Ryūkyūan Glass:  An Account of War, Hardship and Okinawan Rebirth


“A rebirth out of spiritual adversity causes us to become new creatures.”  ~ James E. Faust, American religious leader

The accounting of the development of Ryukyu Glass is one crafted out of war, hardship and Okinawan rebirth.

The Nearly Complete Devastation of Okinawa in 1945

The Nearly Complete Devastation of Okinawa in 1945

The craft of glass blowing was still in its infancy when war finally arrived on Okinawa’s shores in the spring of 1945.  Prior to that time there was relatively low demand for glass, with pottery being the mainstay trade supporting needs for crockery.  Homes and businesses of the time still lacked windows as we know them in our modern, western sense.  Pragmatic items, such as gas lamps, medicine bottles and sake or awamori jars were the extent of glassware items which were locally manufactured.

Typical Post-War Okinawan Dwelling

Typical Post-War Okinawan Dwelling

Thus, the very few highly skilled glass makers who made up the trade on Okinawa were likewise devastated during the fierce Typhoon of Steel suffered by the island and its people.  Upwards of fully 1/3rd of Okinawa’s civilian population was outright killed, with probably upwards of another third injured or disabled; almost every single survivor was internally displaced, having lost their homes and most of their belongings.

Kadena Traffic Circle circa August 1945

Kadena Traffic Circle circa August 1945

The demand for glass, however, suddenly spiked during Okinawa’s recovery and occupation by allied (American) forces immediately following Japan’s surrender.  Those tradespeople left returned to their shops in the hopes of rebuilding, but often found little more than piles of burnt rubble so iconic of the complete devastation visited upon the Ryukyu Islands.  Desperate times almost always call for desperate measures, and Okinawans were forced to make use of whatever structures, fuels and raw materials which were available.

The Soda-Lime Composition of War-Era Coke Bottles Still Provides Beautiful Sea Glass on Okinawan Beaches Today!

The Soda-Lime Composition of War-Era Coke Bottles Still Provides Beautiful Sea Glass on Okinawan Beaches Today!

The Okinawan people began collecting bottles discarded by occupying forces.  Legend has it that Coca-Cola bottles tossed from ships and found in the many military’s camps’ trash heaps fueled the initial glass boom on Okinawa immediately after the war.  I can tell you this:  scuba divers routinely still find Coke bottles dated “1945,” and sea glass is a full-time hobby for many since there seems to be a never-ending supply of smoothed and rounded glass washing up on the Okinawa’s shores.  Lucky for the island, there was a steady and sustained stream of cast-off glass courtesy of the Americans.  One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

The Vivid Colors and Intricate Designs of Ryukyuan Glass Today

The Vivid Colors and Intricate Designs of Ryukyuan Glass Today

These discarded soda-lime glass bottles were melted down and re-blown on Okinawa into what slowly morphed into a unique type of recycled glassware:  Ryukyu Glass.  This locally made glass quickly became popular with American GIs who bought them in some cases as vestiges of far-away civility left behind, or as souvenirs for girlfriends or family.  So, not only did the occupation of Okinawa supply raw materials for this new industry, it also became its largest economic base.  Prior to Okinawa’s reversion and return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, 60% of the glass fashioned was exported to the United States via troops stationed in Okinawa, 20% went to mainland Japan, and the remaining 20% was sold locally within the Okinawan prefecture, which includes the majority of the islands in the southern half of the Ryukyu Island chain.

Ryukyuan Glass

Ryukyuan Glass

Since those hard, early times of the late 1940s and 1950s when this vocation was struggling for a stable foothold, the Okinawan art of glass-making has blossomed into one of the island’s proudest, yet youngest traditional craftworks.  Now known throughout Asia, visitors come from far and wide to buy exceptionally ornate pieces selling for thousands and thousands of dollars.

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For her birthday this year, I treated Jody to a weekend get-away centered on a hands-on glass-blowing experience, something we’ve been meaning to do for over three years now.  Staying at the Okinawa Renaissance Hotel for two nights, the local glass factories in Okinawa’s Onna area were within easy driving distance.

The Glass (Foreground) We Decided to Attempt

The Glass (Foreground) We Decided to Attempt

The first location we tried is called Okinawa Kougei Mura.  A large glassware showroom is found here, along with an adjoining and rather disorganized glass-blowing studio largely open to the elements.  The sales area displays a huge array of glass pieces of every design, but be warned that there is only a small selection of items (mostly cups and a few vases), that you can try your own hand (and mouth) at producing, which are found outside next to the factory floor.  Further, the experience here includes only a minimal 2 steps of hands-on during the glass forming process.  On the flip-side, this is an inexpensive and relatively quick encounter.

