Yasukuni Shrine is a place and a political controversy that features in a number of posts on this site. Many of the views you’ll read about the shrine are shrill and one-sided; I thought it might be useful, as a reference piece, to write up something more balanced about the shrine’s history and its present role in politics and society.
August 15th marks the anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. It’s an important and emotive date for many Japanese people. Many still alive today recall the events of 71 years ago. Countless others have memories of parents, siblings or friends lost to the war. The anniversary, by coincidence, falls during Japan’s Obon festival, during which the souls of one’s ancestors are worshipped, and graves and shrines visited.
In recent years, August 15th has taken on large and unfortunate significance for observers of Japanese politics and East Asian geopolitics. It’s become a barometer for the strength of Japan’s right-wing, revisionist political lobby, who argue for an end to the nation’s post-war order and to “masochistic” views of wartime history. Related to this, it is a barometer for the state of the relationships between Japan and its nearest neighbours, South Korea and China.
At the heart of that significance sits Yasukuni Shrine. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro lit a match under the shrine’s political role when, in 2002, he pledged to make official visits to the shrine each year. The power of that pledge within certain nationalist circles points to the significance of Yasukuni beyond being a war memorial. While for the vast majority of its visitors it is a site at which to pray for ancestors who died in the service of Japan, for others it has become a way to deliberately provoke and strike out at China, at South Korea and at Japan’s own pacifist majority.
This is not how Yasukuni Shrine was envisioned at the outset. Originally established by the order of the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to commemorate the war dead of the conflicts which ended the Shogunate and created modern Japan, its role has expanded to cover the commemoration of almost 2.5 million named soldiers who died during various wars (at the main shrine), all of those who have died in the service of Japan, including non-Japanese nationals (at the Honden building), and all victims of the Second World War, regardless of affiliation or nationality (at the Chinreisha building).
In that regard, Yasukuni is not dissimilar to a national war memorial like Arlington Cemetery in Washington. The vast majority of Japanese people who visit Yasukuni do so for the same reason that Americans visit Arlington; they come to pay their respects to family members who died in the service of their country (however misguided their country’s aims may have been at that time).
Yasukuni’s contested political role arises from its crucial differences from Arlington. The post-war Constitution of Japan created a fairly strict separation of Church and State – or in this case, Shrine and State – which meant that Yasukuni Shrine could no longer be a state war memorial. The occupation authorities originally planned to raze the shrine entirely, but were persuaded to keep it by the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church, so it was handed a private religious corporation. This has led to a complex situation wherein neither the government nor the Emperor can exercise control over the nation’s most important and internationally recognised war memorial.
The lack of official state control was largely unimportant until the late 1970s, when one Matsudaira Nagayoshi took over as chief priest of the shrine. Matsudaira was a historical revisionist who rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and took it upon himself to add (“enshrine”) the names of all 14 convicted class-A war criminals at the shrine in a secret ceremony in 1978.
Matsudaira retired in 1992 and died in 2005, but his influence on Yasukuni remains powerful and damaging. The Showa Emperor refused to visit the shrine in the wake of Matsudaira’s appointment and the secret enshrinement of the war criminals. His son, the present Emperor, has taken the same stance, and no member of the Imperial Family has visited the shrine – which lies only minutes away from the palace – since 1975. Many Prime Ministers have also chosen to avoid Yasukuni, especially in the wake of harsh criticism from China when Prime Minister Nakasone visited in 1985. Given the legal separation of state from religion, Japan’s symbolic and actual leaders are powerless to intervene in affairs at the shrine or demand the removal of the war criminals from the shrine’s registers (which its religious authorities insist is impossible). For the past thirty years, most leaders have taken the only option remaining to them – snubbing Yasukuni entirely.
The influence of Matsudaira and of the revisionists whose reign at Yasukuni he ushered in is also felt in physical form. The shrine’s grounds house controversial memorials that directly challenge the established historical narrative of the war and the guilt of Japan’s convicted war criminals. Chief among them is the Yushukan – a war museum which is an exercise in dichotomy, with genuinely powerful exhibits from the war being grotesquely undermined by accompanying text and interpretation that has one foot in fantasy and the other in farce.
