Japanese nationalists 'worshipping' at temple to war criminals
A secretive temple where the ashes of seven of Japan’s most notorious war criminals have been quietly buried is becoming a point of convergence for a new generation of Japanese nationalists.
The seven wartime leaders were executed 61 years ago and some of their remains later surreptitiously transferred to the Koa Kannon temple, overlooking the coastal resort of Atami, 90 miles southwest of Tokyo.
The priestess of the temple says it is a place to contemplate peace, but the photo on the altar is of General Hideki Tojo, the wartime prime minister who sanctioned the attack on Pearl Harbor, and a painting in an adjoining building shows Japanese soldiers standing guard over a group of Chinese labourers.
In December 1948, the seven men were cremated in Yokohama before most of their ashes were scattered at sea. The Allied occupation authorities hoped to ensure their burial site could never become a rallying point for the extreme right. That effort failed and more people are beginning to ask questions about Japan’s imperial past.
“This is a symbolic place for us Japanese and it is becoming an important place for thinking people in their 20s, 30s and 40s to visit,” said Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, a senior member of the nationalist Issuikai organisation. “All we are taught in school and hear about from the media is that Japan is bad, the Japanese are bad, and more and more people want to know the truth.
“Japan was trying to free other Asian nations and the reasons for the war are misunderstood,” he said. “We are bowing to the Chinese too much now. It’s about time that someone stood up for Japan and told the truth about the past.”
Wilting flowers are in a pot before a 3-metre tall statue of the goddess of mercy, while the stone monument dedicated to the “seven warriors” still bears the marks of left-wing extremists who blew it up in 1971. The five pieces of the original slab have been concreted together again and it is near here that the urn containing the remains of the seven men – including Tojo, prime minister from the outbreak of the war to July 1944, and General Iwane Matsui, who masterminded the 1937 Rape of Nanjing – was buried.
Three days after the men were cremated, the manager of the crematorium and the representative of Kuniaki Koiso, a former prime minister convicted as a war criminal and sentenced to life in prison, secretly collected the remaining ashes and gave them to Ninrei Itami for safekeeping.
A decade later, he buried them at Koa Kannon and erected a stone monument on the spot.
Itami’s daughter, Myojo, is the Buddhist priestess who today oversees the temple and performed a memorial service for the seven war criminals on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.
She declined to be interviewed by The Telegraph, but told the Asahi newspaper shortly after the anniversary that, “There are no such words as ’war criminals’ here. There is no right or left. This is a venue for giving prayers to ponder peace.”
The wooden shrine has an offerings box and two rising sun flags flank the entrance. Incense is burning on the altar and traditional offerings of fruit have been placed in front of a picture of General Tojo in uniform. Justice Radhabinod Pal, the Indian judge who protested Japan’s innocence at the Tokyo war crimes trials and is revered by the far right here, is awarded a similar honour.
As well as Tojo and Matsui, the political and military leaders remembered at the temple include General Seishiro Itagaki, who stepped up Japan’s military aggression in China in 1931, General Kenji Doihara, who created the puppet state of Manchukuo in China, and General Heitaro Kimura, who fought the British in Burma.
The remaining two executed for their part in the conflict were Lieutenant General Akira Muto, who argued for escalating the war against China and attacking the United States, and Koki Hirota, the former prime minister who signed the Japan-Germany Anti-Commintern Pact in 1936.
Relatives of all seven of the men who were executed have reportedly paid their respects at the temple, a far more private place than Yasukuni Shrine, in central Tokyo, that is regarded as the last resting place of all the men and women who have died in the service of the emperor.
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