It’s time Japan acted to end the war over Yasukuni Shrine



Every year around this time, in the run-up to the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in 1945, feverish speculation ensues about whether Japan’s top politicians will visit Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. Chinese and South Koreans — not to mention many Japanese — abhor such visits because the shrine honors the souls of 14 “Class A” war criminals. Visitors say they have every right to honor the 2.5 million other Japanese war dead celebrated at Yasukuni; they compare the shrine to the U.S. war cemetery at Arlington.

This is dangerous nonsense. Yasukuni is ground zero for an unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime aggression.

During World War II, the shrine served as the “command headquarters” of State Shinto, a religion that deified the emperor and mobilized Japanese subjects to fight a holy war at his behest. The private foundation that runs Yasukuni added the 14 most controversial “souls” — surreptitiously — in 1978.

The shrine’s political mission is on blatant display at the adjacent Yushukan museum, run by the same foundation. There, the Class A war criminals are portrayed as martyrs. Japan’s war in China is supposed to have suppressed banditry and terrorism, while its invasion of the rest of Asia is represented as a war of liberation from Western colonialism. Missing from the extensive exhibits are any mentions of the Rape of Nanjing, the awful experiments conducted by Unit 731 on prisoners of war, or the suffering endured by tens of thousands of “comfort women.”

The museum presents a selective and sly reinterpretation of Japan’s shared history with Asia — one that is antithetical to reconciliation, convinces few Japanese, and offends neighboring nations that endured the brunt of Japan’s imperial aggression.

Politicians who insist that they are only paying tribute to those who died for their country when they visit Yasukuni are not telling the truth.

If that’s all they wanted to do, they could walk five minutes down the road to Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which is, like Arlington, Japan’s officially designated war cemetery.

It is telling that Emperor Showa (Hirohito), once the head priest of State Shinto, confided to an aide that he stopped visiting Yasukuni after 1978 precisely because the shrine had been tainted by the presence of the Class A war criminals. This explicit politicization of the site also explains why his son, current Emperor Akihito, has maintained the imperial household’s embargo on visits.

Though he has refused to confirm that he won’t visit Yasukuni this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to spend Aug. 15 with the Emperor.

Abe aides have used this convenient excuse to suggest that a visit to the shrine is highly unlikely: Such a gesture would be a deliberate insult to the Imperial family.

Of course, Abe also knows firsthand that Yasukuni visits are a diplomatic dead end. His mentor, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, caused great damage to Japan’s regional interests by repeatedly going to Yasukuni between 2001 and 2006.

Trying to repair relations with Beijing and Seoul, Abe himself stayed away from the shrine during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007. He has said he regrets that decision. But he also knows that his legacy will be determined by his ability to revive Japan’s dormant economy — a task that will not be made any easier by alienating trade partners China and South Korea. Aside from stumbling over a question about aggression in Parliament, Abe has done himself and the nation a service by keeping history — not his best subject — at arm’s length.

Still, this ad-hoc strategy only keeps the controversy alive. Will members of Abe’s Cabinet and his party show up at Yasukuni on the 15th? Will Abe himself go during the Takayama Matsuri Autumn Festival, or next year? What if a slew of backbenchers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party turns up at the shrine en masse? The damage to Japan’s reputation and regional standing would likely be the same.

There have been sensible suggestions to dis-enshrine the 14 Class A war criminals. But Yasukuni’s head priest says this is impossible; enshrinement is permanent.

Indeed, hosting those souls is a point of pride for the shrine. Yasukuni is not about dignified homage; it is about scoring political points and drawing attention to revisionist history.

The only thing that Japan’s modern reactionaries regret about the war is defeat, and they are still fighting an uphill battle against Japanese public opinion to justify wartime Japan’s “noble mission.” No amount of sanitizing will change that.

The only way to end the controversy is to impose a moratorium on visits to Yasukuni by any serving Cabinet minister. This idea was first promoted several years ago by Ambassador Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather is one of the Class A war criminals enshrined there. Officials should honor Japan’s war dead at the official cemetery at Chidorigafuchi, not at a privately run propaganda center.

