Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December stirred outrage at home and abroad because he was perceived as promoting his revisionist views on wartime history and violating the constitutional separation of state and religion.
A host of countries, including the United States and Russia, expressed disappointment with Abe’s unexpected visit, but the most vociferous protests came from China and South Korea, which experienced Japanese aggression first-hand during the war and remain angry with Japan over territorial and other historical issues.
The U.S. and other countries previously warned Abe not to visit the shrine to avoid exacerbating its already tense diplomatic relations with Beijing and Seoul. Yet visiting Yasukuni as prime minister was a personal goal of Abe, who said he regretted not doing so during his first, short stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.
Let’s take a closer look at the Yasukuni controversies.
Why was the shrine built?
Yasukuni was built in 1869 originally to enshrine soldiers who fought for the Imperial forces during the Boshin War, a civil war between the Tokugawa shognate, which had ruled the country for more than 260 years, and the Satsuma-Choshu alliance, which wanted to restore Imperial rule. It was originally called Tokyo Shokonsha but was changed to Yasukuni Shrine in 1879.
Who are enshrined?
Yasukuni enshrines more than 2.4 million spirits of the war dead, including soldiers who fought in the Seinan civil war and all the expeditionary wars after the Boshin War. More than 86 percent of those enshrined died in the Greater East Asia War, the term adopted by the Cabinet to refer to both the war Japan waged in China from the early 1930s and the Pacific War. The shrine only honors the fallen, and holds no remains.
Yasukuni’s main shrine, the “honden,” honors only the Kangun, or those who died fighting for the Imperial side in the Boshin War. This standard was applied to those who fought and died in all the wars that followed.
Soldiers court-martialed in Japan and executed are not enshrined. Yasukuni also does not enshrine private citizens killed in war.
Prime ministers who visited the shrine have said they were doing so to pay homage to the spirits of the war dead who contributed to the country, but they were criticized because the main shrine doesn’t hold everyone.
To deflect such criticism, Abe visited the smaller Chinreisha (Spirit Pacifying Shrine) at Yasukuni. Chinreisha was built in 1965 to enshrine those excluded from the honden, including those who fought against the Imperial forces in the Boshin War. It is also dedicated to all war dead regardless of nationality.
But no emperor has visited Yasukuni since at least 1978 to protest the fact that its priests secretly enshrined Class-A war criminals there.
What was Yasukuni’s role before Japan lost World War II?
Before the end of the war, the state-owned Shinto institution was run by the Ministry of War and the Ministry of the Navy.
Critics say Yasukuni’s original role was to console the war dead. But it later glorified their achievements by hosting national memorials at around the time Japan went to war with China in the 1890s, creating the myth that dying for the country is beautiful.
Tetsuya Takahashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s department of philosophy, calls this shift an “alchemy of the emotion” to transform the sad feelings of the next of kin and the fears of the soldiers into happiness.
“This mechanism to beautify the act of sacrificing their lives in the war for the sake of the Emperor worked very well to prevent the public from holding disaffection against the government.”
Newly recruited soldiers, knowing they would soon face death, would often bid farewell before going off to war by saying: “See you at Yasukuni!”
What were Abe’s reasons for visiting the shrine?
Abe has repeatedly said his visit was not to pay homage to war criminals but to pledge to pursue eternal peace. He also said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month that he did not think there are any war heroes and that he only visited to console and thank those spirits.
But observers say Abe’s visit reflects his revisionist views on history, including his objection to the common notion that Japan waged a war of aggression.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Allied Occupation authorities banned state Shinto, which treated the emperor as a god. But Yasukuni continued to console and reward the war dead, including Class-B and -C war criminals. In 1978, it secretly added 12 Class-A criminals and two accused war criminals who died in prison before their cases were ruled on by the Tokyo tribunal.
“For Yasukuni, the biggest mission is to console and reward the war dead. But another mission is to support the idea that the Greater East Asia War was not a war of aggression but a self-defensive war that helped other (parts of Asia) become independent from the colonial powers,” said Takahashi, referring to Yushukan, the war museum at Yasukuni that promotes the idea.
Why are shrine visits diplomatically contentious?
The problems started in 1979 after the Asashi Shimbun revealed that the Class-A war criminals and suspects had been enshrinied the previous year.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone made an official visit and bowed before the spirits of the war criminals, when China grew angry and started to question Japan’s interpretation of its war responsibility.
Would delisting the top criminals appease Beijing and Seoul?
There has been much debate on separating the Class-A war criminals. Ever since diplomatic relations were established in 1972, China has maintained that only a handful of militarist leaders were responsible for the war and that the general public should not be held accountable. That is why China started to criticize Yasukuni for enshrining them after Nakasone’s official visit.
But Yasukuni has made it a rule not to delist anyone enshrined. It has also rejected demands from Korean and Chinese people to remove the names of relatives listed as the spirits of Japanese war dead.
“The issue of the Class-A criminals only represents Yasukuni’s stance (over the aggression aspect of the war),” said Shiro Akazawa, a professor emeritus at the Ritsumaikan University. “But actually it is the issue of how Yasukuni or the Japanese people reflect on that history.”
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