MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR NAKASONE DEVOID OF RELIGIOUS SENTIMENT
A memorial service for former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, held at a large hotel in Tokyo on October 17, was a quasi national event jointly staged by the cabinet and the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP). Nakasone, who served as prime minister 1982-87, died last November at the age of 101.
To what degree we are able to give a sincere and heartfelt final farewell to the deceased is closely linked with how we will be able to make the most of their legacies going forward. In that vein, the joint service was a good opportunity for the LDP to demonstrate the core of its spirit.
The spacious cold hall where the service was held had many vacant seats due in part to the Wuhan virus pandemic, which has yet to be brought under control, and due maybe also to the rainy weather. Seated after arriving a little early, I looked around to spot several veteran journalists, including the likes of Taro Yayama, Goro Hashimoto, and Soichiro Tahara. In the mid-1980s, these journalists got heavily involved in covering the much-awaited administrative reforms Nakasone vigorously sought to implement, bidding farewell to the conventionalities of the past.
One of the main aims of Nakasone’s program was a wholesale reform of the Japanese National Railways Corporation (JNR). Covering this important event as an editorial assistant with a major American daily, I witnessed how drastically JNR’s privatization rectified its deplorable disrespect of its clients, inferior services, abnormal labor-management relationship, and unsanitary trains and station facilities. The reform brought to light the darkness that had long enveloped JNR, whose labor union let activists from the “Kakumaru-ha” Marxist Revolutionary Group and the core faction of the Japanese Marxist Students Union operate clandestinely. The breakup and privatization of JNR has led to the birth of seven railway companies, eliminating more than 80,000 jobs. Four of the new companies have since been listed on stock exchanges.
Nakasone’s reforms, which gained the enthusiastic support of the public, were aided to no small extent by the austere lifestyle of Toshio Doko, who directed the campaign as president of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren)—the powerful economic advisory body to the prime minister. The people of Japan wholeheartedly backed Nakasone, who put an improvement in Japan’s social and national standards before the prosperity of a limited number of individuals and the vested interests of the labor unions. Nakasone was committed to going all out to transform JNR into a business entity aimed at benefiting the people. Nakasone must be given high marks for the political skills, wisdom, and vision he employed in accomplishing the revolutionary reform that many felt would be impossible to realize.
Nakasone also accomplished much in diplomacy. It is to his credit that Japan, whose presence in the international community was next to nothing before he became prime minister, has been recognized as a full-fledged democracy. I once asked him what the fundamentals of his diplomacy were. He had this to say, somewhat philosophically:
“It’s about holding Zen spirit in one hand and the Japanese Yen in the other. I wish to see Japan secure a solid position in the international community by upholding our traditional spiritual culture and combining it with the economic power which is the source of our strength today.”
Forsaking Yasukuni Shrine
Defining winning international trust in Japan and its people as the basis of his diplomacy, Nakasone carried the future of Japan on his shoulders to the best of his ability, behaving as a Japanese proud of his heritage should. I wish to give him high marks for his diplomacy in that respect as well.
Having said that, I can not help but also bring up the disappointment I felt in one particular aspect of his policies. On August 15, 1985, Nakasone, as prime minister, paid an “official visit” to Yasukuni Shrine, where the Japanese war-dead are enshrined. After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) condemned him for the visit, however, he never went back again. As Nakasone later explained in his biography Tenchi Ujou (Bungei Shunju Co. Ltd., Tokyo: 1996): “I was seriously concerned about the danger of General Secretary Hu Yaobang (1982-87) losing his position as a result of my visit to Yasukuni.”
Involved in a fierce power struggle within the CCP at the time, Hu had his back to the wall. Nakasone in effect forsook Yasukuni, where the spirits of more than 2.6 million Japanese who had given their lives for Japan are enshrined, because he wanted to protect a CCP general secretary who was progressive and demonstrated a fair understanding of Japan. As a Japanese prime minister, should Nakasone protect Hu or continue to visit Yasukuni in order to honor the spirits of those who died for Japan? The priority for Japan was all too clear. Nakasone got it wrong.
