“Memory is not a platform from which to review the world. It is a ladder whose rungs we ascend step by step.”1 As the titles of the two books under review suggest, Japan has by no means made it to the top of that ladder, even now more than seven decades after the end of the war. Nor can it: memory projects of national proportion rarely get finished but are instead replaced by more pertinent ones. Two brilliant new studies of Japan’s war memory unpack this complex dynamic, taking different approaches that complement each other in important ways.
In The Long Defeat, sociologist Akiko Hashimoto masterfully examines the texture of this enduring memory work in contemporary Japan as the task of “repairing the moral backbone of a broken society” through debates about “war responsibility but also national belonging, the relations between the individual and the state, and relations between the living and the dead” (Hashimoto, pp. 2–3). In Yasukuni Shrine, historian Akiko Takenaka vividly demonstrates how memory projects overlap and get transformed in shifting contexts at a single site: Japan’s controversial war memorial in Tokyo. Tracing the shrine’s history from its inception during the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s to its use as a “counter-monument” by volunteer guides organizing tours to critically rethink the shrine’s meaning in the 2000s, this book investigates the ways in which a nation-state “acknowledges its military dead”—first in victory and then in defeat—and how it negotiates the “relationship between religion and war in a secular state” (Takenaka, pp. 3–4). Both books wrestle with the theme of loss and mourning in a country whose successful postwar transformation has not convinced itself or its neighbors to exorcise the ghosts of the past.
These are studies of cultural memory that seek to explain the multiple trajectories along which the process of Japanese identity formation has proceeded vis-à-vis the war and its legacies. While one approaches the topic through popular narratives (Hashimoto) and the other through spatial practices (Takenaka), both make minimal reference to the “memory wars” that continue to take place in international relations. In this reviewer’s opinion, both of these works should be immediately translated into Chinese and Korean to disturb the popular assumption there (and elsewhere) that war memory must be state-managed and one-dimensional in its moral thrust, pitting nation against nation. Hashimoto and Takenaka unpack the messiness of Japan’s memory landscape via a familiar set of theories, from Maurice Halbwachs’s social and spatial memory to Marianne Hirsch’s idea of “postmemory,” and from [End Page 469] Maruyama Masao’s “system of irresponsibility” to Oguma Eiji and Takahashi Tetsuya’s “postwar response-ability.” What emerges, in Hashimoto’s interpretation, is not national amnesia but rather “a stalemate in a fierce, multivocal struggle over national legacy and the meaning of being Japanese” (Hashimoto, p. 9). Similarly, Yasukuni Shrine becomes for Takenaka an over-determined site so overlain with myth and politics that it functions as the “perfect scapegoat for the defunct wartime government,” a tool across the political spectrum for forgetting the complexity of the past (Takenaka, p. 11). Identity politics, of course, never makes for good history. There is no question, then, that Japan struggles in its gradual ascent (some will say descent) on the ladder of memory work, but at least it has not defined its own national memory as a unified, self-evident platform from which to view the world, as others are apt to do.
Yasukuni Shrine and The Long Defeat are very different books serving an overlapping readership. Takenaka’s history of Yasukuni—the first such study in English—is a dense research monograph that offers a wealth of often-surprising information on the shrine’s haphazard, circuitous emergence as a choreographer of national identity, in which the managers of “Yasukuni...