In Japan, August is a time to remember World War II. Huge gatherings were held Friday in Hiroshima and Monday in Nagasaki to mark the atomic bombings. Then, on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender, the late Emperor Hirohito’s son will offer his annual prayer for peace.
But at a war shrine just outside the Imperial Palace moat, a battle rages over how to honor those who died in uniform.
Built and supported by the militarist government before the end of World War II in 1945, Yasukuni Shrine was a monument to Japan’s war machine, the place to pray for victory and to pay homage to the nation’s fallen soldiers.
Though stripped of its government sanction, Yasukuni remains the closest thing Japan has to a national cemetery. But because of the shrine’s historical baggage, official visits spark howls of outrage each year from China, the Koreas and other nations across Asia. Efforts to replace it with a less provocative site, meanwhile, have repeatedly been shot down by conservatives.
“There was a promise during the war that if a soldier died in fighting, he would be enshrined at Yasukuni,” said Makoto Numazawa of the Japan Bereaved Families Association, a powerful lobbying group that represents relatives of the war dead. “We should stick to that promise.”
Japanese officials tend to agree.
“It isn’t clear right now whether the public wants a new facility,” said Shinji Ogawa, an adviser to the Cabinet Office. Ogawa is responsible for following up on recommendations made by a government-appointed panel three years ago on the establishment of a national cemetery and peace monument.
After a year of meetings, the panel’s final position was neither for nor against the creation of a new facility. The issue has since been put on a back burner.
“This isn’t something the government should do unilaterally,” Ogawa said. “This is something many people feel very strongly about.”
Yasukuni sees frequent visits not only by the relatives and descendants of the 2.5 million Japanese soldiers who have died since Japan modernized in the late 19th century, but also by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other top politicians.
Such patronage has long been a flash point between Japan and its Asian neighbors, who still harbor bitter memories of Japan’s militarist expansion and see the continued use of the shrine as evidence Japan has yet to really atone for past wrongs.
It also rankles many Japanese, who are uncomfortable with both the shrine’s militarist image and its lingering association with state Shinto, a nationalistic version of Japan’s native religion that was official dogma until the surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Until the end of the war, Christians, Buddhists and other religious minorities were severely repressed.
“During World War II, our founding president was arrested and died in prison for his opposition to state Shinto. We are therefore very sensitive to any act that threatens to breach the wall separating church and state,” said Kunishige Maeda, a spokesman for Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist group with 10 million members in Japan. “We favor the establishment of a nonsectarian memorial.”
Adding to the controversy, priests decided in the 1970s to add Class-A war criminals, including wartime leader Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, to the names of the spirits worshipped at Yasukuni.
Even so, Koizumi, whose party relies on the relatives’ association and other conservative groups for votes, has been a major advocate of bolstering Yasukuni’s profile.
Though he has avoided visiting Yasukuni on the surrender anniversary itself — the official ceremony is held in the nearby Budokan martial arts arena — Koizumi has paid his respects there four times since taking office in April 2001.
The Fukuoka District Court ruled earlier this year that he violated the constitutionally mandated separation of religion and state on his first visit because he was deemed to have worshipped in his official capacity as prime minister and not as a private citizen.
Undaunted, Koizumi has vowed to continue the practice.
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