Full Frame: Of military uniforms and imperial rule


Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

In Tokyo, nationalist groups, referred to in the local lingo as “uyoku dantai” (literally “right-wing groups”), can be regularly seen and heard shouting their slogans from gigantic speakers fixed atop black vans decorated with the “hinomaru” national flag and rightist slogans. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 such groups, whose general philosophy is anti-anything left of right, anti-China and Korea and pro-military and imperial rule.

The oft-heard view is that nationalism is on the rise in Japan and there is one annual event that would seem to add weight to that. Each year, on Aug. 15 — the anniversary of Japan's surrender in the Pacific War — nationalist groups from far and wide make a pilgrimage to Yasukuni Shrine, a place of worship much like any other, but with one significant difference: About 2.5 million war dead are enshrined there, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals. Among the 14 is wartime leader Tojo, the man who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Shrine officials refer to Yasukuni as “the soul of Japan,” and few of those who visit each August would disagree. Some march to offer prayers, dressed in wartime military garb, swords and other weapons in plain view. Others blow bugles and sing World War II military songs. Some carry “hinomaru” flags, others banners upon which are written various slogans. The atmosphere is at once somber and full of tension. The feeling is that this 1 million-square-feet piece of prime real estate — Japan's “soul” — has regressed to a less peaceful era, a sense only broken by the ritual releasing of white doves by a group of elderly women.

Inevitably, there is often trouble on this day. On one visit to Yasukuni, I encountered two liberals at the entrance of the shrine holding placards protesting, in the pouring rain, against a visit by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made six “unofficial” visits during his five-and-a-half-year tenure in office. It didn't take long for police to marshal them away, warning that right-wing elements were on their way to teach them a thing or two about patriotism. Sure enough, the rightists appeared, racing down the slope that leads from the shrine and shouting abuse before being cut off by riot police.

It is difficult to underestimate the influence of these groups in society. Last year, movie houses refused to air a documentary movie by a Chinese filmmaker about Yasukuni Shrine, fearing that should they do so, they would be subjected to the kind of death threats the filmmaker himself had received. When Russian prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited recently, police were out in force to ensure that the black vans beloning to right-wing groups did not pass through popular shopping districts or, no doubt, within hearing range of the visiting leader.

Some, including Robert Dujarric of Temple University Japan, have argued that there is a relative absence of nationalism in Japan compared with China, Korea and even the United States. In an article in the Japan Times last year, Dujarric argued that rather than wishing for a return to militarism and harboring any colonial aspirations, many Japanese people feel “contempt” for the militarists who took the nation to war. Yet there is an increasing number, including some members of Parliament, who support a move to revise Japan's constitution to allow its military to participate more actively in global conflicts, prompting many, such as award-winning Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, to voice concerns about the apparent rise in nationalism in Japan. If the apparent nationalistic fervor on display Aug. 15 at Yasukuni Shrine is any gauge, it is difficult to disagree.

About the photographer:

Robert Gilhooly is a freelance photojournalist based in Japan. His work has appeared in publications around the globe, including Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, L.A. Times, International Herald Tribune, The Times and the Guardian. He was formerly a staff reporter at the Japan Times. He has also contributed to numerous TV documentaries and books. More of his work is available on his website and photo archive.

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