Our Wedding - Hard to Miss THAT Color!

Our Wedding – Hard to Miss THAT Color!

7396101154_9fb381e9e1_b7395692146_cf91e76b9e_bHere we decided to make a set of Ryūkyūan glasses in roughly the colors featured throughout our wedding – blue and turquoise.  We selected a rather unique design, a wide-mouthed tumbler with a bumpy-textured base and flared top.  The craftsmen on the studio floor apparently speak very little English, so Jody and I made it very clear exactly what we wanted to the always polite and over-dressed sales woman, who then reminded the glass-blowers at least 4 or 5 times about the flared rim we so eagerly wanted!

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-with-a-completed-drinking-glass

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-necking-a-glass-3jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-blowing-glass-2Jody was to make two glasses, and I would make the remaining two.  Instead of each making two and then switching roles between artisan and photographer, for some reason the shop had us alternate one at a time.  Not a big deal, except for having to don – and then slip off all the protective gear an extra time!  The glasses turned out beautifully, except for the one birth defect I forced during one of my attempts.  Forming the flared top was perhaps the most delicate part of the entire process, and of course this was one of the hands-on elements!  For one of my prenatal glasses I was, let’s say, a little too eager.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to see if you can spot my “special” glass, which already provides an amusing story and priceless memory of our weekend.  Be advised that you are the master of your glass’ destiny, and being hand-formed each and every time, no two pieces are alike.  Which is exactly what makes this all so uniquely charming!

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-with-a-completed-glass

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-things-you-can-makejodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-things-you-can-make-2Since we wanted to make something more, well, special, we decided to go to another location, a factory with a much more extensive showcase and workshop called “Onna Glass Studio.”  Here we were not disappointed.  But we were overwhelmed!  There is a substantial room, separated from the store’s high-end showcase, literally crammed full of glass pieces, consisting of what seems like every type and color of glass vase, cup, bowl, and drinking glass you could imagine.  And any one of them was fair game for production on the factory floor.  It was actually really difficult to select something that we desired to make; the options appeared almost endless.

Models of What We Were to Create!

Models of What We Were to Create!

I think I might have spotted my glass desideratum first.  After probably a full thirty minutes scouring through the showroom, I saw it:  an oddly proportioned long-neck, crackled vase/bottle with a flared top in the most interesting color of blue, historically the rarest color in glass as I understand it.  It’s a bottle that one would imagine from which a genie would appear.  Proudly bringing it up to the counter with a huge smile on my face, the saleswoman immediately shuts me down with a dismissive “no have, no color, cannot make….”  Did she have any idea how hard that was to find!?  I settle for a very similar design but in a slightly less-attractive fluorescent green.

Winding Molten Glass on the Iron Blowing Pipe

Winding Molten Glass on the Iron Blowing Pipe

Jody selects a rather fascinating bottle with a twist.  Literally, a bottle with a twist.  Like a twisted bottle – very cool!  The model we contemplated was rather asymmetrical, something that she also found very alluring.  Her bottle’s color gently faded along the bottle’s length between a bright red and a diminished yellow.  After negotiating price – and this place is open and even encourages haggling, a rarity for Japan – we were off to the factory floor.  Be ready to spend a few dollars here if you select a larger piece of unusual design.

Keeping the Molten Glass Formed

Keeping the Molten Glass Formed

At the Onna Glass Studio, you “the creator” are much more involved in the birthing process, from conception to delivery.  Yeah, sure, the three staff members surrounding you the entire time are helping (quite a bit actually) like midwives, but you certainly feel like you are doing the work.  Did I mention how much you have to spin the blowing bar and molten glass – constantly – the ENTIRE time??   Both Jody and I were counseled, gently at first and then with more eagerness, a number of times to “keep spinning, fingers only,” which we found nearly impossible.

