Staff writer Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says he simply wants to pay his respects for those who died for Japan.

But unlike in other nations, where leaders pay their official respects to their war dead as a matter of course, the mere mention of an official visit to Yasukuni Shrine draws fire from inside the country and out. Koizumi’s highly controversial planned visit on the 56th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, would be the first of its kind since 1985.

Yasukuni, in the Kudan district of Chiyoda Ward, is dedicated to the spirits of the approximately 2.4 million Japanese who have died since 1853 in the nation’s wars — more than 80 percent of them in the last war, plus several convicted of war crimes by a postwar international tribunal.

It was originally established in 1869 as Shokonsha (shrine for inviting spirits), in line with the wishes of Emperor Meiji to honor those who died fighting against the Tokugawa shogunate to re-establish Imperial rule. At that time, it was placed under the jurisdiction of the military.

In 1879, Shokonsha was renamed Yasukuni Jinja — literally, shrine for establishing peace in the country.

Meijo University professor emeritus Kiyoshi Haraguchi, who specializes in modern Japanese history, said one major characteristic of Yasukuni is that it enshrined only those who died fighting for the Emperor.

“Before the creation of Shokonsha, it was customary in Japan to enshrine all war dead — both friend and foe. However, only those who fought and died for the Emperor and the Imperial system were qualified to be enshrined at Shokonsha,” he said.

Thus, warriors who died defending the Tokugawa shogunate were not enshrined there. “Even a national hero like Saigo Takamori (a key leader in the overthrow of the shogunate and subsequent establishment of the Meiji government) is not enshrined because he fought against the authority” in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion.

Yasuo Ohara, a professor at Kokugakuin University, argues that the shrine should not be singled out as different from other countries’ ways of honoring their war dead.

“Before, during and after the war, Yasukuni has always been the central venue for mourning the war dead, and that is a fact, a national consensus,” the professor said.

“There is no difference whatsoever from (George W.) Bush or (Bill) Clinton visiting Arlington National Cemetery (as U.S. presidents). It is a common practice in every nation that religion is involved, or used in the military or at times of war.”

He further asserted that, as the shrine is 100 percent funded by public donations, a visit by the prime minister would be in line with the people’s sentiments.

State and religion

Koizumi has explained that he wants to visit the shrine “out of my determination as prime minister that we should never wage war again.”

But Haraguchi argues that during the last war, Yasukuni, as a key pillar of state Shintoism, was widely used by the government as a tool to promote nationalism and militarism.

“There was a firm social rule that one must pledge complete allegiance to the Emperor. To die for the Emperor was an honor, rewarded by enshrinement as a god at Yasukuni,” Haraguchi said, noting that that message was taught from childhood at moral education classes.

“I was a soldier in Manchuria and China during the war, and clearly sensed that Yasukuni was made into a spiritual center to drive the minds of the people,” he said.

Koji Aoyagi, 68, a representative of a small group of about 30 relatives of war dead known as Southern Cross, said, “Soldiers were brainwashed into longing to go to Yasukuni (as spirits after death).”

He cited several wartime songs depicting Yasukuni and intended to calm the grief of people who lost loved ones in the war. One such example was “Mother of Kudan,” in which a mother, visiting the shrine to meet her son’s soul, cries in “overwhelming pride and joy” that he is “enshrined as a god in such a magnificent place, an honor he hardly deserves.”

However, as Aoyagi said, Yasukuni enshrines people who may not want to be there, including Korean and Taiwanese who were drafted to fight with the Imperial forces while their homelands were under colonial rule.

Amid the controversy surrounding Koizumi’s plan to visit Yasukuni, South Korea earlier this month officially demanded that Japan remove the names of such Koreans from the list of people honored at the shrine. More than 21,000 Koreans are reportedly enshrined there.

Aoyagi also pointed out that Yasukuni honors war dead whose religious principles clashed with Shintoism, including Christians. The shrine refuses requests to have such people removed from its list, saying it honors “all those who have died for Japan.”

