, air fighting and bombing. The public was invited to crawl into the cockpit of a dummy plane to play with the controls and fire “machine guns” at targets which flashed upon the wall—each “hit” being indicated by a burst of light and a boom-boom somewhere in the distance. Make-believe Maginot lines, barbed wire and pill boxes were established on miniature landscapes over which tiny armies could be moved by eager children—children who one day would move real armies into position for battle, having learned the elements of fieldcraft in their play.

Other mechanical “toys” illustrated how many stories of a building a bomb can penetrate from various altitudes. Entire cities were laid out in miniature, the vulnerable spots of each indicated by variously colored lights. Aircraft and mine-detection devices were exhibited, and guns of every conceivable make and period. But the rooms dedicated to the Manchurian “triumphs” are what I shall never forget.

A Soldier’s End

HERE THE nation’s heroes are gruesomely enshrined in halls always crowded with mothers, fathers wives and children come to see their fallen loved ones honored. Here, in hundreds of large glass cases arranged in rows like tombstones, hang the photographs of soldiers killed in battle. Below the pictures are waxen figures modelled from the photographs, the resemblance strange and macabre; and on each figure is hung the dead soldier’s uniform.

The uniforms are torn and dirty. Bomb blasts have ripped some of them to shreds; shell fragments have pierced them in vital places and all are stained with blood—stains now a faded red or blackened by the mud of Manchuria. Beneath each are spread the soldier’s shirt and underclothing, the very same he wore the day that death enshrined him here, and they too are drenched in blood and slashed by bullets. On the floor are such personal effects as the soldier’s diary ... a letter from his wife which has never been opened ... his watch. And set amidst these trinkets is a small white box just one foot long, bound with purple cord and inscribed with the name of the soldier whose ashes rest within.

I saw one of those little white boxes come home. It was a bright and warm afternoon in Osaka, scarcely a proper day for anyone’s funeral. I was first attracted by the playing of a band down the street, and the suddenness with which every shopkeeper along the road rushed to Rang a flag garnished with black crepe in front of his store. I asked my Japanese guide, Isobe, to tell me

what all the commotion was about.

“It is nothing but a funeral,” he said. “They happen every day. The ashes of a soldier who was killed in China are being brought home.”

I could feel the heavy tread of slow marching feet and the beat of drums as a small procession of men in redslashed khaki approached us. At the head walked a policeman with deliberate, steady step. Behind him marched a soldier carrying a green bamboo pole with a sprig of green leaves on top and a banner on which the word “funeral” was printed in Japanese. The green pole, I was told, signified the nation’s life and energy.

Then came the band followed by slow-marching soldiers with fixed bayonets and black armbands. One soldier bore a large framed photograph of the man who could not march with them. Another soldier walked alone, over his mouth and nose a white cloth mask and over his chest a white apron. In his arms was a white box, a box exactly like those I had seen in the museum.

Behind walked a woman dressed in white. As she passed the group of high military officers who reviewed the funeral procession, she bowed low and remained bowed until she was lost to sight in the columns of soldiers who followed the box—the box one foot long, of which she was the wife.

Japan’s “Mission'

THE Japanese hold a belief of Nipponese superiority paralleling the Nazi idea of Aryan race superiority. In Japan, it is generally believed that the new centre of world civilization must be Tokyo.

“Asia,” the head of a large business firm told me, “means light. Europe,” he said, “means darkness. That is the answer to the new civilization. The light of culture is here; Europe is to revert to the dark ages.” The theory is not new; it emanates from the belief that 2,600 years ago, Jimu, the son of Jsc, the Sun Goddess, came down from heaven riding a deer, and became the first Emperor of Nippon. From that day to this, the Imperial line is said to have been continuous. And not only has the present Emperor descended from the Goddess: all Japanese regard themselves as scions of a divine ancestor, and as such, chosen from among the nations of the world to carry out a divine purpose.

Before I left Japan, I talked with Yakichiro Suma, then spokesman of the Foreign Office, who has since been sent to Spain. In a long conversation, he told me of those aspirations.

“My country’s aims,” he said, “are clear. Japan has a mission to accomplish—a mission involving all the countries of East Asia—which is to be accomplished through many sacrifices, much hardship and fighting.

“We have made ourselves responsible to the world to accomplish that thing. We are doing this job not for ourselves alone, but in order that the whole world may be brought under our New Order. Do not think that Japan is following the examples of Hitler and Mussolini. No,” smiled Suma, “Hitler and Mussolini are following Japan ...”