Blowing Glass between Collection from Various Kilns

Blowing Glass between Collection from Various Kilns

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-picking-up-molten-glassjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-molten-glassMolten glass is first wound on an iron pipe, a hollow bar that is used to collect, blow, shape and form your creation.  Constantly spinning the bar, its tip is carefully placed into kilns operating at over 1,300C/2375F to pick up molten glass.  The heat in the vicinity of the furnaces is oppressive, and once its protective cover is opened, a wave of heat radiates and seems to strike you much like a physical shove.  Multiple stops are required at various different kilns to get the right amount and the right types of glass, all of which is white-hot when wound.  There is a small amount of blowing in-between to shape the glass and keep it spherical.  Did I mention yet that during the entire time you have to constantly spin the bar??  The glass at this point is more liquid than solid, and it can’t be neglected for more than a short heartbeat or two.

Blowing Glass to From in a Mold

Blowing Glass to From in a Mold

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-drinking-glass-moldjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-molten-glass-to-become-a-glassNext it’s off to blow the glass into a mold.  A heavy-duty, thick-sided iron mold is placed on a sheet of steel on the floor, squarely behind a heat shield designed to protect lower bodies of craftsmen.  We are directed to finally stop spinning the pipe, and place it carefully vertically straight down into the open mold.  The mold is then closed, and you blow through the pipe until the molten glass entirely fills the confines of the cast.  Things happen quickly now because the design must be completed before the glass starts to chemically fuse and cool back into a solid – a process which is already happening.  From what I understand, glass is an unforgiving medium, and re-firing cannot be used to fix many mistakes.

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jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-with-his-finished-bottlejodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-blowing-his-bottleMy piece has a crackle design near its base.  Taking the formed glass from the mold, still on the end of the blowing tube and glowing red-hot now instead of white, I dipped (with guidance) my piece into cold water just for an instant or two.  The sharp temperature difference produces cracks only on the surface of the glass, which remain only as a subtle design element not interfering with the glass’ functionality.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-spinning-glass-montage-2

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-necking-her-bottle-2jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-cutting-kevins-bottle-at-the-neckNow we sit in the finishing chair.  We were both involved in flaring our bottle’s lips, a technique that involves placing outward pressure with metal tongs on quickly cooling glass, now barely glowing, while the piece is rotated horizontally on guides.  After the flare is finished, we score the specimen’s water cool water is applied, creating a natural fracture point in the crystalline structure.  Lifting the bar slighting, we bring it down with some force and the bottle gentle is released from his metallic captor.  The area, on the bottom of the glass, is quickly re-fired and smoothed by the shop’s staff.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-necking-his-bottle

Cooling Kiln

Cooling Kiln

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-forming-a-drinking-glass-2Now that the pieces are done, they are placed into another larger not-so-hot-but-still-freakin’-hot kiln for controlled cooling.  Jody’s bottle actually fell over, which initially I thought was a mistake, but something the craftsman who placed it that way wasn’t overly concerned about.  In hindsight, this is probably how the additional asymmetry of that particular design is introduced because Jody and I both noted its equal proportions when molded.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-shaping-the-neck-of-her-bottle

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-masterpieces-the-bottle-we-coundt-make-but-still-scoredjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-masterpieces-kevins-crackled-bottleReturning the next day to pick up our masterpieces, we were amazed to see our completed works!  Jody, however, noticed a sharp spike of glass on the very top of the rim of her bottle’s neck.  When we asked if there was anything that could be done about it, a woman working the showroom took sandpaper and attempted to “erase” the issue.  As you might guess, this did blunt the defect, but more so scratched the glass….  Realizing we were unhappy with that result, she tried to just give us the model we had initially selected from the floor to show the craftsman what we wanted to create.  “No, no, no we don’t want that, we want the one we made!”  Jody, being coyly smart and fast on her brainstem, went and got the blue bottle that I had wanted to make, which the ladies working there were only too happy to part with.  They couldn’t make it anyway.  So, we walked away with our two hand-made pieces, AND with the fabulous sapphire decanter.  SCORE!

Our Bottles!

Our Bottles!

Reservation is not required at either location.  Neither was very crowded.  We waited behind a group of three at the first location, and had no wait at all at the Glass Studio.  Once your piece is selected and the factory floor is ready for you, the process takes roughly 15-20 minutes, but you are required to leave your masterpiece overnight for proper cooling, so make sure you allow for pick-up the next day.  And be forewarned that these pieces are NOT commercially produced and therefore should not be exposed to heat or hot foods or drinks, and cannot be used in the oven, microwave, or dishwasher.

Our Glasses!

Our Glasses!

