Yasukuni Shrine: Founded in War, Haunted By Controversy

Yasukuni Shrine: Founded in War, Haunted By Controversy

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Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社)
Picture: genki / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
How Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine to commemorate Japan's fallen soldiers, became a politically-charged breeding ground for controversy.

Yasukuni Shrine. On the outside, it looks like any other Shinto shrine. Tall torii gates, a main temple, and several smaller shrines and monuments within the precincts. The inside, however, is loaded with controversy, questionable motives, and political unrest.

Author’s note: I do not personally condone, justify, support, or glorify war, war crimes, or revisionist versions of any historical event. In this article, I attempt to present a factual account of the history of Yasukuni Shrine, and the controversial role it played and continues to play in the political, religious, and social sphere of Japan and other countries. Thoughts and opinions cited are not my own, and are direct accounts/quotes from identified parties.

Founding Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社) is a fairly modern Shinto shrine. Emperor Meiji constructed it under a different name (Tokyo Shokonsha) in 1869 to commemorate soldiers who died for the country after the Boshin War (1868-1869). He renamed it in 1879, quoting a classical Chinese text. The name was Yasukuni Jinja, which translates to “preserving peace for the entire nation”. Over the years, priests began to commemorate soldiers who died in other wars, spanning from 1853 until WWII. 

Who Does Yasukuni Shrine Commemorate?

There are over 2,466,000 souls enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine, including historical figures such as Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the samurai responsible for ending Japan’s feudal rule. However, this shrine isn’t only for soldiers. It also includes women and children, civil-service workers, civilians, immigrants, and even animals. However, along with these soldiers and civilians, Yasukuni Shrine also memorializes 1,068 convicted war criminals and 14 class-A war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, the Japanese army general responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Until 1944, after enshrinement, a national paper publicly announced these names, commemorating them as national heroes. Click To Tweet

“Class-A War Crimes” refer to “crimes against peace”, which include the planning, prepping, and execution of war-related activities. (In other words, people who played a major role in the actual waging of war). Class-B refers to violations of the laws of war (abuse of prisoners, destruction of cities). Class-C refers to crimes against humanity (inhumane acts against the general public). The letters serve as a means to distinguish crimes from one another, rather than rank them by severity.

The inclusion of these war criminals has proven to be nothing short of problematic for Yasukuni Shrine since their enshrinement in 1978. It has turned Yasukuni Shrine into a symbol of militaristic nationalism, causing diplomatic friction with surrounding countries. But it’s not just the enshrinement of these criminals that is problematic. The underhand way it came about draws plenty of suspicion as well.


How Enshrinement Works

First, let’s understand how enshrinement works. In accordance with Shinto beliefs, enshrinement gives a spirit a proper place to rest. Unlike other religions which bury their dead, Shinto traditionally dedicates spirits at shrines, which become their eternal home. Because the body means nothing after death, they can also enshrine people who’s bodies aren’t physically there (unlike cemeteries).  

In many religions, a person carries their sins with them after death. They either reincarnate or descend to a version of “hell” to atone for their sins. In Shinto, however, death purifies the soul. In the Shinto afterlife, there is no longer good or evil, nor enemy or ally. Every soul is a kami, or deity.

To enshrine a soul at Yasukuni, a person’s death had to occur in military service to Japan. Priests obtained names of deceased veterans from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Until 1944, after enshrinement, a national paper publicly announced these names, commemorating them as national heroes.

Why Were War Criminals Enshrined?

The truth is, war criminals were never supposed to be enshrined in the first place. Click To Tweet

The truth is, war criminals were never supposed to be enshrined in the first place. As mentioned above, one must have died in combat to qualify for commemoration at Yasukuni. None of the 14 Class-A war criminals met this criterion. They died either by execution (death sentence) or in confinement after the war. So how did they end up alongside veterans and victims?

The actual enshrinement occurred secretly in 1978 against the wishes of former head priest, Fujimaro Tsukuba. Tsukuba spent the remainder of his life delaying these requests. But after his death in 1978, his successor had different plans.

Matsudaira Offends the Imperial Family

Picture: denkei / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Matsudaira Nagayoshi took the title of Head Priest in 1978. A prominent nationalist who supported revisionist ideologies and rejected the Tokyo Trails verdict, he was well aware of the opposition. Nonetheless, he took it upon himself to secretly approve the requests that Tsukuba tried so hard to delay.

When people found out, they were furious. Matsudaira himself admitted that this underhanded approach was in retaliation to the Tokyo Trials verdict. In response, Emperor Hirohito himself (grandson of Yasukuni’s founder) vowed never to visit the shrine again. No member of the Imperial family has visited Yasukuni Shrine since. 

Criticizing Yasukuni Shrine

Another Japanese critic compared the government's involvement with Yasukuni Shrine as the equivalent of "if the Westboro Baptist Church owned Arlington Cemetary".  Click To Tweet

Japanese critics claim Matsudaira’s actions turned Yasukuni Shrine into an overly-politicized spectacle. Where families once came to pay respects, obnoxious crowds of nationalists and hate groups now disrupted the peace. Many Japanese people no longer felt comfortable going to pay respects.

