Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The Tour of Yasukuni Shrine: dark tourism, war criminals and a broken audio tour

This Shinto Shrine, located in the centre of Tokyo, is a famous yet highly contentious dark tourism destination. It shot to prominence in 2013 when Japanese president Shinzo Abe visited it to pay respects to the country's war dead, which this site commemorates. Among those honoured are Class A war criminals. This broke international protocol and immediately provoked angry responses from China and Korea.

I had downloaded the app My GPS City which said it offered an audio tour of the shrine. It only featured short text entries for a handful of spots, the map didn't work and other functions were disabled too. It was, in effect, an advert for the real app and a waste of space on my phone.

I picked up the paper guide provided by the shrine and wandered through the gnarled trees. A few things struck me. The shrine was established following a civil war during the Meiji era and later evolved into a national shrine commemorating losses against foreign nations. The names for wars were unfamiliar, there was "the China incident" and "the Greater East Asian War" AKA WW2. Additionally, the English is clumsily written and in need of a proofread. It is obvious no native speaker was ever let close to the text, which says something in itself.  

I came across this panel and immediately connected, eager to see if the audio guide would be as stiff as the brochure. Strangely, however, the audio would not load. I walked to several different corners of this expansive shrine, tried different pages and the Japanese site too, but this audio guide just wasn't happening. This struck me as profoundly odd as I had not experienced this sort of failure of technology before in Japan. This would be the last place I'd expect the technology to seize up so I could only guess there was something to do with the content or management behind the withdrawal of this service. 

Nobody wanted to offer an audio guide then, so I meandered through taking in one "incident" after another. A number of the panels showed Japanese soldiers in China.

The other visitors to the shrine on this chilly February afternoon were mostly middle-aged Japanese men. There can be different motivations for coming to this site and not all who gather here will be right wing nationalists. What is striking, however, is the demographic portrait of the new right that Furuya Tsunehira paints in her article on cyber nationalists in Japanit is precisely the same group. Contrary to what she asserts, I also got the impression during my two-week stay that they were not a spent force but were exercising growing political influence. An interesting thing she points out is that "history education in Japanese public schools is woefully inadequate, and instruction on modern and contemporary history is particularly sparse." 

The version of history which pervades the shrine is one I heard echoes of during a talk a few days earlier that characterised Japan as a victim of the second world war. The shrine sets itself up to be a religious site that simply honours the fallen but it does so in such a way that it proposes a completely alternative narrative of the 20th century. The museum, which I did not visit, has been singled out by other visitors as particularly guilty of "a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing." I now regret being too tight to pay the 1000 yen entrance fee.

There were statues thoughtfully acknowledging the contributions animals made to 'preserving peace in the nation' or Japanese militarism, depending on your point of view. This got me thinking that, if animals' spirits are also enshrined here too, what is the limit of who is in and who is out? The dogs that died in the wars did not choose to have their spirits enshrined here anymore than the soldiers did, it was simply decided that they'd be honoured here. What if they don't want to be enshrined? Did they get a choice? 

Then comes the question of the Canadian POWs who were used as slave labour in Japan during the war and who died in their droves due to mistreatment and malnutrition. They too made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of the Japanese war effort, but I'd be surprised to find their spirits enshrined here, though I could be wrong. The section of the video around 1 hour 20 features the Yasukuni shrine and a Canadian survivor meeting Japanese veterans. The failure of their otherwise sound memory when it comes to the crucial details of war crimes is telling.

A special memorial had been put up for the Indian judge Dr Radha Pal who sat on the  Tokyo Trials of war criminals and who differed in his opinions to the rest of the panel of judges. The paper that is given out on this memorial is very selective in what it takes from Pal and never mentions things like, "Pal never questioned whether atrocities were committed by Japan at Nanking, he just suspected that the accounts included exaggeration." This would put him in the camp of those who downplay the Nanjing Massacre not those who outright deny it like Toshio Motoya, owner of APA Hotels (a major Japanese hotel chain). Pal's stance may be seen within the frame of Indian independence and his major point is that the justice that was administered was a victor's justice that ignored colonial grievances.

If I compare this site to the Imperial War Museum and Cenotaph in London, there are some similarities in that they both offer self-serving narratives of war and colonial expansion. There is also a religiosity to the latter site with severe sentences handed out for decidedly minor crimes committed there. These sort of sites have this tendency the world over. Where Yasukuni differs is the degree to which it has become embedded within political narratives as a result of the version of history that is projected here. For as long as the versions of history told in Japan and those relayed by its neighbours remain so far apart this site will remain a hot dark tourist site. This will almost certainly remain the case for some time to come as neighbouring narratives are not without their own self-serving particularities too. One just has to compare the Beijing and Taipei WW2 museums to see this most evidently. This is not inevitable; France and Germany managed to jointly produce a history book that is read in both countries. Reconciliation can happen when there is a desire to make it happen. Given the existence of shame cultures as opposed to guilt cultures in East Asia, however, this sort of joint initiative looks as far away as ever as it would entail considerable loss of face. Yasukuni will, therefore, remain divisive for many more years. I just wish they'd fix their audio guide so the full mendacity of it can be fully appreciated.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Engeki Quest: Angel's Trick

Following the instructions in the game book Engeki Quest: Yokohama Passage, I went to the starting location of one of the routes, a metro station on the edge of Chinatown. 

Upon arrival the book invited me to imagine I had been told to go there to meet an ex-girlfriend who had not told me why she wanted to meet me: maybe to get together again or possibly something else... I thought of someone, scanned the station in vain for them, then was directed to a cafe where they were also not to be found.

