For a Philosophy of Mourning to Come

Table of Contents

For this issue of Genron 2, our featured topic is “Mourning Spaces.”


The word “mourning” (irei) has become common in everyday life. In many places, cenotaphs (ireihi) are being built and memorial services (ireisai) are being held. Approximately one month prior to the publication of this issue, memorial services were held throughout the Tohoku area to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. This summer, the season of mourning for victims of World War II will arrive once again.

However, when we carefully consider the question of what mourning is, we realize that a clear definition does not exist. Generally, “mourning” (irei) refers to a service to grieve the dead, but there are also other similar words such as “commemoration” (tsuito), “condolence” (aito), and “invocation of the dead” (shokon). The difference between the meanings of these words is unclear. In the case of “commemoration” and “mourning,” there are times when it seems the former term refers to a secular act and the latter to a religious act, but there is no consensus even among researchers.1 In the first place, we do not have a special way of mourning. In postwar Japan, which is bound by the principle of the separation of the church and state, mourning that uses public funding cannot be tied to any specific religion. An online search for cenotaphs yields various types of architectural objects with no single principle of design, and there seems to be no set convention for the progression of memorial services. When we mourn, it may even be unclear who is mourning what spirit and how. That is the reality of the mourning that we see daily in newspapers and on television.

I wonder why mourning is such an ambiguous act in this nation. Commemoration has certainly existed since ancient times and so have funerals. However, the history of the word “mourning” (irei) is unexpectedly recent. Therein lies a clue to our exploration.

Let us trace back this history a bit. The history of mourning is often discussed centering around the history of the Yasukuni Shrine. Whenever the pros and cons of mourning become a topic of political discussion, they tend to be
entangled with Yasukuni.

The Yasukuni Shrine was established under the name “Tokyo Shrine for the Invocation of the Dead” (Tokyo Shokonsha) in 1869, a year after the Meiji Restoration. As the original name indicates, the act of collective commemoration by the state was, at the time, referred to not as mourning but as an “invocation of the dead.” This situation did not change until Japan was defeated in World War II. Even now, at old shrines or parks, one can easily find mosscovered stone structures engraved not as cenotaphs (ireihi), but as monuments for the invocation of the dead (shokonhi). What is important here is that in regards to the invocation of the dead, the question of who is invoking and which dead person is being invoked was far clearer then than it is now. At Tokyo Shokonsha, those doing the invoking were the authorities who had amassed victories in the Meiji Restoration—those who supported the motto “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians” (sonno joi)—while those being invoked were the spirits of patriots, or national martyrs, who had sacrificed their lives in the process of the revolution and built the foundations for a new state. The spirits of the rebel army were simply ignored, though they were also part of the Japanese nation. Then, what about the history of mourning (irei)? This word did not exist at the time of the Restoration, and if we trace it back through document databases, it does not appear until after the Russo-Japanese War.2 It was popularized far later: Shogakkan’s Japanese Dictionary (Nihon kokugo daijiten, 2nd ed.) lists the earliest appearance of the term “memorial service” (ireisai) as occurring in a 1933 Shiro Ozaki novel. As the earliest example of “cenotaph” (ireihi), the dictionary lists an appearance in a 1976 novel by Ayako Sono, published more than two decades after the War. Irei seems to have been a new word that circulated as a convenient substitute for the preceding shokon, which had become tied to the memory of militarism and therefore difficult to use in postwar Japan. For example, the Yasukuni Shrine’s semi-official guidebook summarizes the changes that took place after Japan’s defeat as follows: “The services of Yasukuni Shrine, which up until now have been directly connected to military affairs, have deepened the character of mourning for the dead, which is based in time-honored ancestor worship rituals.”3 Thus, the focus moved from military affairs to ancestor worship rituals. Mourning is a word frequently used in these kinds of cases.

Mourning is more than an ambiguous word without definition. Rather, it is a word that has managed to survive in postwar Japan through intentional ambiguous use. Irei was originally shokon, nothing more than a political and religious act underwritten by government authority. However, after the war, by changing the name and forgetting its history, Japanese people allowed the concept to survive as an unclear and somewhat depoliticized act, an irei without any consensus of who is mourning, whom is being mourned, and under what kind of authority.

