Memory Waka

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Battlefield Pilgrimage and Performative Memory: Contained Souls of Soldiers in Sites, Ashes, and Buddha Statues

Akira Nishimura


Towards the end of the Pacific War (1941-1945), members of the Japanese Army were engaged in mortal combat with the Allied Forces. For many the outcome was fateful, and for those soldiers serving on the Pacific islands and in Southeast Asia a large number of them would not return home alive. Despite the Japanese military agency receiving orders to retrieve the bodies of those killed, remains were not recovered to send back to their bereaved. Previous studies revealed that the great majority of the funeral urns delivered to bereaved families contained nothing but a small stone or a chunk of wood. Furthermore, the religious explanation given by the heads of the armed forces was unconvincing, claiming that while the soldiers’ remains could not be returned home, their souls would. Consequently, it is no surprise that the families and the surviving comrades of the fallen regarded this explanation as unsatisfactory. In view of this, the bereaved began to visit the battlefields to hold memorial services for their relatives, and to re-locate and recover their remains. This article focuses on the pilgrimages made by Japanese people to key sites of former battlegrounds. I will discuss how these pilgrims regard the places and the materials associated with the fallen soldiers as harbouring the souls of the dead. Finally, I will consider the “performative” aspect of their memories. By applying this linguistic term when discussing the material, I aim to illustrate how the active characteristics of memory can instigate the living to perform acts that acknowledge the status of those who have passed away.