Go and experience this corner of our Far East Fling.  Rebirthing these glass creatures anew provides a spiritual connection to Okinawa, her history and her people which will last through time.  But their emotional essence – the soul of Ryūkyūan Glass, just might help you overcome an adversity or two of your own in the future.

 

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Okinawa Glass Studio

Hours:  Daily from 0800-2200

Phone: 098-965-3090

Sorry, Yen Only, but Cards Accepted

Address: 85 Fuchaku, Onna Village, Okinawa 904-0413, Coordinates: 26.4590571, 127.81162829999994

Directions:  From Kadena Gate 1, go north on 58 (right) past Kadena and Yomitan.  Pass the Renaissance Resort, and then the Kafuu Resort further up the road.  Onna Glass Studio is on the right hand side, almost directly across from the Sun Marina Beach and Hotel

Dinner at Ar’s of Shiodome, Tokyo


“All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambiance. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.” ~Charlie Trotter, American chef and restaurateur

Modern Shiodome City District

Modern Shiodome City District

Shiodome (汐留) is a district in Tokyo recently developed at the turn of this century, redeveloped and remade into an attractive, somewhat upscale area full of shops, eateries, and businesses.  Its spectacular skyscrapers are the home of the headquarters of Nippon Television, but more importantly for tourists to the city, a large variety of cafes, theaters, hotels and the subject of this blog – “Sky-View” restaurants.

Shiodome (pronounced shee-oh-dome-eh, meaning “halt the tides”) was originally a tidal marsh sitting between the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Bay.  During the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867), the marshes were dried up and reclaimed as land for the then many feudal lords hungry for space.

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

In 1872, Shiodome was chosen as the site of the Shimbashi rail station, originally the Tokyo terminal of Japan’s first railway line.  When the modern site of Tokyo station was developed as Tokyo and rail in Japan grew, Shiodome was basically converted into a train freight yard, a state and function in which it remained well into the 1980s.  Today the district is unrecognizable, featuring all the modern aspects of city planning with motorized pedestrian traffic, elevated walkways, and underground passages that connect most of the densely packed buildings in the area.

ars-2

Ar’s Italian Cuisine, one of the Sky View restaurants located in Shiodome, was recommended to us by our hotel’s very helpful concierge.  A short but cold walk away, our journey was made easier by the pedestrian ways connecting all the buildings in the area.

ars

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-jody-and-a-viewshiodome-sky-viewAr’s is located in a modern skyscraper above the 40th floor, providing amazing views of Tokyo and the famed Tokyo Tower from a warm and tastefully decorated space.  But there is a much richer experience to be had here than just enjoying the view.  Ar’s is an upscale eatery, and although there were only a couple of other groups there upon our arrival at about 2000, everyone was dressed in business formal, all men wearing coat and tie and ladies in dresses and heels.

Jody with Our Sky View

Jody with Our Sky View

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-a-viewtokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-delicious-kobe-beef-with-a-fancy-knifeOur wait staff was headed by a man who spoke actually very good English.  Tatsuhiko Tochimoto, the establishment’s Assistant Manager and true professional in terms of service, acted as our interface to the rest of the facility, providing detailed explanations of our menu in terms of ingredients and preparation.  We had reserved a table by the windows, not realizing that almost every table had a fabulous view.  Jody and I both ordered full course meals (see their menu for more) and a bottle of wine, and while the food was absolutely delicious and presented as creative works of art, what will stay with us for the rest of our lives is not the food but the way we were treated.

Appetizers

Appetizers

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-conger-eel-souptokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-baked-fishThe service at Ar’s was outstanding and very attentive.  It seems that there was a staff to customer ratio of about 1 to 1, which meant that we never asked for anything.  Water and wine was poured as if on que, and Tochimoto-san stopped by often between courses to chat, and with each course to explain our food in great detail.  While at time I would find this overbearing, especially being during date-night with my lovely wife, Tochimoto-san made us feel warmly welcome, much like family would.

Fabulous Friends & Food

Fabulous Friends & Food

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-seafood-pastatokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-picture-souvenior-with-dessertAt one point he came up with a camera, and asked if he could take our photo.  “Sure,” we said, somewhat confused.  What does he want with our photo?  He mentioned something about taking pictures of their special guests….  An hour later, delivered with our courses of sweets and dessert, was a small framed photo of me and Jody there at dinner; the staff had printed and framed the photo as part of our dinner!  Such a uniquely fabulous touch to an already first-rate dinner.

