Fiona Amundsen’s photography show at Gus Fisher examines the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, reports Linda Herrick

"If I don't come home, I'll see you at Yasukuni." Those words, a mantra spoken by Japanese soldiers and pilots before embarking on their missions during World War II, are echoed in an introduction to Fiona Amundsen's The Imperial Body, at the Gus Fisher Gallery as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography.

In the show, Amundsen, senior lecturer in the School of Art and Design at AUT University, focuses on the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which has been hugely controversial for decades because it honours Japan's war dead.

Included among the 2.4 million souls revered at the shrine are 1000 men who were convicted, then executed or jailed, for atrocities committed during World War II. They were secretly inducted into the Shinto shrine, which has stood since 1869, in 1978.

Disputes over Yasukuni's existence have increased with time since the war ended as details have continued to emerge of "mass murder, rape, pillage, brigandage, torture" and, most recently, sex slavery, or "comfort women", according to war tribunal charge sheets and evidence given by survivors. Japan's neighbours - China, Taiwan and Korea - are particularly aggrieved by the shrine's existence.

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It's a divisive institution within Japan as well. Visits by politicians are celebrated by nationalistic right-wingers and deplored by others who want Japan to acknowledge and apologise for its past. Right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's prayers at the shrine in 2013 were regarded as a deliberate affront by China, with which Japan is having territorial disputes.

While showing photos of the tranquil Sacred Pond Gardens at Yasukuni Shrine, The Imperial Body also includes images of bombers, rocket-propelled gliders and human torpedoes on display at its museum, a place recently described in a Hong Kong newspaper as "even more disturbing" than the shrine itself, and which presents its perspective of the war to thousands of schoolchildren each year.

"It is the revisionist view of World War II presented in the museum which really highlights the perspective taken by the Shinto leadership responsible for the shrine and is most troublesome for Japan's friends," wrote Barry Desker last November in the Straits Times. "I was taken aback by the honoured place at the museum's entrance of the original locomotive used during the opening of the Siam/Burma railway. The 'death railway' ... resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 South-east Asian forced labourers and 13,000 Allied prisoners-of-war.

"There was no indication of the cost of the project in terms of the lives lost."

Desker also took issue with the museum's "paean" to Japanese suicide bombers, comparing it to "eulogies to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria suicide terrorists".

The Imperial Body's catalogue includes thoughtful essays by senior lecturer in Japanese studies at the University of Auckland, Dr Rumi Sakamoto, and Laura Suzuki, a masters student at Elam School of Fine Arts, pondering the divergent memories of the war in Japan, which inflicted so much suffering on its own civilian population.

"Today there exists no single, unified public war memory, no national consensus over how Japan should remember its last war," says Sakamoto, who points out that because the state has failed to "fully address war responsibility ... uncomfortable truths have been removed from public consciousness".

Yasukuni, established to enshrine anyone who died in service of the nation, became a private institution at the end of World War II when the Allies forced the separation of state and religion.

Amundsen's show also includes video footage called Honourable Son (for 100,000 spirits) featuring California-based Ben Kuroki, a former sergeant with the US Army Air Force, the only American of Japanese ancestry to serve in the Asia Pacific Theatre of World War II. Kuroki, who normally would have been interned along with his fellow Japanese-Americans, was allowed to enlist because a recruiter thought his name was European.

Kuroki was determined to fight for America despite enduring extreme racism, a struggle which was supported by US Secretary of War Henry Stimson. A copy of a letter (held in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington) from Stimson approving Kuroki's service from November 16, 1944 is included in the exhibition.

Also featured in Honourable Son is Haruyo Nihei, a survivor of the American Tokyo air raids who presents her side of the trauma with an aerial photo taken by XXI Bomber Command of Tokyo after a bombing raid with the word "devastated" and, across the top, "You helped do this to Tokyo".

"History, perhaps, is the ghost whose business on Earth is never finished or resolved," writes Suzuki in the catalogue.

"Histories, like ghosts of the past, appear to individuals in divergent ways."

Adds Sakamoto: "Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of the war dead (including Class A war criminals) are enshrined, has become a de facto public site of such a patriotic war memory ... unlike New Zealand, for example, where thousands of people - including schoolchildren - turn up to dawn services on Anzac Day to be reminded of the dedication, bravery, commitment and sacrifice of New Zealand soldiers, celebrating war 'heroes' is not how the war is remembered in Japan. It was a war of aggression, and the Japanese military was the victimiser, not just of Asians, Europeans, Australians, Americans and New Zealanders, but also of Japanese citizens."

• Fiona Amundsen was in London last week speaking at a symposium at Central St Martins. Her paper discussed a new body of work called Violent Wind of Steel, focusing on a memorial site linked to the Battle of Okinawa, a project which is an extension of The Imperial Body.

Exhibition
What: The Imperial Body by Fiona Amundsen
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to July 11