Abe’s rightwing views on history are well-known; they played a role in his abrupt and embarrassing fall from power in 2007. Intimates say that he is searching for redemption. What better way than to end the controversy over Yasukuni once and for all? The fact that he comes from the conservative camp would give any moratorium he declares added force, making it harder for any future prime minister to reverse the decision.

If Abe is truly looking for a new beginning — for himself, and for Japan’s relations with its neighbors — that’s where he should start.

Jeffrey Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan

  • JPOrwell

    The commentary above is totally misleading and does not Japanese sentiment at all and claims one- sided view of the victor’s occupation mind and analysis. Japanese nation has every right to pay respect to the war dead souls at the Yasukuni Shrine. Truly, who are the true war ciriminals? Terror bombings?
    Nuclear bomb attacks? The writer should read history books such as the Memoir of the 31st President Mr Herbert Hoover, Freedom Betrayed, which was found oout the hidden archives and now published three years ago. It is the day for us to pray for Peace and definitely not to pursue slanted political propaganda of self-righteousness. Japanese has never demanded even an apology for the atrocities during the wartime.

    • Guest

      Ah yes, the good old “other countries did/do it too, so it’s okay for us” excuse. Other countries did/do stupid/bad things, so it’s okay for Japan to do/have done them too!

    • Ben

      the true war criminals are those that started the war and ordered civilians to their deaths just so they could feel that they and their country were better. if people truly want to pay their respects to the dead souls they can do so at the nearby chidorigafuchi national cemetery, just as the article says. the only reason to choose yasukuni over chidorigafuchi is if one prefers a fancified version of the past.

      the invasion of okinawa cost 100,000 japanese soldiers dead and another 100,000 japanese civilians. the government plan was to send even more to their deaths in the hope the americans would give up as they advanced through honshu to the capital, but thankful the atomic bombs, terrible as they were, ended the war with far fewer dead.

      apologists love to focus on the atomic bombs as if they are the ultimate terror, yet conventional warfare was far more deadly to both sides, even without the resulting starvation and government-ordered mass suicides by hand grenade or throwing one’s children and oneself off the nearest cliff.

      • Whirled Peas

        Japan did not go to war because they “wanted to feel that they were better.” They went to war because they thought that was the only way they could obtain resources to feed their people and to protect their country from further military and social and ideological infringement by the western big powers. And of course, to go to war, leaders have to convince their citizens that their cause is righteous. Every country does this. I’m not saying it was the right thing to do (of course not), but you have to look at Japan’s actions in context. After various European “visitors” came to Japan and started exerting influence in 1500’s they began fighting among themselves and also tried to negotiate for various concessions from Japan. To forestall further ideological influence and suspected future military maneuvers by the westerners, the Japanese government enforced a policy of isolation that lasted 200 years (1635 -1853). During this isolation time, Japan was relatively self-sufficient and self-sustaining and Japanese culture flourished; At the same time, Japanbut did keep open some conduits to western ideas. Had Commodore Matthew Perry not forced Japan to open harbors and trade with the US in 1853, I think Japan might have out of necessity advanced their ability to be yet more self- sustaining and/or would eventually have come out of isolation on their own terms. And, the aftermath might have been very different! Perry’s gunboat diplomacy was a traumatic event for Japan, and it set in motion a chain of events leading to Japan’s eventual militarism. Of course to be fair Perry also set in motion the modernization of Japan, which on the whole is a good thing (I think). So Perry’s actions was the direct or indirect cause of the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor (who was to become the symbol of nationalism), the adoption of many western institutions (military (Britain’s), judicial, constitutional (Germany’s), legal, and educational) and the motivation for the Japanese to quickly catch up with the west. It was believed by many Japanese intellectuals during the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) that the only way to protect Japan from further incursions by western imperialists was to strengthen its economy and defenses and to do that Japan needed a “buffer zone.” Japan had serious worries that Korea would be taken over by Russia and ditto Manchuria and that the western powers in China would use China as a launching pad for further incursions into Japan. Japan was keen in particular on controlling western movement into Korea (the dagger pointing to Japan) and Manchuria. Again, I’m not saying ANY of this was right. I’m just saying there was a material basis for Japan’s actions; it was not because Japan wanted to be “better than other countries.” That is just psychobabble.