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-kiss-in-the-wedding-chapeltokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-fancy-dessertsThen, after we finished dinner, Tochimoto-san asked if we had a few moments.  Again, “sure” we said, this time with some eager expectation.  He brought us to an area down the hall from the restaurant, into a wedding chapel that they work in combination with.  This chapel is “special” we were told, because it overlooks both the Tokyo Tower AND the newer, taller landmark, Tokyo’s SkyTree.  He offered to take photos of our quickie wedding ceremony over the city lights of Tokyo.  His business card states “A to Z Dining,” and that is no exaggeration.  Such a fabulous night in Tokyo for us both!

Wedding Chapel with a View

Wedding Chapel with a View

Full disclosure:  this level of service and quality of food does not come cheap in Japan.  And while we spent a relatively enormous sum eating dinner at Ar’s, both Jody and I will tell you, without hesitation, that our experience there was worth every single dollar.  And email Tochimoto-san directly at “tochi0905@gmail.com” to reserve your own unforgettable spiritual dining experience.

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Ar’s Italian Cuisine & Sky Bar SPADE

Lunch starting @ 3,000 JPY, Dinner @ 10,000 JPY

03-5537-6431 (+81-3-5537-6431)

Dinner 17:30-23:30 (last order 22:30) and Lunch 11:30-15:30 (last order 14:30)

Rail:  Toei Oedo Line to Shiodome Station, take Exit 4-minute walk

Address:  41F, 1-5-2, Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105-7102

http://ars-dining.com/

Yushukan…or…Just a Nationalistic Scam??


“Each article displayed in this museum is filled with the wishes…and sincerity of enshrined deities who devoted themselves to building ‘a peaceful nation’.” ~ Passage from the Yushukan museum’s brochure discussing the “Noble Spirits of Fallen Heroes”

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials - not such a peace-loving guy....

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials – not such a Peace-Loving Guy….

Wait, what?  “Peaceful Nation”??

There is good in the world.  Over 2,466,000 souls are enshrined as kami at Yasukuni Jinga (see Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more), a total which includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones in the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.  Remember the dead of those cherished but lost is a good thing.

Prayers to the War Dead

Prayers and Respect for the Dead

But there is bad in the world as well.  At immediate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, this may not suffer much cause for concern.  The wider, larger, more looming issue in the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those deeds entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are worshiped as gods.  Some, maybe even many, suffer concerns of varying degree over such passive pardon.

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

And then there is ugly, what I’ll classify as an insidious evil.  Central to the Yushukan is that it actively attempts to whitewash Japan’s history of crimes against humanity and wars of aggression of the first half of the 20th century in classic Nationalistic fashion.

I have discussed in other blogs the importance of remembering and even honoring the dead when warranted (which holds the bulk of the time), and the situation in Japan, with all its complexities rife with ethical dilemmas (think our own country’s heated debates over Confederate memorials), is no different.  No matter your politics or religion, I argue that the vast majority of the almost 2.5M souls enshrined at Yasukuni were poor, uneducated “Joe-Jui-Jitsu Six-packs” who died for the cause, a cause to which they were shamelessly indoctrinated from birth.  When the rich wage war, it is the poor that suffer and die the most.  In this vein, the crimes of the very few should not outweigh the ignorant innocence of the many.  The greater good, in my opinion, should take precedence.

However, I am not so compassionate, understanding or forgiving when it comes to the Yushukan museum of war history, a museum operated by the shrine.

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum's Lobby

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum’s Lobby

This museum, and in more modern times their website, make clear and unequivocal statements criticizing the United States for “convincing” the Empire of Japan to launch an attack on the United States in order just to justify war with Imperial Japan.  There is no discussion of a wider world war in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, Japan’s war of aggression throughout the Pacific is referred to as the “Greater East Asia War.”  A documentary-style video portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the 1930s as an effort to “save” the region from imperial advances of the colonial Western powers.  Japan foresaw a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a moniker for their own expansionist agenda.  Displays portray Japan as a “victim” of foreign influence and meddling, especially the undermining of trade by the United States.  It goes on to highlight what it considers “the negotiations to avoid the war with the United States,” an accidental admission which in and of itself insinuates a forgone conclusion to go to war!  Notably missing, the museum fails to acknowledge any of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanjing (see Japan’s War Crimes for more), the abhorrent treatment of POWs, and the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and culture writ large.