I managed to follow the route as far as a park where a pair of hawks were being fed by an leather faced pensioner. They were both impressive and intimidating. How this scene related to my ex was left for me to decide. Was this a metaphor of a doomed relationship or was there a fresh hunt taking place, and if so, who was hunting whom?

At this point the trail went cold and I could not, for all my efforts, find the next point on the route. No matter, I thought, I'll continue the search on my own! I found what looked like a clue: she also had small feet.

This left me with the question, where to find her? I crossed over a bridge as I figured she being Chinese and it being the first day of Chinese New Year, Chinatown would be my best bet.

I scanned the faces of the steady pulse of people going back and forth. Doing this reminded me of the Situationist idea of the 'possible render-vous' a potential encounter with a stranger, though here the meeting is a one-sided one in which the other person provides a frame through which to view the city. That said, it was necessary to really try and identify her in this giant identity parade, without this genuine effort it would have been just another afternoon in Chinatown. 

Seeing this line of qipaos jolted me: I remember a picture of her in an almost identical one for a Chinese New Year dance. Even if I were not getting closer to her specifically, I was definitely on a parallel trail. What's more, seeing these bright colours, so alien to Japanese tastes, made me see China in a new way. China the land of loud voices and gaudy design. I was caught by a surprise nostalgia for Chinese bling.

I considered getting supernatural assistance as I had once visited a fortune teller with her. Could they tell me where she was? Maybe they could but they would do so in Japanese or, if I were lucky, in Chinese. Chances are, however, they would not even go there but stick to the safe topics of health, marriage and career. 

After completing a circuit of Chinatown I realised that this search was not so much a possible rendezvous, it more akin to a staged disappearance. I once worked with the collective Shadow Casters on examining the traces left behind by people who disappear like Lord Lucan's blood soaked car at Beachy Head so that we could then made trails using a similar logic. This trail, like the Engeki Quest book that started it and the search for Lord Lucan, was growing cold. I had come up with many associations but, predictably enough, no concrete leads. There was one final strategy. 

I sent her a new year's wechat greeting only to get a "XXXX" has enabled friend confirmation. This was a sad and unexpected ending to the tour as last time we communicated it was totally positive. What has happened since? I cannot tell and it is probably something more on her end, but in any case, it was time to bring this Engeki Quest to an end. Her story is an exceptional one that really needs telling; it is shocking, twisted, the stuff of movies even, and I now know I only ever got a very partial side of it. As a tool with which to see the city it is fine, but it deserves space to be told in its own right one day. I'm just not sure I'm the person most able to tell it straight so it might just come out in another way: as a possible rendez-vous, as a staged disappearance or, most probably, as a work of fiction.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Engeki Quest Yokohama: Passage of Painters

Engeki Quest is multi-authored, analogue tree literature mapped onto fixed locations. That is to say, it is a choose-your-own-adventure style book that leads the reader on themed treasure hunts through Yokohama.

There are eleven routes in total and this one is titled The Passage of Painters. The book gave me a starting point to go to and searching for it brought me past the cardboard boxes where the homeless sleep and a boarded up underground shopping mall, the sort of place that could feature in a Takeshi Kitano movie crime scene. This introduction to the dysfunctional side of the city set my imagination off in a very specific direction that it never quite came back from. Naturally, I soon bumped into a life-sized Lemmy.

I made my way from point to point with some difficulty. Having to look closely for the clues, sometimes going back upon myself and re-examing sites, made the experience more interesting. There is a fine line between between the connections being subtle and being downright opaque, however, and there was a moment I thought I had lost the trail when looking for a police box. It was only after I looked inside this building and discovered a policeman inside trying to look busy that I knew I was back on track. 

I rather liked how the places the text threaded together were normal locations and not spectacular heritage sites. It inscribed everyday life within a fantastical idea of being a painter and creating the city through images. There was no strong narrative driving this artist's journey forward, the state it proposed was more akin to spending an afternoon strolling and sketching.

The shopping passage that forms the spine of the route is a long line of shops that begins upmarket and tapers off into second hand stores. At one point the book urged me to buy goods or a service from one of them. The kimono was too expensive, the shoes too small, the male potency products too mysterious so I played it safe and got chocolate biscuits. 

The male potency products fell into place a moment later when I was directed to this car park in search of bright colours. Yellow, green and blue I did indeed find but to my right I also noticed some new clothes and shoes lying on the concrete beside a car. A visibly agitated businessman then walked briskly over to them, picked them up and stuffed them into the car. He then drove off in haste. 

Walking over to where he had emerged from, I discovered the source of his excitation: Yokohama's red light zone. There were no girls in windows like in Amsterdam, this was more discrete and in places plain mysterious. There were absent minded men standing out of doorways with inflatable mattresses set on the wall behind them or mannequins dressed in school uniforms placed inside flashing neon light displays. What's more, there was a weirdly large number of these places; it makes up a kilometre of sleaze running parallel to the city's shopping passage. Seeing this, I was not thinking of painting the city any longer, I was trying to understand the gender roles in Japanese society.

Towards the end, I passed a pet store where this little fellow was trying to attract my attention and get me to take him home. That was not to be but as it was Chinese New Year the next day and it was turning to my year, the year of the dog, we spent a moment connecting, big canine to small. 

The route came to an end, like it began, at a metro station. It required some patience and the suggested time length of 90 minutes can be doubled. If you enter into it with time to spare and open to whatever happens then it offers a much more interesting time than the tourist brochure will have in store for you. It situates the experience much more in the reader's imagination than in the sites themselves and as such, frames you as player and co-creator. While I never fully entered into the story the book was telling, it enabled me to open the page onto another. That story was one of the unspoken and unseen coming to the surface, a naked city where tensions were no longer buried behind layers of politeness as thick as the white paint on a geisha's face.