    • Simon Foston

      You should read today’s article about how a senior Japanese general claimed that supplies of oil and other key supplies wouldn’t run out when he did in fact know they probably would, thus helping to convince Japan’s leaders that war was a viable proposition.

    • skattan

      Unit 731? Bataan Death March? Sandakan? The Death Railway? Are these some of the atrocities that you are referring to?

  • Jay Wilson

    They have the right to honour the souls of those that died fighting for their country. The comparison to Arlington in the US is spot on

  • crandal

    Chidorigafuchi is indeed the proper place to pay respects. But perhaps they cannot do that because the proper place does not have the correct features; no support of whitewashing history, no supporting the attempt to restore the Emperor, and most importantly, no public kowtowing to the ultra-nationalist base.

    Even if the Japanese leaders believe that if they simply do not say that is why they go to Yasukuni, their actions speak louder.

  • vasu

    Isn’t it presumed so long a man in inform kills or dies in field of action the honorable but if a bit change of scenario with same impact and result brings out a complete opposite perception means the same honorable hero turns into despised criminal.

  • wrle

    why dont they just move the class A war criminals out of the shrine. It has been long debated by politicians in japan anyway. every country has the right to pay respect to their servicemen. japan just needs to get it sorted out.

  • Paul Midford

    Jeff Kingston is wrong about Chidorigafuchi, it is not the national war cemetery, it is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and thus does not honor all of Japan´s veterans. There have been proposals to turn Chidorigafuchi into a war memorial honoring all of Japan´s war dead, but that has not happened yet and Abe is opposed to the idea. On the other hand, Kingston is right about Japanese public opinion: opinion polls clearly show that it is very skeptical of right-wing revisionism.

    • Jeff Kingston

      No Paul Midford has it slightly wrong. The site is maintained by the national government and called the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery and is not known as, or designated as, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Like such Tombs it is where the unidentified remains of soldiers (more than 350,000) are kept, but it is an explicitly inclusive site for commemorating the Pacific War dead. When leaders elsewhere visit Tombs to the Unknown Soldier, they intend and are seen to pay tribute to all war dead and commemorate the tragedy of war; that is the de facto message at Chidorigafuchi too. Adjacent to where PM Abe yesterday laid flowers and bowed his head in prayer at Chidorigafuchi is a large map detailing where and how many soldiers died in that war. August 15th is the anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender and a time to pay homage to all its soldiers who died in that conflict, both unidentified and enshrined. Chidorigafuchi needs no legal sanction to serve a purpose that it is already serving. Yasukuni is a private religious facility with no official standing for commemorating the war dead.

  • zer0_0zor0

    People are still relatively uninformed of the fact that Yasukuni was established to honor those that died during the rebellion against the Tokugawa bakufu to restore the emperor: the so-called Meiji Restoration.

    What is significant here is that the LDP was originally formed by recruiting individuals that had played leading roles in the war and were in prison awaiting trial on war crimes. The were composed of individuals connected to the oligarchy that grew out of the Meiji Restoration, many hailing from the Satsuma-Choshu regions, such as Aso’s and Abe’s grandfathers.

    The history of the Shrine relating to its pre-WWI role is important but little understood or discussed.

  • Yamatosenkan

    “If that’s all they wanted to do, they could walk five minutes down the
    road to Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, which is, like Arlington,
    Japan’s officially designated war cemetery.”

    If only it were that simple. This cemetery is not the officially designated war cemetary but only for the missing. Importantly, it also has nothing to do with the war dead from the 1868 Boshin war, the Sino-Japanese Wars and the Russo-Japanese war etc.

    Japanese soldiers going off to the front used to say “We’ll meet at Yasukuni.” I am not denying there’s a lot of politics to visiting the shrine, but there is more to the shrine than political point scoring.