Last week’s discovery of a memorandum recording the words of the Emperor Showa explaining why he stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine will exert considerable influence on the debate over Japanese publicly remembering Japan’s war dead, while praying for peace, in a manner acceptable both to Japanese and to foreign peoples and governments.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni have chilled Japan’s relations with neighboring countries, especially China and South Korea, because the shrine honors not only 2.46 million Japanese war dead but also 14 Class-A war criminals.

The memorandum was written and left by the late Mr. Tomohiko Tomita, who served the late Emperor as Imperial Household Agency grand steward. Written in the 1980s, it offers clues to the late Emperor’s thoughts on war and peace, and his opinion of some of Japan’s wartime leaders.

An entry dated April 28, 1988, shows that the Emperor Showa was strongly displeased with Yasukuni Shrine’s decision to enshrine the 14 war criminals in October 1978, and that this act prompted him to stop visiting the shrine following eight postwar visits. His last visit had been in 1975. The current Emperor has not visited Yasukuni since his enthronement in 1989.

In the memorandum, the Showa Emperor says: “At some point, the Class-A war criminals were enshrined. Even Matsuoka and Shiratori (were enshrined) too.” This was a reference to Wartime Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka and Toshio Shiratori, who became ambassador to Italy in 1938. Both were vocal proponents of the Tripartite Pact that joined Japan, Germany and Italy as allies.

Referring to Fujimaro Tsukuba, a former head priest at Yasukuni who refused to enshrine the war criminals, the late Emperor wrote, “I heard that Tsukuba acted cautiously.” But he has harsh words for Nagayoshi Matsudaira, the Yasukuni head priest who decided to enshrine the war criminals. “What was on the mind of the current chief priest, the son of (former Imperial Household Minister Yoshitami) Matsudaira? He (enshrined the Class-A war criminals) in such an easygoing manner.” The Showa Emperor also says: “I believe that (the father) Matsudaira had a strong wish for peace. But I think that the child didn’t understand what was in the father’s heart.” The crucial comment follows: “That’s why I have not visited (Yasukuni) since then. This is the state of my heart.”

Under the postwar Constitution, the Showa Emperor had no political authority or power. It is also against the spirit of the Constitution to use the Emperor, including his remarks, for political purposes. Even so, the Emperor Showa’s remarks on Yasukuni carry great weight because they came from the commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, under whose name people were drafted into military service and died.

In view of the historical fact that the purpose of Yasukuni Shrine was to honor those who dedicated their lives in war for the sake of the Emperor Meiji and his successors, it is ironic that the Emperor Showa stopped visiting the shrine, almost severing the ties that existed between the Imperial Family and the shrine. His remarks must have shocked the shrine.

Asked for comment on the Emperor Showa’s remarks recorded in Mr. Tomita’s memorandum, Mr. Koizumi said they will not influence his decision on whether he visits Yasukuni in the future. He said it is a matter of one’s heart. But is it not inappropriate for the top political leader of the nation to just brush aside the Yasukuni issue as a matter of “one’s heart”?

For one thing, his repeated Yasukuni visits have caused Japan’s relations with neighboring countries to deteriorate. More importantly, the Yasukuni issue concerns how Japanese leaders view the nation’s modern wars. This view will affect other countries’ perception of the basic nature of present-day Japan — that is, whether it has learned from its past mistakes.

In an attempt to solve the Yasukuni issue, several proposals have been aired by politicians, such as enshrining the Class-A war criminals at a separate facility, building a nonreligious national monument for mourning the war dead, or expanding and upgrading the Chidorigafuchi cemetery housing the remains of unknown soldiers so that foreign dignitaries can visit it.

The true solution to the Yasukuni issue will come only when discussions seriously delve into the historical role the shrine played as a spiritual and ideological apparatus for mobilizing citizens for Japan’s wars of aggression. From the viewpoint of those who lost loved ones in action, it must be remembered that, traditionally, the main purpose of Yasukuni was to praise and beautify the act of dying for the state and the emperor, rather than to console the souls of the war dead.

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