As a result of obscuring the political and historical implications of shokon by using the term irei, Japan continues to be embroiled in domestic and international difficulties in commemorating its war casualties from 70 years ago.


Let us examine this issue more thoroughly. The history of mourning in postwar Japan is often discussed with reference to the Yasukuni Shrine. For this discussion, two books are especially important: Shigeyoshi Murakami’s 1974 book Mourning and Invocation of the Dead (Irei to shokon) and Tetsuya Takahashi’s 2005 book The Problem of Yasukuni (Yasukuni mondai).

As mentioned, Yasukuni was established as a location to commemorate national martyrs for political reasons. Those who died for the Meiji state and those who died as rebels against the state are clearly distinguished in civil war records. The conservative samurai who rebelled against Meiji revolutionists will never be commemorated. Murakami and Takahashi’s books strongly criticize the violence inherent in this commemorative practice.

However, as Benedict Anderson indicates in his book Imagined Communities,4 the graves of unnamed soldiers are at the core of nationalism.In that respect, we can say that Yasukuni was born out of Japan’s inevitably accelerated formation of the modern nation state and not something exceptional. Murakami’s and Takahashi’s criticisms seem too harsh for this reason. On the other hand, for the same reason, we can say that the rituals of Yasukuni are relatively recent political constructions, disconnected from Japanese premodern traditional spirituality [such as the Buddhist idea of the equality of friends and enemies (onshin byodo)]. Murakami painstakingly describes this disconnection, and Takahashi persuasively criticizes Jun Eto on this point.5 Just as it is wrong to take Yasukuni as a tradition inherent to Japan as a nation, considering it as an exceptional violence of the Empire of Japan is an overstatement. The problems of Yasukuni are, in that respect, problems of modernity in general.

However, beyond the above premise, I want to express two of my own concerns regarding Murakami’s and Takahashi’s analyses. They are questions that consider the invocation of the dead and mourning from a different viewpoint than that of Yasukuni and represent an attempt to ponder these issues while maintaining some distance from the curse of modernity.
The first is a concern I have regarding anonymity. Murakami, in the preface of his aforementioned work, states that “the progression from a shrine for the invocation of the dead to Yasukuni is nothing but the process by which the invocation of the individual spirits of those fallen in battle deteriorates into a situation in which the government unilaterally mourns and honors an impersonal group of deities called the ‘spirits of war heroes.’”6 In short, Murakami emphasizes that Yasukuni depriving the dead of their individual names and changing them into anonymous war heroes are acts of violence. This is the issue of “mass enshrinement” (goshi), and such violence is being fought from a legal standpoint in litigation to end mass enshrinement, which originated from various families of the bereaved from the former colonies of the Empire of Japan.

However, there is impossibility in this claim. We cannot necessarily say that the anonymity of mourning (the violence of mass enshrinement) is something Yasukuni created. Kunio Yanagita in his famous About Our Ancestors (Senzo-no hanashi) states, “formerly Japanese thought that all the members of a family without distinction would merge into one sacred ancestral spirit called Go-Senzo Sama or Mitama Sama a certain number of years after death,” and the practice in recent years in which “the individuality of each ancestor is maintained forever” like with posthumous Buddhist names at Buddhist funerals, “is incompatible with our concept of a unified ancestral spirit.”7

From a traditional viewpoint, Japanese people lose their individuality when they die. If Yanagita’s expertise in folklore studies is reliable, the violence of mass enshrinement is clearly an extension of this argument. The spirits of war heroes (eirei) have no individuality. Each dead person loses his or her individuality and becomes part of the anonymous Spirit (mitama) the moment his or her name is written in the Book of Souls, and the person is enshrined in Yasukuni. As such, once the dead are enshrined, they cannot be disenshrined. That may indeed be an act of violence, but if so, there is no choice but to no longer think of it as the violence of the modern, but a violence that has long existed in this country. Japanese people live in a culture that forgets the dead to begin with.

