At one time, Toshiaki Nambu was just an ordinary employee at Dentsu Inc., the nation’s top advertising agency, working with such clients as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

But this fall, he became the chief priest at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, famous for the enshrinement of convicted war criminals along with the nation’s war dead.

Despite having no prior experience in religious work, he now heads the 135-year-old shrine, which often finds itself at the center of political and diplomatic controversies.

“Why me?” was the first thing that crossed his mind when he was offered the post in October 2003, said the 69-year-old Nambu in a recent interview with The Japan Times. Until then, he had not been deeply involved in Shinto activities.

But there was a good reason for his nomination.

An in-house committee at Yasukuni Shrine, which has strong ties to the Imperial family, was looking for a new chief priest from a former peerage family.

Nambu is the 45th head of his family, which had been headed by feudal lords and was part of the peerage system that was abolished after World War II.

Nambu was surprised by the nomination and, given the role’s heavy responsibilities, he was reluctant to accept it.

But at a party for families of the former peerage, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko encouraged him, and that convinced him to accept.

“I thought — I can’t escape,” Nambu recalled.

At the time, he was running a real estate business and was a board member at various public organizations. All this was after he quit Dentsu in 1983 with 25 years of service under his belt.

He became the chief priest — which he likens to a company president — in September.

One of his jobs is organizing Shinto ceremonies that often include such important guests as members of the Imperial family.

Before beginning his spiritual duties every morning, Nambu ritually washes himself with water and changes into his white priest’s clothing, a ceremony that signifies the purification of his body and soul.

Yasukuni Shrine’s predecessor was established in 1869 to enshrine the Imperial soldiers who died in the civil war between the Imperial Army and the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ended the Edo Period.

The shrine, located near the Imperial Palace, now enshrines 2.47 million who died in wars for their country.

But what puts the shrine at the center of controversy is that it was the nation’s spiritual pillar during World War II and now includes 14 Class-A War criminals who were convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which convened from 1946 to 1948, and were hanged or died in prison.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has visited the shrine every year since taking office in 2001.

His visits have drawn strong criticism from China and South Korea, where memories of the old militaristic Japan remain strong. The top leaders of Japan and China have not made a visit to the other’s country for a bilateral summit for more than three years.

But Nambu defends Koizumi.

“My wish is that the prime minister’s visits will take root and give courage” to the nation, Nambu said.

“We must nurture patriotism among the young because a country without patriotism will only perish,” he stressed.

Conservative politicians who defend Japan’s wars of the 1930s and 1940s often argue that all prime ministers must visit the shrine to show respect for the war dead.

Opponents at home and abroad argue that such visits detract from Japan’s war responsibility and violate Article 20 of the Constitution, which stipulates separation of state and religion.

But Nambu said these critics do not understand traditional Japanese culture, which he maintains forgives the sins of all people once they die.

The Class-A war criminals took responsibility for their roles in World War II when they were hanged, he said.

“A samurai apologizes for his sins by performing hara-kiri,” the priest said. “They die to atone for their sins. That’s the tradition of Bushido (the way of the samurai), the spiritual culture of Japan.

“Chinese people are different. They would punish even the dead.”

Some politicians concerned about the international rows over Yasukuni say the war criminals should be enshrined in a separate location.

But Nambu sees no problem with having war criminals at his shrine, saying they should be treated the same as the others.

The international controversy aside, Nambu faces other big problems.

Nearly 60 years after the end of the war, an increasing number of veterans and the contemporary relatives of the war dead — the shrine’s main moral and financial supporters — are dying every year.

He also cited the nation’s declining birthrate as a major problem, because Yasukuni relies heavily on money from ordinary visitors, many of whom come to pray for good luck and their kids’ health.

“I’m not optimistic about the future,” he said.

To increase the number of visitors and lure more young people, the shrine has started a New Year’s visit advertising campaign.

Asked if a shrine nowadays needs to be “business savvy” to survive, Nambu replied, “Yes, of course. I think I have accepted (this job) at a very important point” in the history of Yasukuni Shrine.