Fashion model Junko Amo made headlines on Aug. 15, 2002, when she initiated a visit to controversial Yasukuni Shrine with a group of some 180 people she met via 2channel, Japan’s biggest Internet forum.
Amo, now 35, said she developed strong feelings for the shrine after visiting Okinawa in her early 20s and read accounts left by members of the Himeyuri Gakutotai (Lily Corps), a nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army, who died or committed suicide during the battle of Okinawa in 1945.
“I was moved by the women who were around my age or younger and courageously fought and died,” the model said. “I wanted to pay respect to and recompense them and anyone who died in the war by visiting Yasukuni.”
The visits have since become part of a regular routine. For her, going to Yasukuni is no different than visiting a shrine or temple near her home. But at Yasukuni, she feels the power of some 2.4 million war dead who she thinks may help her whenever big events take place in her life.
When she got married in December, she visited the contentious shrine with her nationalist husband, Eiji Kosaka, a member of the Arakawa Ward Assembly in Tokyo. The local politician caused a stir by landing on the disputed Senkaku Islands in August 2012.
Amo is far from alone in visiting the shrine. Despite its controversial links to the war, officials at the Shinto institution told The Japan Times that visitors have been on the rise over the past several years, a trend especially notable for the number of young people. The shrine registered 305,000 visitors from New Year’s Day to Jan. 3, up 25,000 from 2013.
“The Japanese people feel World War II was not a good war by any means and know that we should not repeat that tragedy,” said Shiro Akazawa, a professor emeritus at Ritsumeikan University. “But it does not necessarily mean the general public feels it was responsible for the war.”
Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead along with several Class-A war criminals, illustrates how the public is struggling to come to terms with history. While some like Amo view Yasukuni as holy ground and a bastion of patriotism, others consider it a symbol of Japanese militarism for the feverish spiritual role it played in fueling Japan’s war of aggression.
Even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the shrine in December was criticized internationally, domestic public opinion was split over its legitimacy, mostly because the shrine glamorizes the Pacific War and claims it was conducted in self-defense.
A survey by the liberal Asahi Shimbun in December found strong support among young people for Abe, who has said he does not fully support the 1995 apology by then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that stated Japan waged a war of aggression. The poll found that 33 percent of respondents in their 20s and 26 percent in their 30s believe World War II was not a war of aggression.
The survey also found that 60 percent of respondents in their 20s said they supported Abe’s visit, as did 59 percent of those in their 30s. Asked whether they were aware Class-A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni, 43 percent of those in their 20s said they were unaware of the fact.
The Tokyo gubernatorial election last Sunday also underscored this rightward trend in the younger generation.
According to the Asahi’s exit polls, former Air Self-Defense Force Gen. Toshio Tamogami finished second among those in their 20s and 30s, trailing only Yoichi Masuzoe, who won on the strength of his endorsement by the ruling camp.
The campaign platform for Tamogami, who was drummed out of the ASDF after he published an essay that said Japan did not wage a war of aggression, was in line with Abe’s stance, and he publicly endorsed the conservative prime minister’s visit to Yasukuni.
“I don’t think Japan was the only nation deserving of blame,” said Hajime Saito, 28, who showed up for one of Tamogami’s stump speeches. “I am going to visit Yasukuni after this to renew my resolution for peace.”
Views of history like these might be attributed to the decline of the older generation, the people who lived through and remember the horror and destruction of the war. This, combined with the lack of a unified state evaluation of individual incidents from the war, is degrading history education in the schools.
There have been numerous court battles and other disputes over how textbooks should treat the war. In one case, the education ministry in 2007 made an about-face and decreed that new high school textbooks would no longer acknowledge that the Imperial Japanese Army was responsible for the atrocities documented against the civilian population in Okinawa.
Although the education ministry says the current curriculum should teach that Japan inflicted serious harm to Asian countries, the curriculum also says there are many historical aspects that are difficult to evaluate because some fundamental evidence remains classified and there are differing interpretations.
As a result, there are textbooks with differing interpretations of the war being used in junior high schools, including some that downplay crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese military.
Yuko Sanami, author of a book called “Joshi to Aikoku” (“Women and Patriotism”), a collection of anecdotes about women who engage in nationalistic activities like regular pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine, said many young people feel they weren’t given a complete accounting of the war in school.
The anchorwoman of Japanese Culture Channel Sakura, a conservative Internet TV site known for its nationalistic flavor, said she doesn’t remember learning in junior high school why Japan had to go to war. Instead, her teacher focused on the atrocities committed by Japanese troops.
“Many women are worried about the future of Japan’s history education and how their children perceive Japan’s history,” said Sanami, who noted that she learned about its other aspects by interacting with former soldiers she met while collecting the remains of soldiers who died overseas — her lifework.
“Yet as for visiting Yasukuni, I feel it is really difficult to come up with a peaceful solution for everybody, including the families of the war dead and people in Asian countries,” she said.
Educators also say students don’t have an incentive to take elective courses on modern Japanese history — meaning from the Meiji Era, which started in 1868 — because that critical period plays only a limited role in the all-important university entrance examinations.
Taking Japanese history isn’t mandatory in high school, either.
As a result, it is estimated that more than 30 percent of high school students graduate without taking a Japanese history class covering any period, leaving them only with whatever they learned in junior high school. Alarmed by this, Abe said he would consider making Japanese history a mandatory subject, noting that countries like China teach wartime history as a part of “patriotic education.”
While the media has highlighted Japan’s drift to the right since Abe took office in 2012, experts say the public has been slowly moving in that direction since the early 1990s, after the bubble economy imploded and left Japan stuck in a prolonged economic malaise.
“The wealth gap has become very wide among the Japanese people. There was much frustration, and the identity of being Japanese was lost during that time while China and South Korea started to emerge as economic powers,” said Tetsuya Takahashi, a philosophy professor at the University of Tokyo.
Takahashi also noted that it was around this time that Korean “comfort women” started suing the Japanese government for redress and an apology for forcing them to provide sex to Imperial Japanese soldiers during the war.
The Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which promotes nationalist views, was then launched in 1996. The group criticizes history education in postwar Japan as self-deprecating, downplays the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and denies the accounts of South Korean and other nationals on the comfort women issue.
“Such a view had been in the minority and the media did not really pay attention to it before the 1990s. Yet it has gathered more support since the mid-1990s,” Takahashi said. “Now it is culminating with the intensifying territorial disputes with China and South Korea.”
As a youth in the ’90s, Amo, the model, became frustrated with the way Japan had to keep apologizing for the war even though it had ended decades ago. She said she read all of the books she could find at the library and bookstores on the war, but even now believes that Japan did not wage a war of aggression.
“Somewhere in my mind, I have a longing for the pride of the Japanese people in the past,” said Amo, who was growing up when the economy was going down. “I feel Abe is trying to regain what we’ve lost.”
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