My second concern regards the idea of honoring. In his aforementioned work, Takahashi consistently contrasts commemoration and honoring. The core of commemoration is the sadness of loss, and the core of honoring is the happiness of recognition. Takahashi argues that the essence of Yasukuni is in the “alchemy of emotions” and the “political will of the state” that changes sadness into happiness. “The logic of Yasukuni is not that it takes as its essence the grieving for soldiers,” states Takahashi, “but that it converts that sadness into its polar opposite, happiness. The discourse of Yasukuni is filled with the beatification of soldiers and the rhetoric of honoring.”8

However, in this case, the argument is too simplistic. This is because in reality, commemoration and honoring cannot be clearly delineated but should rather be thought of as coming together to form a single process of mourning. Akira Nishimura’s ambitious work Postwar Japan and the Mourning of the War Dead (Sengo Nihon to senso shisha irei, 2006) is a useful reference regarding this point.

According to Nishimura, mourning has two sides: “pacification” (shizume) and “invigoration” (furui). Literally, pacification calms emotions, while invigoration stimulates them. Generally speaking, pacification corresponds to mourning and invigoration to honoring. However, invigoration is not necessarily linked to nationalism and warmongering, and it is not necessarily forced by the political will of the state. For example, at memorial services for the victims of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, city residents pledge their efforts towards peace in front of cenotaphs, and this can be seen as a type of invigoration. What Nishimura stresses in this categorization is not the opposition of emotions or ideologies, such as sadness or happiness, loss or recognition, bereaved families or the state. Instead, he focuses on our relationship with time, i.e., whether we are facing the past or the future. In pacification, a community confronts past deaths. In invigoration, the community accepts the deaths and, moreover, takes a step towards the future. The image of the future that is shared in that instance may be one of war or one of peace. However, what is essential is the temporal structure, not the ideological content. Nishimura, referencing the speech act theory of J. L. Austin, states that invigoration is a “performative memory” that is “spurred on by the process of the living facing the future as subjects of history.”9 According to speech act theory, every utterance has two sides: a constative interpretation and a performative function. Similarly, every act of mourning may be thought of as having two sides: pacification that tends towards the past and invigoration that tends towards the future. Thus, we have no choice but to say that Takahashi’s proposal, in which the solution to the problem of Yasukuni lies in the creation of an environment that removes honoring from mourning and where commemoration does not change into honoring, is fundamentally impossible. Sadness always leads to happiness, and commemoration always changes into honoring. This duality is the very essence of mourning, and what we need is not a denial of honoring, but to explore what lies beyond honoring.

Anonymity and invigoration have become objects of constant criticism by social thought that places importance on pacification and individual names, in other words, a set of values modeled on the idea of quiet mourning for the dead whose faces may be seen. Even in discussions surrounding Yasukuni, such criticisms have been repeated many times.

However, in truth, the history of anonymity is older than Yasukuni, and the spread of invigoration extends beyond Yasukuni. In the Meiji period, uniquely designed cenotaphs for the invocation of the dead with unique messages were constructed without any governmental approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs.10 In the same way, now, after the earthquake in the Tohoku region, new cenotaphs are being constructed without approval from anyone. It is a fact that Yasukuni represents modern invocations of the dead or mourning, but the dynamism of these practices is certainly not confined to Yasukuni.

Japan is furnished with a tradition that is quite troublesome, one that says that only by stealing names from the dead, forgetting the individuality of the dead, and changing them into an anonymous gathering of spirits can its people begin to be invigorated and turn towards the future.11 If so, what lies beyond that tradition? In thinking about this issue, we will need a new philosophy of mourning that cannot be exhausted by the politics surrounding Yasukuni.


I arrived at the topic of “Mourning Spaces” as the featured topic of this volume by deliberating on these questions.

As I am not a scholar of religious studies or folklore studies, the topic of mourning inevitably is a bit of a curveball for me. This special issue includes an interview with the religious studies scholar Shinichi Nakazawa, a proposal created for an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2016, a dialogue between the architect Taro Igarashi and the artist Yohei Kurose, and an essay by Boris Groys on the Russian philosophy of immortality. It would be pointless to further explain each text here in detail, so I shall avoid doing so. In reading them, you will see how the discourses resonate together, even while each text deals with a separate problem using a different approach. Moreover, you will easily understand that behind my selection of these texts are thoughts regarding Yasukuni and mourning as discussed above.

