Yasukuni in spotlight as Aug. 15 nears

Low-profile Fukuda not expected to visit contentious Shinto shrine as he tries to keep relations with Asia positive


Aug. 15 marks the 63rd anniversary of the end of World War II. For the people of Japan, including relatives of the war dead, it is a day of remembrance and of peace.

And every year on this day, the spotlight shines on Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo — especially on whether the prime minister and Cabinet ministers will pay a visit to pray for those enshrined there.

Following are some questions and answers regarding the Chiyoda Ward landmark and its political nature:

When was Yasukuni Shrine built?

The shrine dates to the Meiji Restoration. At that time, Japan had been going through dramatic political and social upheaval that culminated in the Boshin War in 1868.

The civil war was fought between the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for more than 260 years and the Satsuma-Choshu alliance that sought to restore Imperial rule.

It ended in victory for the Imperial forces in 1869. To honor the memory of those who died fighting for the Imperial forces, Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) ordered the establishment of a shrine in Tokyo’s Kudan district. Initially called Shokonsha, the shrine was renamed Yasukuni in 1879.

What does Yasukuni Shrine mean?

The name represents Emperor Meiji’s “wishes for preserving peace for the nation.” The spirits of the war dead are enshrined and “worshipped as venerable divinities of Yasukuni,” according to the shrine.

Who manages it?

Until the end of World War II, Yasukuni was a state-sponsored religious institution, run by the Ministry of War and the Ministry of the Navy. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation Forces ordered a ban on state Shinto.

By law, Yasukuni Shrine today is an independent religious corporation under the jurisdiction of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Who is enshrined at Yasukuni?

There are currently about 2.47 million people enshrined there, all of whom “sacrificed their lives to the public duty of protecting their motherland,” the shrine’s Web site says. Historical figures in the closing days of the Edo Period, including Sakamoto Ryoma and Yoshida Shoin, are among those honored.

Most of those enshrined are soldiers who died in wars, including the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World Wars I and II. Civilians, including women who took part in relief operations on battlefields, are also honored.

Much of the political and diplomatic controversy, however, centers on the 1978 enshrinement of the 14 wartime leaders convicted as Class-A war criminals after World War II, including Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Also, an estimated 27,000 Taiwanese and 21,000 Koreans who died as “Japanese” soldiers during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan are enshrined at Yasukuni, according to the shrine.

Lawsuits have been filed by relatives of some of these Koreans and Taiwanese, seeking so far in vain to have the shrine strike the names of their kin.

Why are prime minister visits to Yasukuni contentious?

One reason is that under the postwar Constitution, the government and related organizations must not be involved in religious activities. Article 20 of the Constitution, which was drafted during the Allied Occupation, stipulates the separation of religion and the state.

“Under (the Constitution), the state or related organizations cannot take part in any sort of religious activities, and this leads to the notion that prime minister visits to Yasukuni Shrine are unconstitutional,” said Tetsuya Takahashi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo graduate school of arts and sciences.

Since August 2001, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid the first of six visits to Yasukuni over his 5 1/2 years in office, several lawsuits have been filed.

The Fukuoka District Court in April 2004 and the Osaka High Court in September 2005 ruled that Koizumi’s 2001 visit was unconstitutional, although the Supreme Court has avoided making a constitutional judgment in any of the suits.

Also, visits by the nation’s leaders to Yasukuni, which is viewed by many as a symbol of Japan’s wartime militarism, is a contentious issue in other parts of Asia where memories of Japanese aggression and colonial rule still haunt relations. The fact that such visits also honor people convicted of war crimes after the war only adds to the contentiousness.

China and South Korea have strongly protested prime minister visits since Yasuhiro Nakasone paid an “official” visit to Yasukuni in 1985.

Relations with China were severely strained during Koizumi’s stint over his repeated visits to Yasukuni.

Are there people who want the prime minister to visit the shrine?

Conservative lawmakers and organizations such as the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association have been strong advocates for official visits by the prime minister.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, the Liberal Democratic Party repeatedly tried to pass a bill to return the shrine to state ownership. Since the 1980s, members of a group of lawmakers, including members of the LDP and the opposition camp, have visited the shrine every Aug. 15.

Have many prime ministers have visited Yasukuni since the war?

Shigeru Yoshida, Nobusuke Kishi and Kakuei Tanaka repeatedly visited the shrine during their times in office.

But Takeo Miki in 1975 became the first postwar prime minister to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the most contentious day, followed by Takeo Fukuda, father of current Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. Both Miki and Takeo Fukuda stressed that they paid the visits in their capacity as private individuals, not as public figures.

Nakasone in 1985 made it clear he was visiting the shrine in his official capacity. The visit stirred domestic scorn and rankled China, which resulted in no prime minister visits to Yasukuni for 11 years until Ryutaro Hashimoto went in 1996.

Koizumi declared his intention to visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15 as a campaign pledge during the LDP’s presidential election in 2001. As prime minister, however, he paid the Aug. 15 visit only once — in his final year in office in 2006. On other occasions, he chose other dates to visit in an apparent attempt to ease the diplomatic row with China.

What is Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s position on Yasukuni visits?

Fukuda is considered relatively conciliatory toward Japan’s neighbors.

During his LDP presidential campaign last year, he announced his intention to avoid visiting Yasukuni as prime minister.

“Would you do something your friend doesn’t want you to do? I don’t think so,” Fukuda said at a news conference last September when he declared his candidacy. “That goes for relationships between countries, too. I don’t think it is necessary to do something that another (country) doesn’t want you to do.”

Are there any discussions afoot to resolve the issue?

One idea is to remove the names of the Class-A war criminals — a major source of the anger on the part of China — from those enshrined at Yasukuni and have them honored at a separate body. Their inclusion at the shrine didn’t come until the 1970s.

Another idea is to build a nonreligious facility to honor the war dead. A special government panel was formed in 2001 — headed by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukuda under Koizumi — to discuss establishment of such a facility. One year later, the panel issued a report saying “a national nonreligious permanent facility to pay tribute to the war dead and pray for peace is necessary,” but “a final decision is up to the government.”

A nonpartisan group of lawmakers headed by LDP lawmaker Taku Yamasaki was formed in November 2005 to consider building a new national memorial.

To this day, however, no such institution has been established and no active discussion appears to be going on in political circles.

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