As it turned out, Hu fell from power despite Nakasone’s decision to give up on further visits to Yasukuni. To make matters worse, his decision has led to a situation in which Yasukuni visits by his successors and all other Japanese politicians came to be constantly condemned by China, making it virtually impossible for Japanese prime ministers after him to visit Yasukuni. This I consider Yakasone’s biggest breach of trust.
That said, I am one who still pays due deference to Nakasone for his many outstanding accomplishments, including those I have earlier referred to.
The funeral for Nakasone was conducted with appropriate ceremony. His grandson Yasutaka, a lower house lawmaker, arrived at the site of the service with his grandfather’s ashes in a limousine escorted by patrol cars. After being greeted by an honor guard of the Japan Self Defense Forces, Yasutaka delivered his grandfather’s urn, covered with pure white cloth, to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who in turn passed it on to one of the soldiers. With the honor guard presenting arms, the urn was then placed gently on an alter decorated with an assortment of fresh flowers.
Emperor Naruhito, Empress Masako, Emperor Emeritus Akihito, and Empress Emeritus Michiko sent their emissaries to offer their prayers, while other members of the Imperial Family, including Crown Prince Akishino and his wife Kiko, offered flowers at the altar. Suga served as the chairman of the funeral committee, with former prime ministers and the heads of the other two branches of government attending. As ambassadors lined up to offer flowers, the earlier process was reversed, with the urn being returned to Yasutaka, who was escorted once again by the honor guard and walked back to the limousine waiting outside. We saw the sequence on a large screen inside. With Yasutaka and the urn aboard, there was a three-volley salute and the limousine quietly slid into motion.
Flower Offerings Resembling Assembly Line
The format of the service was elegant and orderly by any standard. In that sense, there is no question that the government and the ruling party conducted the funeral with sincerity. Nevertheless, I somehow felt that the Nakasone memorial was not “heartfelt.”
What made me think so? I suspect that one reason had to do with the addresses the mourners read before the altar. Especially unsatisfactory were the addresses by the chairperson of the upper house and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. While certain conventions must be followed, each was too short and formulaic. The address by upper house chairperson Akiko Santo comprised less than 50 words. Is that the prevailing tradition in the upper house? Tradition aside, Santo did not have the heart to keep her address that short, as she added a brief anecdote about the time she accompanied Nakasone to France on an official visit. Within the confines given her, Santo was attempting to mourn Nakasone as a fellow human and his junior in politics.
The address by Naoto Otani, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was similar. Read in a matter of a minute, his words were bureaucratic, which perhaps could not have been helped in light of “tradition.” But one wonders if anyone could be pleased with so hollow an address.
Precedents may be important up to a point; our society is certainly full of them. It is not that I do not understand the importance of following precedent in some cases. But I really do question whether it was right in this case for the speakers to limit themselves to smooth words that were tasteless as plastic.
Another reason the funeral struck me as not being “heartfelt” was the absolute absence of any semblance of a religious ceremony. I would describe it as an event completely devoid of prayers. The speakers and the rest of the mourners, including me, took turns in offering flowers in front of a large photograph of Nakasone behind the altar. Some people bowed deeply while others quickly nodded their heads and moved on, but the impression given, unfortunately, was that of an assembly line.
Any religion would have been acceptable that day—Buddhism, Christianity, Shintoism. But don’t our words bear a real meaning only when we have religious sentiment which prompts us to feel deeply about the life and death of the persons we mourn, expressing unbounded gratitude to the great power beyond human existence for having given us life on earth? Attending the memorial made me feel acutely as though we Japanese have lost that necessary religious sentiment. And that makes me more than a little concerned about our future.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 923 in the October 29 issue of The Weekly Shincho)