Matsudaira also reopened the Yushukan, an on-site war museum (and the oldest military museum in the world). However, visitors also criticized the questionable content on display at what should be a holy site. War accounts omit mention of events such as the Nanking Massacre. The wording has a strong anti-foreigner tone and supports revisionist ideas. Critics call it an attempt to glorify Japan’s militaristic past and justify their atrocities. 

Beyond Japan’s borders, many other countries expressed skepticism as well. The People’s Republic of China has notably canceled visits to Japan after the Prime Minister visited Yasukuni just days before. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing likened it to “what European people would think if German leaders visited memorials commemorating Hitler and the Nazis”.  The United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs called it an offense to the United States Congress and American veterans of WWII. Japanese protestors call visits an attempt to glorify their militaristic past and to revise the outcome of WWII. Another Japanese critic compared the government’s involvement with Yasukuni Shrine the equivalent of “if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington”. 

Controversial Visitors

The Emperor’s decision to keep away from the shrine didn’t stop other government officials. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s campaign pledge to visit Yasukuni Shrine annually won tremendous support from nationalist groups, and ultimately won him the vote for Prime Minister from 2001-2006. His successor, Shinzo Abe, visited when he took office, and again just days after he resigned. Most recently, Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sent a controversial ritual offering to the shrine.

Separation of Shrine and State

These visits are debatable because they bring up the question of the constitutionality of political visits. The Constitution of Japan explicitly rules the separation between religion and state. 

Ancient Shinto mythology deems the Emperor a direct descendant of Sun Goddess Amaterasu. Because of this, in pre-war Japan, following (and fighting for) the Emperor was both religious and national duty. This duty is what mobilized the Japanese military during the war. However, afterwards, the Occupation Authorities (GHQ) issued the Shinto Directive, ordering the separation of church and state. This forced Yasukuni Shrine to become either a secular government institution or an independent religious institution. Japan opted for the latter. Yasukuni Shrine has been privately owned and funded since 1946.

When visiting Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Ministers sign a guest book, indicating the nature of his visit. For private visits, they sign as “shijin” (私人, private person). In some cases, they leave it blank. However, it’s questionable if they sign as “shushō” (首相). This means they are visiting as Prime Minister, which makes it a political visit. 

The Government’s Response

Many politicians insist that visits are protected by constitutional rights to freedom of religion. This is true, as long as visits are not political in nature. Which brings up the motive of the visit.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe claimed that it was the spectators who turned otherwise private visits into political issues. He also claimed that the visits were to honor the fallen, not to glorify war criminals. In regards to their enshrinement, he stated that the government had no say in the matter, which was Matsudaira’s own devious plot. Finally, he claimed he had no intention to cause tension with China and South Korea.

The Nippon Kaigi, an openly right-wing revisionist lobby, makes similar arguments on their website. Citing Article 20 of the Constitution (the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state), a visit does not violate the Constitution if it is not of religious significance nor an attempt to promote or oppress another religion. In other words, as long as a visit is “personal” or “private”, it is within the Constitution.

Regarding criticism from China, they cite the Japan-China Joint Comminique of 1972, which states “mutual non-interference with domestic affairs”. According to this, prime ministers’ visits are a domestic issue, and international criticism is a violation. (Though they also claim on their website, “We are very sorry for this opposition, as we wish for friendship with our neighboring countries.”)

Finally, they emphasize that the purpose of the Prime Minister’s visits are to express mourning for all lives that were lost, and not to glorify war criminals. 

Can War Criminals Be “De-shrined”?

All this controversy begs the question: if the main issue is the enshrinement of war criminals, can’t they just “de-shrine” them? 

It seems like the obvious solution. However, it is a bit more complicated. Due to the separation of church and state, the Japanese government cannot request this from Yasukuni Shrine. And current chief priest, Tokugawa Yasuhisa (descendant of the Tokugawa Shogunate) seems unlikely to do anything on his own. Even if he did, according to Shinto beliefs, one cannot expel a spirit after enshrinement. 

The traditional Shinto practice of bunrei and kanjo exists for the purpose of relocating a spirit elsewhere. However, more of a propagation than an exorcism, it leaves the original spirit intact at the first shrine. In other words, once enshrined, a spirit is truly immortalized.

Families Just Want to Pay their Respects

Many families of victims and veterans blame politics and the media for truly disturbing the peace. Several visitors shared their opinions on the shrine and their reasons for visiting. One man (82) pays respects to his older brother, a soldier who died two days before the war’s end. A young woman (33), visits every year to thank those who fought for peace. And still, one elderly woman makes offerings to the animals who died on the battlefield, leaving water in paper cups “because animals can’t open plastic bottles”.

Ultimately, families of victims and veterans just want to pay their respects in peace. (In other words, to politicians and the media: just leave it alone already!)

Is It Okay to Visit Yasukuni Shrine?

One must remember that before the incident, Yasukuni Shrine was just like any other shrine. It houses the souls of 2.5 million victims and veterans whose families have nowhere else to go.

One shouldn’t see it as a sightseeing destination, but a deeply personal shrine with a complicated history that is probably best left alone. Let families pay respects in private.

And if one must visit, do so to bring awareness to the atrocities of war, and to strive for a peaceful world where war no longer exists.

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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