Experts face off on prime minister visits to Yasukuni Shrine

State, religion must not mix if Japan is to shed negative prewar legacies

by Reiji Yoshida

Prime ministers must not visit Yasukuni Shrine if the constitutional principle of separation of state and religion is to be observed, according to an expert on Yasukuni issues at the University of Tokyo.

This principle, professor Tetsuya Takahashi said in a recent interview with The Japan Times, is the most important discipline for a democratic Japan in getting rid of the negative legacies of its prewar Imperial system.

“This is a matter that takes priority over diplomatic issues with China or South Korea,” argued Takahashi, the author of the recent best seller “Yasukuni Mondai” (“Yasukuni Issues”).

Visits by prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine have long been a source of controversy both at home and abroad, as it was a spiritual pillar of Japan’s emperor-centered nationalism during its wars in the 1930s and ’40s.

Takahashi argues that the shrine played a critical role as a “device” for the prewar state to mobilize the people for war under the political system centering on the emperor.

He described the shrine as playing an “alchemic” role — it turned the sorrow of the bereaved families of dead soldiers into religious joy by glorifying them as martyrs who died for the state centered on the emperor, who was worshipped as a Shinto god.

“For Japan, the separation of state and religion (in the postwar) Constitution is designed to liberate the country from state Shintoism and establish a democratic state with sovereignty residing with the people,” Takahashi said.

“This must be followed strictly, given Japan’s history,” he said, adding that the protests of China and South Korea over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the shrine make sense because they suffered greatly from Japan’s aggression.

Koizumi has often argued that his visits are an expression of the “natural emotion” among Japanese to pay tribute to the war dead.

But Takahashi maintains that the main function of Yasukuni, which was directly managed by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy before the end of the war, is not to respect the feelings of the bereaved or the war dead, but to honor the soldiers for the sake of the state itself.

Indeed, Yasukuni Shrine enshrines and honors in the Shinto tradition all military personnel who died while in service, regardless of the political or religious creeds of the soldiers or their families.

Some Christians and Buddhists have called on Yasukuni to stop enshrining their dead relatives, but the shrine has refused.

“It was more important for the shrine, as a state device, to recruit new soldiers” than respect the feelings of the soldiers or the families, Takahashi said.

A state which exercises military force always needs such an “alchemic” device to honor and glorify the military personnel who died for the state, Takahashi said.

He also pointed out that shortly before his “official” visit to Yasukuni in 1985, then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone argued that no one would be willing to “devote his or her life for the state” if there was no national memorial for fallen soldiers.

Koizumi spoke along similar lines when he dispatched Ground Self-Defense Force units to Iraq in December 2003, saying he hopes the nation will “respect and thank” the troops, Takahashi noted.

In that sense, Takahashi is wary of the concept of a new, secular national war memorial to replace Yasukuni, saying that the state could become politically motivated to use it to honor soldiers and exercise military force abroad.