Venue Information

Lynne Yamamoto

Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto

You and I are Cherry Blossom comrades
Blooming in the same garden of our squadron.
Knowing that cherry blossoms soon must fall,
Let us fall bravely for our country.

You and I are Cherry Blossom comrades
Blooming in the same garden of our squadron.
Knowing that we are not blood brothers,
Still nothing can ever divide us.

Though we may fall one by one,
Let us return to Yaskuni Shrine
And meet again as blossoms in the same garden.

- from Cherry Blossom Comrades, a Japanese military song1

In a sense Lynne Yamamoto is a cartographer. Her installation, Resplendent, maps out a highly contested territory, however the geographical space that she reconstructs corresponds to no place on this planet, but rather an imagined territory: a paradise reserved for Japan’s fallen war-dead. Specifically Yamamoto is mapping Yasukuni Jinja,2 which embodies the spirit-world of 2.5 million Japanese war-dead. The shrine itself is an emblem of the Meiji Restoration (1868), which reinstated the emperor as the political authority of Japan, bringing the shogunate era to an end. To mark the “noble sacrifice” of those who had fought for the “for the Imperial Restoration, the Emperor Meiji decreed in June 1869 that a shrine be built in Kudanshita of Tokyo called Tokyo Shokonsha. In 1879, Tokyo Shokonsha was renamed Yasukuni Jinja.”3  The young men and women who sacrificed their lives for the emperor and Japan, inhabit Yasukuni Shrine as kami (spirits), and are subsequently worshipped as ‘gods.’ Resplendent, as the title suggests, maps this glorious – albeit intangible – terrain.

Soldiers were imagined to be like cherry blossoms, just as with the delicate spring buds, soldiers at the height of physical perfection sacrificed their lives (this type of rhetoric was certainly encouraged during the Second World War). Every spring the cultivated cherry trees on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine are believed to be the physical embodiment of the enshrined soldiers. The Yasukuni Shrine itself, the practice of ‘enshrining’ war-dead, the institutionalization of Shinto as the State religion, are all the products of history, not some timeless universal. In fact, the history of Yasukuni Shrine and the modern industrialization of Japan go hand-in-hand with the history of Japan’s rise as a military power, which exercised significant influence over large parts of Asia during the first half of the 20th century; the shrine is inexorably linked to Japanese nationalism, modernization, militarism and colonial expansion.

Yasukuni Shrine, and the paradise that it is meant to embody, is supposed to transcend the mundane, including history itself. Yasukuni Shrine is not dedicated to history per se, as it is to the spirits of Japan’s war-dead. (The Yasukuni Shrine complicates, or confuses this mater because it has a military history museum within its complex.) A monk explains:
The thing is, as soon as you bring historians in, you run into problems, you get distortions. As a shrine, we must think of the feelings of the spirits and their families. We must keep them happy. That is why historians would cause problems. Take the so-called war of invasion, which was actually a war of survival. We wouldn’t want families to feel we are worshipping the spirits of men who fought a war of invasion.4
Figuring Yasukuni Shrine as a transcendental space, instead of a historical site, places it and the enshrined ‘martyrs’ beyond repute, it skirts the necessity to engage the critical discourse of history itself. Indeed, history is always subject to interpretation, or even “distortion,” but the fact remains however that the Yasukuni project is rooted in the history of Japanese nationalism, the shrine is an embodiment of the body-politic and the question remains: Is it a body that is self-aware and critical, or one driven by a nationalistic ideology?

Under the title, “A Correct View of History,” the official Yasukuni Shrine website laments, in English, that despite the moral problems of exposing children to sexual material, that Japanese middle-school texts now, “depict as a historical fact the story of Asian women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army.” But such revelations paint a negative picture of Japanese history and reflect poorly on the soldiers who fought during the Second World War. Presumably to “correct” this historical narrative, as the title suggests, or redress the nationalistic perspective, the website goes on to praise the individuals enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, explaining:
Kami--their presence depends on our celebration for them. This is the reason why in Japan celebrations are held constantly for the Kami and for ancestral souls. This faith is deeply related to our way of life. We cannot disregard this faith for it defines the meaning of our life itself.5
In the years since the close of the Second World War, Japan has repeatedly offered apologies for its actions during the war, and even some reparations. Such gestures however ring hollow when Japan, on the other hand, continually downplays or out-rightly denies the historical atrocities committed under its colonial/military aegis. Apologies mean nothing if there is no genuine understanding for what Japan is apologizing for. Yasukuni Shrine is designed as a place of rest for Japan’s war-dead, but Yasukuni will remain a contentious place so long as Japan avoids a critical self-awareness of its own history.

Yamamoto reconstructs the blossoming of the individuals enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine. Depicted at the center of each blossom is the face a Japanese soldier. Specifically she has selected 180 soldiers from a particular village, reprinting each face 9 times; there are a total of 1,620 blossoms in all.  Included in the installation is a series of glass bell-jars replicating the nose-cone of an Oka (cherry blossom), a jet propelled plane which was specifically designed for kamikaze missions. Etched into each jar, just as with the original suicide planes, is the outline of a cherry blossom. The men who flew these planes – which weren’t deployed until 1944, in a last ditch effort to defend Japan against the Allied forces’ closing noose – were destined to ‘meet again’ at the Yasukuni Shrine, to come back every spring embodied in the form of cherry blossoms.

Resplendent questions the haunting allure of romantic heroism and ephemeral beauty, which the Japanese nationalist agenda has in the past and continues to capitalize on. While certainly not condoning the wanton waste of human life or the soldiers who gave up their lives, Yamamoto appears to question the motivation behind the kamikaze missions. What would compel individuals to consciously resign themselves to death? Moreover, how are such missions then re-inscribed in culture as ‘beautiful’? How do the finest aspects of humanity – art, culture, ritual – get conjoined with violence and destruction? How does a culture, which on the one hand prides itself on aesthetic refinement, and at the same time embraces brutality?6

In addition, pilots certainly could not function on their own, kamikaze missions were in a sense an industry; vessels were specifically designed to carry out suicide missions, industry manufactured planes (and suicide torpedoes – Kaiten), tactics and surveillance laid the ground work to facilitate the missions, in other words, copious amounts of labor went into these missions ending with one young man, at least, attempting to consciously crash into an Allied vessel. But even 60 years later, and perhaps so long as Japan’s war-dead are projected onto Yasukuni Shrine’s cherry blossoms, and continue to inspire awe, a genuine critical engagement with history will remain as ephemeral as the blossoms themselves. Although this installation is specific to Japanese history, and the problems of constructing a Japanese historical narrative, perhaps this piece might ask some of the questions that need to be asked about more recent events?

  1. Printed in Lynne Yamamoto, Resplendent, catalogue (Utica, New York: Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, 2003), 3.
  2. Jinja means, “shrine.”
  3. http://www.yasukuni.or.jp
  4. Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), 224.
  5. http://www.yasukuni.or.jp/
  6. Kerri Sakamoto, “Unbroken Blossoms: Ambivalence and Beauty in the Work of Lynne Yamamoto,” in Resplendent, 7. Sakamoto, in a footnote, says, “The actual number of soldiers’ portraits is 163; there were 180 from this village who perished but no photographs were available for seventeen of them. The artist represents each of the seventeen with a blank space in the middle of a blossom, and like the other portraits, each recurs nine times.”
  7. See what Yukio Mishima says about this apparent ‘paradox’ in Japanese culture, video clip from: Yukio Mishima: Samurai Writer, a BBC TV production in association with RM Arts, Michael Macintyre, 1985.

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Resplendent (detail)


Resplendent (detail)







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