An invitation to then Emperor Akihito from Yasukuni Shrine to mark the 150th anniversary this year of its establishment was declined last fall by his aides, it was learned Tuesday.
The shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, contacted the Imperial Household Agency last September regarding a visit, according to officials at the two entities who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yasukuni is said to have cited examples of emperors who visited the Shinto shrine in Tokyo on its 50th and 100th anniversaries.
The rejection by the agency is seen as decreasing the likelihood that any emperor will visit the controversial shrine in the future.
Yasukuni is dedicated to millions of war dead but also honors more than a dozen individuals who were convicted of World War II war crimes. Past visits to the shrine by political leaders have infuriated countries that were victims of Japanese wartime aggression, especially China and South Korea.
The agency’s Board of Ceremonies replied to Yasukuni that then-Emperor Akihito was busy preparing for succession rites prior to his abdication in April. It declined to pass on the message from the shrine to the agency’s chief, Shinichiro Yamamoto, or to the Board of Chamberlains, which handles the day-to-day activities of the imperial family, the officials said.
The shrine understood the reply as a “no,” and does not plan to approach the agency about a visit by Emperor Naruhito, said a Yasukuni staff member, adding, “We can only wait for his majesty to visit.”
“We are not in a position to make decisions or comment on such visits,” an official of the Board of Ceremonies said.
Founded in June 1869 at the will of Emperor Meiji, the shrine, originally called Shokonsha, first honored imperial loyalists who fought against the Tokugawa shogunate in the Boshin War.
Renamed Yasukuni in 1879, it now honors nearly 2.5 million soldiers and civilians who perished in wars.
Emperor Taisho visited the shrine in 1919 on its 50th anniversary, while Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, visited in 1969 for its 100th anniversary and again in 1975.
The visits stopped with the 1978 enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals including wartime prime minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last visited the shrine in December 2013. That visit brought Japan’s relations with China and South Korea to their lowest point in many years, and prompted criticism from the United States.
Some conservatives have called for the war criminals to be removed from Yasukuni to allow the emperor to visit, but the shrine has rejected the suggestion.
A number of civil lawsuits have also been filed in Japan over political leaders’ visits to the war-related shrine, claiming they violate the constitutional separation of state and religion.