Decades after the end of World War II in China, Sino-Japanese relations continue to remain strained. Conflicting memories and accounts of imperial Japan’s occupation of China and wartime atrocities remain one element of this discord. One of the most visible expressions of this tension arises regularly at the Yasukuni shrine.
Built near Tokyo in 1869 on orders from the Meiji emperor to console the spirits of those who sacrificed their lives to restore political power from the Tokugawa shoguns to the emperor, this Shinto shrine has become a focal point for national tensions between China and Japan. Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, describes visiting the shrine as a “blatant attempt to whitewash Japanese militarism’s history of aggression and to challenge the outcomes of the Second World War and the post war international order.” For Japan, state or individual visits to the shrine are explained as simply paying “homage to those who died in the war.”1
To appreciate the tensions surrounding Yasukuni, it is important to understand the role Shinto shrines play in Japanese society. Shinto is the Indigenous faith of the Japanese people and has existed as a unifying system of beliefs and rituals for centuries. One important element of the Shinto faith is kami, sacred spirits embodied in forms important to life such as elements found in nature—wind, air, water, and mountains. Human and human forms can also become kami after death and are revered by family members as ancestral kami. The kami of extraordinary people in Japan are preserved in hundreds of shrines throughout the country including those for the imperial family, those dedicated to powerful clans, those for rice, and those dedicated to who died during war in the service of the nation such as at Yasukuni.
What we know as the Yasukini shrine was completed and named in 1879. The name originates from the classical Chinese text Zuo Zhuan and literally means “pacifying the nation.” Soon after being built, Yasukuni became one of Japan’s and one of Shinto’s principal shrines combining the values of the State with Shinto beliefs. From this point forward the Meiji emperor visited the Yasukuni shrine twice a year to honor the spirits enshrined—once in the fall and once in the spring. With this ritual and the relationship of the emperor with the shrine, the sacrifice of dying in battle became associated with the highest of Japanese honors. The spirits of those who died in battle would hereafter be enshrined at Yasukuni and be assured of an emperor’s visit.
Over time the shrine included kami not only for soldiers but also for those who sacrificed their lives for the “public duty of protecting their motherland.” The shrine’s official website reads:
Currently, more than 2,466,000 divinities are enshrined here at Yasukuni Shrine. These are souls of men who made ultimate sacrifice for the nation since 1853 during national crisis such as the Boshin War, the Seinan War, the Sino-Japanese and Russo- Japanese wars, World War I, the Manchurian Incident, the China Incident, and the Greater East Asian War (World War II). These people, regardless of their rank or social standing, are considered to be completely equal and worshipped as venerable divinities of Yasukuni.
Japanese people believe that their respect to and awe of the deceased is best expressed by treating the dead in the same manner as they were alive. Hence, at Yasukuni Shrine, rituals to offer meals and to dedicate words of appreciation to the dead are repeated every day. And, twice every year—in the spring and autumn—major rituals are conducted, on which occasion offerings from His Majesty the Emperor are dedicated to them, and also attended by members of the imperial family.
Thus, Yasukuni Shrine has deep relationship with the Japanese imperial family. Also, five million people visit the shrine every year since it is known as a central institution for commemorating those who died in wars.2
Excluded from the description on the shrine’s website are the specific rank and role of some of the fallen soldiers from wars past. After World War II 14 convicted Class A war criminals (including both Matsui and Hirota) and 1,054 Class B and Class C war criminals from the Tokyo Trials were all enshrined.3 The website also avoids explaining the ongoing controversy that erupts when Japanese political leaders choose to visit the shrine, and particularly when they visit on August 15—the day set aside to commemorate Japan’s surrender ending World War II.
In December 2013, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni shrine. One month later in January 2014, the New York Times reported:
On the surface, the Yasukuni compound offers a typical vignette of Japan, with its meticulously maintained gardens and the graceful movements of its Shinto priests. But just a short stroll from the main shrine, the visitor finds a consecration of lies and half-truths that tarnishes Japan’s post-1945 ascendancy: the Yasukuni War Museum.
Here are historical narratives that glorify Japan’s brutal colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the 1937 invasion of China, which involved the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. The attack on Pearl Harbor is even presented as contributing to “world peace.”
The museum also houses a memorial to the Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who was the sole judge on the postwar International Military Tribunal for the Far East to argue that all the Japanese defendants were not guilty. The message is clear: Japan fought for peace, fell victim to the more powerful Allies, and was served victor’s justice. . . .
Mr. Abe may have intended, as he said, simply to pray for the souls of his nation’s war dead. But in the eyes of the world, his pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine appeared a willful evocation of Japan’s pre-1945 imperialism and repudiation of its post-1945 legacy of peace.”4
- 1 : Justin McCurry, “China summons Japanese ambassador over war shrine visit,” The Guardian, October 18, 2013, accessed November 13, 2013.
- 2 : “About Yasukuni Shrine,” Yasukuni shrine website, accessed May 22, 2014.
- 3 : Class A war criminals were, generally speaking, leaders at the national level who conspired or ordered to wage aggressive war crimes against peace. Class B and Class C were those who committed war crimes such as the murder of POWs or crimes of omission. The Class A criminals enshrined at Yasukuni are Tojo Hideki, Hirota Koki, Doihara Kenji, Nagano Osami, Matsui Iwane, Matsuoka Yosuke, Muto Akira, Togo Shigenori, Koiso Kuniaki, Hiranuma Kiichiro, Kimura Heitaro, Itagaki Seishiro, Shiratori Toshio, and Umezu Yoshijiro.
- 4 : Sung-Yoon Lee, “Abe’s Profane Pilgrimage,” New York Times, January 6, 2014.