A Steam Engine used on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway," the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians

A Steam Engine, used on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” displayed in the museum’s lobby.  This was the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians used as slave labor in its construction.  The museum only mentions what an incredible engineering feat it was, and accomplished by the Japanese….

For instance and specifically related to Okinawa and the Typhoon of Steel which was endured there, there is a moving display of “articles left behind” by the Kinjo sisters, who served as part of the famed Okinawa “Lily Corps”.  These high school students were drafted to serve as nurses’ aids and were assigned to cave hospitals around southern Okinawa.  These girls, in reality, were abandoned by the Japanese military, and many were pressure to end their lives through mass suicide.  However, the museum submits a revisionist version that Okinawan’s roil at:  “On June 18, 1945 an order to disband the student corps was issued during a severe cleanup operation by the American forces.  However, the Third Surgery bunker was besieged and more than 40 staff members lost their lives.”  High school students can barely be thought of as “staff,” and this particular loss of life is egregious by any measure.  The monument to these lost girls is one of the most-visited and moving places today on Okinawa, exactly because of Japan’s cold-blooded desecration of her most valuable treasure – her youth….

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives.  They were pressured and brain-washed to kill themselves rather than face rape and torture by the Americans.  Or so they were told….

The museum clearly portrays Japan as diligently negotiating to avoid war at every turn – even as they planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and throughout the wider Pacific basin, and America as being the unreasonable bully hell-bent on controlling and containing Japan.  There is no portrayal of aggression by the Japanese.  In its place is only a weak, flaccid claim of Japanese self-defense against American and European Imperialists.  The museum goes on to claim that Japan went to war with the intent of creating a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” for all Asians, with aims of ejecting various Western powers who had colonized parts of Asia and the Pacific.  This argument is nothing more than a thin, transparent veil attempting to cover their unjustified expansionist wars of the 1930s in Korea and China, and the 1940s in Burma, Indonesian, the Philippines, and throughout the Pacific.

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Because of this Nationalist stance and odd-ball justification of the slaughter of over SIX MILLION (some estimates put the figure over 10M) Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war, the Japanese Government has been widely criticized by China, South Korea, and Taiwan as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II.  My experience throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands has been one of peace, gentleness, and wholesale value for life, but my visit to this museum provides a hint at underlying currents of gross nationalism still present in many dark corners of the Japanese psyche.  And while I appreciate being able to see the rare military hardware on display here (sorry, pictures inside not allowed), and many of the relics of those lost are quite moving and well displayed, it is the general feel of this place that lives me, a Westerner, questioning what many Japanese really know about the War, but more importantly, how they feel.

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Finely, and perhaps in one of the most insulting aspects of the museum, outside of its main entrance is a memorial plot that one might easily miss.  It is homage to Dr. Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the Tokyo Trials in 1946.  The pamphlet provided, in English, goes on to state, “Dr. Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalized vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan.  Consequently, he submitted a separate opinion recommending that each and every one of the accused be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges….”  The text further characterizes the trials as “…the Allies’ craze for retaliation….”  While there is some argument about the due process afforded those accused during the war crimes trials in the East (as compared and contrasted against the Nuremberg Trails held in the West), the top Japanese leadership found guilty as Class A War Criminals were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, GUILTY of crimes against peace through the planning and direction of war.

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World.  Picture at the Yasukuni Shrine, 2015.

But regardless of politic viewpoint or an inherent revulsion at revisionist history, there is no other comprehensive venue in Japan where someone – Ministers and Emperors included – can pay respect to the fallen in such an embracing fashion.  In other words, for many Japanese there is a strongly compelling reason to visit this shrine.  And what about those who find the conflict in the adjoining museum’s nationalistic point of view and alternative account of dirty deeds so troubling?  Well they can deliberately avoid entering the museum so that their visit remains religious rather than political.

Liberalism and "Truth" are Sometimes a Scary Combination.

Liberalism and “Truth” are Sometimes a Scary Combination.  I’m pretty sure Japan started a War of Aggression with the United States….

Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently visited the shrine which sparked wide admonition from Asian governments.  In an official statement, Abe explained that he wished to “report before the souls of the war dead…the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.  It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of [other Asian] people.”

Monument to War Widows

Monument to War Widows

Can’t fault the man for that.  There is good in the world.  And it’s high time for the curators of the Yushukan museum to do their part in fulfilling Abe’s pledge.

Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

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As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

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First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

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There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

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Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

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The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

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During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

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Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

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During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

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Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

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Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

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Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

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Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!