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THE AMERICAS: Graceland and Yasukuni: two shrines and two national myths They do not tell the full story of the rock legend and the war heroes, says David Pilling
By DAVID PILLING
Financial Times Asia , Asia Ed1 ed , p6 , Friday , June 30, 2006
It is oddly fitting that Junichiro Koizumi, a prime minister whose five-year term has been shaped by his annual pilgrimage to a controversial shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead, should end his farewell US trip worshipping at the shrine of an American fallen hero: Elvis Presley.
When George and Laura Bush walk side by side with Japan's most famous Elvis fan today through the ornate front porch at Graceland and into a house full of green shag-pile carpet (some of it on the ceiling), the understated Japanese beauty of Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine will be far from their minds.
Indeed, there is little obvious connection between a garish mansion where America's most famous rock star died of a drugs overdose after a life of unrivalled fame, and a sacred Shinto shrine where the souls of 2.5m, mostly obscure, Japanese soldiers are said to gather. Yet the similarities between Graceland and Yasukuni are not as absurd as they appear.
Both are monuments to the eternal spirit, and both present an idealisation of the national essence, says Jeff Kingston, professor of international studies at Tokyo's Temple University. "They both beautify history."
At Graceland, we get the rags-to-riches story of the American dream shorn of its darker side, in this case the tragic descent into obesity, drug-dependence and untimely death.
At Yasukuni, particularly at the adjacent Yushukan museum, visitors are presented with a whitewashed view of history in which Japanese soldiers, like fleetingly beautiful cherry blossoms, were glorious liberators and victims but never aggressors.
"The two museums represent degrees of revisionism," says one Washington observer.
The leaders of the world's two biggest economies, who fly down to Memphis on Air Force One today, will not get special treatment at Graceland. As always, the upstairs of the house, including the bathroom where Elvis died, will be discreetly cordoned off.
Jack Soden, the thoughtful chief executive of Elvis Presley Enterprises, defends the partial view of Elvis's home, saying: "There is no respectful or dignified way to include it in a tour of the house."
The official Graceland version of events has Elvis dying, at 42, of cardiac arrhythmia, shortly after he played two of his favourite songs on one of the mansion's several pianos. Or, as it says on Elvis's gravestone in a phrase that would not be entirely out of place at Yasukuni: "God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with him."
Elisa Brewer, who has visited Graceland, says: "I think he fell off the toilet and suffocated in vomit, or in the shag carpet."
The receptionist at Graceland's corporate office will only say: "They say he died of a heart attack. So that's what we go by."
So far as airbrushing history goes, this is mild stuff. The same, say critics, cannot be said for the Yushukan museum, with its proud displays of Zero fighter aircraft and glorification of war. The museum, updated in 2002, presents a view of history that most Chinese, South Koreans and (sotto voce) American officials find entirely distasteful.
The Nanjing massacre, for example, is presented as a liberation, while all mention of Japan's use of chemical weapons, human vivisection and Korean sex slaves is omitted. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, where Elvis spent Dollars 65,000 constructing a memorial, is presented as forced by the allied blockade.
Thomas Schieffer, the US ambassador to Tokyo, concedes he dislikes the museum. But he refrains from criticising Mr Koizumi's pilgrimages to Yasukuni, even though war criminals convicted by the Americans are honoured there. "I think the museum is very disturbing, but I think the museum and the prime minister's visit to Yasukuni are separate issues," he says.
Mr Koizumi is widely expected to make his final pilgrimage to Yasukuni as prime minister on August 15, the anniversary of the war's end and the most controversial possible day for a visit.
Mr Bush will certainly not be accompanying him. But the US ambassador is delighted that Mr Koizumi is going to Graceland.
"It's a part of America, and to have the prime minister get a feel for it will be fun. It will also give him a better idea of what America is all about."
Copyright (c) 2006 Financial Times Ltd.
Japan and America: Don't leave me now
The Economist , n950 , The Economist ed , p79 , Saturday , July 1, 2006
George Bush's best Asian buddy is retiring
WITH the only world leader to have serenaded him with the Elvis Presley song "I want you, I need you, I love you" retiring in a couple of months, President George Bush may soon feel a bit lonesome. For his friendship with Junichiro Koizumi was based on more than just tender words. After the attacks of September 11th, Mr Koizumi threw his country behind America. Stretching Japan's pacifist constitution to its limits, he sent refuelling ships to the Indian Ocean to help America against the Taliban and troops to help reconstruction in Iraq. By inviting Mr Koizumi to Washington on June 29th, Mr Bush wanted to say goodbye and thank you.
The alliance is in far better health than during the 1980s, when American politicians complained of a Japanese economic invasion and a few alarmists even predicted conflict. Mr Koizumi has long looked forward to this trip as his swansong, say aides. Yet something is not quite right. A few weeks ago, Mr Koizumi looked set to be accorded that rarest honour, an address to a joint session of Congress. Now, it transpires, the highlight of the trip will be a pilgrimage with Mr Bush to Graceland, Elvis's home outside Memphis.
Fair enough: Mr Koizumi is an ardent Elvis fan. But the change of venue may spring from worries at the five visits he has made as prime minister to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japan's war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. Suspicion of Japan is strongest in Asia, but there's a bit about in America too. Many servicemen were brutally treated by the Japanese during the war. And American policymakers sometimes fret that Japan's insensitivity makes engaging with a rising China harder.
So, when the possibility of an address to Congress was mooted, Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee and a war veteran, wrote to the speaker, Dennis Hastert. It would, said Mr Hyde, not be appropriate for Mr Koizumi to use the podium used by Roosevelt to denounce the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour if he then made his annual visit to Yasukuni on August 15th, the anniversary of Japan's defeat in 1945. The idea of an address to Congress melted away.
Still, he and Mr Bush have substantial issues to discuss. Most recently, the importance of America's alliance with Japan has been underlined by North Korea's preparations to test a long-range missile. America and Japan share an obvious interest in persuading Kim Jong Il not to lob missiles in their direction. Japan feels less threatened, however, by Iran's apparent intention to build nuclear weapons. Urged by America to help it isolate Iran, it fears that this would cut off one of its main sources of oil.
Japan's interests were not exactly the same as America's in Iraq, either, but Mr Koizumi backed Mr Bush in part because the stakes, for Japan, were lower. Its oil supply was not threatened, and its commitment of troops was largely symbolic. For America, however, preventing Iran from going nuclear is of paramount importance, and doing so peacefully depends in part on Japan supporting any sanctions regime. Japanese officials, however, are very keen to see agreement at the UN Security Council--unlikely, given China's reluctance to let the issue interfere with its own quest for oil.
A final tension between America and Japan concerns trade. If the Doha trade talks are not to collapse, both countries must open their farm markets more. Japan is especially reluctant to do so, as was illustrated by a recent spat over American beef, in which fears of mad-cow disease strengthened the hands of protectionists.
What of the future? Given Mr Koizumi's friendship with Mr Bush, many worry that relations between America and Japan may cool after he goes. That will depend on Mr Koizumi's successor. Of the two main contenders, Yasuo Fukuda wants to mend relations with China by, among other things, drawing the Yasukuni sting. The favourite, Shinzo Abe, is more overtly hawkish. But either will surely find that, whatever they feel about America, they need it.