After Japan’s defeat in 1945 and the subsequent Occupation ban on state Shintoism, Yasukuni was converted into a private religious organization.

The postwar Constitution prohibited the state from engaging in any religious activity. Article 89 banned state support of any religious institution.

War criminal controversy

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the shrine today is that it honors seven wartime leaders who were executed after being convicted as Class-A war criminals at the 1946-1948 Tokyo war crimes tribunal, held by the Allied Powers.

Each time a prime minister visits or tries to visit Yasukuni, China and South Korea protest that they cannot accept a Japanese leader paying respect to people who were held responsible for the atrocities committed against them.

But to Yasukuni, the very concept of “war criminal” is unacceptable.

A Yasukuni public relations official said the shrine cannot respond to questions from the media now because it is too preoccupied with preparations to receive worshippers on Aug. 15. He said the shrine’s position on the issue is shown on its official Web site.

One of the texts on the home page, titled “What do you mean by Class-A war criminals?” (“A-Kyu Senpan to ha Nanda”), written by a political association of Shinto priests called Shinto Seiji Renmei, says the shrine considers the Tokyo tribunal, in which the seven were convicted, as a revenge trial by the Allies.

While seemingly following international laws, the tribunal actually intentionally distorted and stretched its legal interpretations, the group claims.

The text goes on to explain that war criminals are not recognized as criminals in Japan in the same sense as those convicted under the legal system.

The text says Yasukuni undertook the procedures to honor the Class-A criminals after the government decided to grant war veterans’ pensions also to the families of war criminals in the mid-1950s.

“At that time, the rights of all the war dead, including Class-A, B and C war criminals, were effectively restored, with the government treating them as equal to all those who died in public service, in terms of government support and pensions,” the text says. “Thus, as a matter of course, Yasukuni needed to enshrine them with the rest of the war dead.”

The Japan War Bereaved Association, by far the largest among various groups of relatives of the war dead, made up of an estimated 1.04 million households, has meanwhile demanded each year that the prime minister visit the shrine on Aug. 15.

Public relations staff said the association currently does not comment to the press.

The association has maintained close ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto once served as chairman of the association.

A 62-year-old female member of the group, who asked not to be identified, said that branch offices of the association work as a vote-gathering machine for the LDP.

The woman, whose father is believed to have died in combat in New Guinea, said relatives of the war dead are often pressured to support the longtime ruling party to ensure they keep receiving veterans pensions — as if otherwise the payments might cease.

Some place is needed

Both supporters and critics of Yasukuni appear to agree on one point — that people need a place to pay their respects to the war dead.

Aoyagi of Southern Cross said there should be a nonreligious cemetery like the national grave at Chidorigafuchi, which was built in 1959 to accommodate the remains of approximately 350,000 unknown soldiers who died in the war.

“Both Japanese political leaders and foreign guests would be able to visit such a grave, because there would be no (political or religious) issues involved.” Aoyagi said.

“But I cannot say that Chidorigafuchi should be the place, because it has a serious lack of space and the government is not taking good care of it. Every year new remains are collected by people sent over to the former battlefields. But the main charnel house at Chidorigafuchi was already full 10 years ago.

“The government created an extra area behind the main part to bury the newly found bones, but since no sign was put up to show that it was part of the grave, some people sat on the burial site to view cherry blossoms.”

Last fall a sign was finally installed at Chidorigafuchi, one of Tokyo’s most popular “sakura” viewing spots.

Kakunosuke Akiyama, 67, is leader of a group of relatives of people killed in the Makabi Air Raid Shelter, located near Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. He said each set of remains in Chidorigafuchi is squeezed into a 30-sq.-cm, 1.5-mm-high space.

“That’s not the way to treat the war dead,” Akiyama said, urging the government to identify remains with DNA tests and return them to relatives.

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