During the process of editing, I unexpectedly discovered that the resonance of these thoughts had started to color the contributions to the volume that were not part of the special topic of mourning. For example, in the roundtable discussion on criticism in contemporary Japan, we addressed Norihiro Kato’s After Defeat (Haisengoron) and Yoshinori Kobayashi’s On the War (Sensoron). Kato and Kobayashi both write on the subject of mourning. The former was Takahashi’s opponent at the time, while Kobayashi, even now, is a controversial and extremely influential figure who defends the spirits of the war heroes of Yasukuni. Other examples are my two dialogues with Yasutaka Tsutsui and Masaya Chiba, respectively, where the topic of God was discussed. These can be linked to Nakazawa’s references to Hajime Tanabe and Groys’ topic of immortality. As a result, even when taken as a whole, Genron 2 is a book that considers from various angles the one shared problem of what sort of attitude or what type of value we, who live in twenty-first century Japan, should adopt while thinking about things beyond an individual’s death. Perhaps I have been unconsciously preoccupied with this topic.

A philosophy of mourning still has not emerged, and this volume will not serve as an answer. Therefore, we may be led to plan another special feature on mourning in Genron in the near future. I hope this issue will be a starting point for readers to think about the puzzle of mourning.


1 Kokugakuin Daigaku Kenkyu Kaihatsu Suishin Senta (ed.), Irei to kensho-no aida , Kinseisha, 2008, p. 5.
2 Akira Nishimura, Sengo Nihon to senso shisha irei ,Yushisha, 2006, p.16.
3 Jinja Honcho (ed.), Yasukuni jinja , PHP shuppan, 2012, p. 22.
4 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New York: Verso, 1991, p.9 onwards. For a Japanese translation, see Sozono kyodotai, Riburopoto, 1987, p.24 onwards.
5 Tetsuya Takahashi, Yasukuni mondai , Chikuma shinsho, 2005, p.152 onwards.
6 Shigeyoshi Murakami, Irei to shokon , Iwanami shinsho, 1974, p.ii.
7 Kunio Yanagita, About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System, trans. Fanny Hagin Mayer and Yasuyo Ishiwara, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988, p.64,98. For Japanese original, see Yanagita Kunio zenshu 13, Chikuma bunko, 1990, p.65,108.
8 Takahashi, Yasukuni mondai , p.54.
9 Nishimura, Sengo nihon to senso shisha irei , p.22. Moreover, Takahashi’s specialty is his thoughts about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida argues in his famous book Marges de la philosophie that we cannot separate constative interpretation and performative function in the analysis of the utterance (for those who are interested, please refer to the second chapter of my book Ontological , Postal [Sonzaironteki, yubinteki , Shinchosha, 1998]). Then, we
can say that Takahashi’s proposal in The Problem of Yasukuni that the establishment of commemoration without honoring implies an essential defect that does not simply cause a political unreality but can also be traced back to questioning his understanding of Derrida’s philosophy. Derrida states that constative speech cannot exist without its performative function and that there is no such thing as parole without écriture. If that is the case, Takahashi should have accepted that there is no such thing as mourning without honoring, which should be the starting point for a philosophy of mourning after Derridian deconstruction.
10 Regarding the history and changes of shokonhi, in addition to Nishimura’s book, the following essays may be of reference: Kenta Awazu,“The Establishment and Development of Regional Cenotaphs for the War Dead”(Chiiki-ni okeru senbotsushahi-no seiritsu to tenkai) in Kokyo Murakami and Akira Nishimura (eds.), The Genealogy of Mourning (Irei-no keifu), Shinwasha, 2013.
11 This viewpoint on anonymity and invigoration (that when Japanese people make contact with the anonymous collective spirit, they feel invigorated for the first time) is something that may also be useful in understanding the essence of the popular culture that developed in the 2000s, especially using the internet as its stage. There is a parallel that cannot be ignored between Japan’s otaku subculture, particularly its affection for characters (kyara), and the peculiar ancestor worship that Yanagita indicates. This may partially explain Japanese otaku’s political right-wing affinity. Yuichi Murakami’s Conditions of a Ghost (Gosuto-no joken , Kodansha, 2011) or Sayawaka’s Theory of Characters (Kyara-no shikoho , Seidosha, 2015) may for now be of reference as a case study.