Given this, it’s not hard to see how official visits from government ministers inflame tensions with Japan’s neighbours, whose people were the victims of the war criminals enshrined there and whose suffering is deliberately questioned and erased by the childishly fantastical reimagining of history in the Yushukan. Cognisant of that, and either wiser or more capable of listening to good advice than he’s often given credit for, current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has steered clear of Yasukuni Shrine since 2013. Other cabinet ministers and members of the Diet have been less circumspect; this year, Olympics Minister Marukawa Tamayo and Communications Minister Takaichi Sanae (previously noted on this blog for her threats to shut down broadcasters who don’t toe the government line) visited, as did former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen. It’s not only LDP ministers who visit Yasukuni; there is a cross-party group of MPs who lobby for politicians to make official trips to the shrine, and among this year’s August 15th visitors was Democratic Party leadership hopeful Nagashima Akihisa.
Other Diet members and ministers made private visits earlier, or will do so later. Criticism of those private visits is somewhat distasteful; whatever else Yasukuni has come to symbolise, it remains a place at which countless Japanese people, including Diet members, pray for departed ancestors and to give thanks to millions of people who gave their lives for the nation. It is important to draw a line between those who visit for private moments of worship and those who arrive with pomp, insist that their visit is official rather than personal, and make certain the cameras are waiting. Michael Cucek rightly describes this contrast as being between those who visit out of reverence, and those who visit out of a desire to transgress. If it seems to be in terribly bad taste to use a shrine commemorating a nation’s war dead and enshrining the relatives of millions of Japanese people simply as a way to jam one’s thumb in the eye of neighbours with whom you don’t get along, well, that’s because it absolutely is.
This is not to say that China and South Korea are blameless in how this dispute has developed. Both countries are guilty of stirring up national anger over Japan and wartime history in order to deflect attention from various failures of their own governments. There’s a long, long tradition of this in the post-war era. The Communist Party in China has always emphasised and on occasion enhanced Japanese wartime brutality not least in order to draw attention from its own brutality in the years after the war. South Korea’s post-war military dictatorship quietly took reparation money from Japan without informing its populace or distributing it to victims for whom it was intended, instead teaching its citizens that Japan had never apologised or paid reparations. In the case of both nations, matters of wartime history are made even more murky by the promotion of versions of history that, while closer to the truth than those of Japan’s historical revisionists, remain problematic and one-sided.
This all points to the fundamental problem with Yasukuni, with August 15th and with the whole question of how the war and its remembrance feeds into East Asian geopolitics. The problem is that almost none of this is actually about the war, or about history. It’s about contemporary issues; it’s about the fear, in Japan, of a declining nation thrown into sharp relief by the rise of China. It’s about the fear in both South Korea and China of an end to decades of rapid economic growth, and the prospect of a future not unlike Japan’s lost decades. It’s about concerns about political stability and national identity, and the utility of an external foe to focus attention away from stagnation and social problems at home. Each of the three governments shares some unequal portion of the blame for using history not as a way to establish fact, and remembrance not as a way to learn from the past and avoid its mistakes, instead using both as tools to achieve cynical, short-term political ends.
Yasukuni itself, however, remains an internal Japanese problem. The duality of its nature, simultaneously a legitimate place of worship and commemoration and a site for transgression and right-wing peacocking, makes it a thornier problem than many observers admit. Suggestions that the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, a state-operated and much less controversial memorial, should replace Yasukuni as the focus for remembrance are simplistic and slightly naive. They misunderstand the differing roles of the memorials; the secular Chidorigafuchi is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, honouring some 350,000 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. The religious Yasukuni is a much more broad-ranging memorial and, crucially, enshrines the specifically named souls of some 2.5 million people. Removing Yasukuni from the nation’s rituals of war memory is an unreasonable demand. Expecting neighbouring countries to smile and nod at the deliberate provocation of politicians acting in an official capacity is equally unreasonable.
The “solution”, if any such thing can be achieved, will be a fudged, unofficial compromise – a return to a status quo in which nothing has actually been solved, but Japanese governments put their senior officials on shorter leashes, while Chinese and Korean authorities mute the tone of their statements. There’s some evidence of movement in that direction over the past couple of years, of a slow de-escalation of rhetoric and provocation around Yasukuni. Given time to bed in, perhaps such a compromise will allow Japanese people to commemorate their lost relatives at Yasukuni without rude interference from their own nation’s right-wing fringe.