I attended a screening of Li Ying’s 2007 documentary Yasukuni this afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival, with (and thanks to) my cousin Holly.

Yasukuni is a moving examination of issues surrounding the Yasukuni shrine in Toyko, exploring the shrine’s significance from the perspective of a variety of Japanese and non-Japanese voices. Li Ying is a Chinese-born director living in Japan for many years, and Yasukuni is competing at Sundance in the foreign documentary category.

For those who don’t know, Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo which is famous for honoring Japan’s military dead from World War II, particularly a number of Japanese who were found to be class-A war criminals at the trials following the war. The shrine has become particularly controversial in recent years, with Japanese nationalists promoting the shrine and urging the nation’s prime ministers to worship there, and others regularly protesting the implicit (and not-so-implicit) endorsement of military aggression and war crimes represented there. The visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine have in recent years become a major source of tension between Japan and other nations in East Asia, which view the visits as a repudiation of Japanese responsibility for aggression and atrocities during the war and as a sign of rising Japanese nationalism.

The central tension in the film is between honoring the sacrifice of soldiers and acknowledging historical aggression and atrocities. The director provides a fairly even-handed portrayal of both sides, depicting, for instance, the honest efforts of ordinary people to honor the sacrifice and loss of their loved ones during the war and to express pride in their nation’s history and its future. Running through the entire film is an interview with a ninety-year-old sword forger, the sole remaining active swordmaker who worked at Yasukuni during the war, and he comes across as sincere and sympathetic, devoid of any ill intent despite his support for worship at the shrine.

However, the most emotional moments in the film occur during the visit to Yasukuni of a delegation of families from Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawa whose relatives were long ago listed as enshrined there. For these families, their loved ones were coerced into fighting on behalf of a foreign power, and should not be commemorated at a shrine to Japan’s war dead. They plead earnestly, and in vain, with shrine officials to respect the religious traditions of their homelands and allow their dead relatives to return home, or at least be de-listed at the shrine.

Earlier in the documentary, a small group of Japanese worshippers at the shrine argue that the West has behaved in a similar fashion to Japan. While they acknowledge that the West has no direct analogue to the Shinto shrine, they note that Europeans have engaged in aggressive conflicts since at least the time of the Vikings. One member of the group has visited the British Museum, and observes that it constitutes an open display of the plunder of the British Empire. They argue that Japan merely copied the West when it embarked on a series of military adventures in East Asia — and with considerable historical justification.

After the screening, the director explained that he does not view the film as anti-Japanese, but rather as “a love letter to Japan.” If we view the nationalism of Yasukuni as a disease, he explained, then we must seek to cure that disease, which he believes afflicts Japan and all of East Asia.

One Response to ““Yasukuni” at Sundance”

  1. Sumiko says:

    Thanks for the review! I was very interested to hear more about this film.

    Interestingly, today “Japan has handed over the remains of 101 South Koreans who were forced to fight for the Japanese army during World War II,” the first ceremonial handover of its kind.


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