YASUKUNI: The War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past, edited by John Breen. London: Hurst Publishers, 2007, 202 pp., £25 (cloth)

Yasukuni Shrine resonates powerfully in contemporary Asia, dividing Japanese and alienating regional neighbors. In April, some conservative Japanese politicians’ criticisms of the controversial documentary about Yasukuni by a Chinese filmmaker created an intimidating atmosphere that led several movie theaters to cancel showings of the film. Thanks to the publicity unwittingly generated by these conservatives, the film played to packed houses.

This fine collection of nine essays under review helps explain why Yasukuni is so controversial. John Breen from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London provides readers with a range of views about Yasukuni, including three contributions that are sympathetic to official visits by the prime minister and critical of the way that the Shinto shrine has been used to hammer Japan over its shared history with Asia. These essays are the weakest in the volume, but do give readers a chance to explore some of the feeble, fatuous and contradictory arguments often invoked by Yasukuni’s apologists.

The international controversy over Yasukuni reached a feverish pitch under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006), who visited the shrine six times. Breen examines revelations in 2006 that the Showa Emperor stopped visiting Yasukuni because of the enshrinement of 14 Class “A” war criminals in 1978. This imperial initiative undermines the apologists’ arguments, who all fail to come to terms with this renunciation of Yasukuni by its erstwhile head priest.

Breen also draws our attention to the desire by many bereaved families to have their family members dis-enshrined and the refusal of shrine authorities to countenance such an action. It turns out that in contravention of the constitutional separation of the state from religion, health and welfare ministry bureaucrats provided Yasukuni with the names and details of Japan’s war dead in order to facilitate their enshrinement.

Ethnic Koreans, Taiwanese and Okinawans, along with many Japanese, bristle at the nonconsensual enshrinement of their relatives and still lobby for their liberation from a shrine that symbolizes a vindicating and valorizing narrative of the war. Interestingly, some conservative politicians are seeking removal of the Class A war criminals as a way of making the shrine suitable for a resumption of imperial visits.

It is clear to all but the apologists that Yasukuni resonates with talismanic symbolism and is the nexus where the cult of the emperor, imperial expansion and militarism became inextricably intertwined. Although apologists seek to downplay, deny or otherwise minimize the historical baggage of Yasukuni, it is precisely because of this that the site has become such a fierce battleground. Apologists’ sophistry notwithstanding, visits to Yasukuni by Japanese leaders are not principally about honoring the war dead or exercising religious freedom — they are meant to convey a political message.

Kevin Doak emphasizes the essential religious nature of Yasukuni, but argues that from his perspective as a Catholic, official visits to this shrine by government leaders do not violate the Constitution. Indeed, Doak wishes that Koizumi had visited Yasukuni on a weekly basis. He also rejects an alternative site for honoring the war dead, suggesting that a secular site would be an insult to both those who made the ultimate sacrifice and their surviving families.

That many of the families whose relatives were enshrined at Yasukuni against their wishes feel insulted is not Doak’s concern. Along with two other apologist contributors, Hei Seki and Hitoshi Nitta, Doak argues that China’s atheistic leaders are incapable of truly understanding the sacred nature of Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni and congratulates him for avoiding the trap of secularism. One wonders, however, why visiting Yasukuni only became a passion for Koizumi after becoming prime minister. Interestingly, Doak confesses that he has not visited the refurbished Yushukan museum located on the Yasukuni grounds that highlights the political agenda of shrine visits and yet he feels qualified to assert, “How one comes to terms with Yasukuni is fundamentally a question of how one come to terms with the sacred.”

For the other contributors there is no doubt that Yasukuni glorifies past wars of aggression. For Wang Zhixin, it is also a symbol of modern Japan’s lack of contrition over its Asian rampages.

Tetsuya Takahashi warns against renationalizing Yasukuni because it would facilitate a resumption of emperor visits. He suggests that narrowly focusing on the issue of the Class A war criminals minimizes the scope of Japan’s war responsibility. John Breen draws our attention to the Yusuhukan museum and the absence of the enemy in the exhibits. He argues, ” What the absence achieves splendidly is an amnesia of perpetration, of defeat, and, above all, of the horror of war.”

Philip Seaton concludes this intriguing volume by examining media coverage of Koizumi’s visits and the reasons for eroding public support for official Yasukuni worship. He attributes this declining support to a split among conservatives over the visits.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.

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