Nationalists flock to secret memorial to 7 war criminals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 March, 2010, 12:00am

Seven of Japan's most notorious war criminals executed 62 years ago are remembered on the anniversary of their deaths and the day of Japan's surrender by visitors to a secretive temple.

The temple overlooks the coastal resort of Atami, 110 kilometres southwest of Tokyo, and is becoming a focal point for a new generation of nationalists.

At the end of a track and through a grove of towering bamboo, the priestess of the Koa Kannon 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.

A painting in an adjoining building shows armed Japanese soldiers standing guard over a group of Chinese labourers. Burnt-out candles show that worshippers have been here recently, and a pack of cigarettes and a small bottle of sake have been left as offerings.

On December 23, 1948, the seven men were executed at Tokyo's Sugamo Prison, and their bodies were transported to Yokohama for cremation before their ashes were scattered from an aircraft 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 group.

'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. 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 three-metre-tall statue of the goddess of mercy, reportedly made from soil taken from Nanjing on the orders of General Iwane Matsui, who masterminded the 1937 Rape of Nanking, as the city was then known.

Nearby, a stone monument is dedicated to the 'seven warriors' and 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, was buried.

Three days after the men were cremated, the manager of the crematorium and a personal 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 in their memory.

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 the second world war.

She declined to be interviewed by the South China Morning Post but told the Asahi newspaper shortly after the anniversary: '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. The visitors' book is well-used. Two stone lions stand sentinel before the box for coins and, inside the small temple, traditional scrolls hang from the walls. Incense is burning on the altar, and traditional offerings of fruit have been placed in front of a picture of 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, now Myanmar. The remaining two who were executed were Lieutenant General Akira Muto, who argued for escalating the war against China and attacking the United States, and Koki Hirota, the prime minister who signed the Japan-Germany Anti-Comintern 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.

The controversy that is triggered each time a senior Japanese politician visits that shrine has dissipated since the left-leaning Democratic Party of Japan took power in last year's general election, but it is entirely possible that politicians have visited this shrine, overlooking the then-fashionable town where senior generals of the imperial Japanese army used to meet in secret to plot the invasion of China and the coming war with the United States, Britain and their allies.