A Shintoist’s Guide to the Yasukuni Controversy

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in December, Yasukuni Shrine is once again a focus of international controversy. As the League’s only practicing Shinto, I have decided to put together a short primer on the issues surrounding the shrine, and what the controversy is driven by both domestically and internationally.

What is Yasukuni Shrine?

The area was first consecrated as the Tokyo Summoning Shrine of Departed Souls in 1868 as a place to  serve as a memorial to those who died in the service of the Emperor. Although the nuances of kami and the practice of matsuru of souls is somewhat difficult to translate into western terms, in essence, the new shrine was the first dedicated to the souls of soldiers of the post-Tokugawa Japan. In practice this made the shrine the de facto war memorial for the modern nation state of Japan.

Originally established as a military memorial, the Emperor formally consecrated the site as a proper shrine (in his role it should be noted as the head of the Shinto religion) in 1879, giving it its modern name of Yasukuni Jinja. In turn this consecration created the shrine as an independent entity with its own clergy. In practice, however, the site remained partly managed by the Department of the Interior and retained quasi-military governmental administration.

The shrine contains no physical remains, but is the place where the souls/spirits of 2,463,915 war dead are memorialized. The war dead date from the Boshin War/Meiji Restoration to the Second World War. The phrase “Let’s meet at Yasukuni” became a common refrain between soldiers in modern Japan. Sometimes it was used ironically as a way of saying “let’s regroup in hell”, but for the most part it was a measure of Yasukuni’s place in the hearts of Japanese soldiers that it was where they expected to go when they died.

Since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the new Japanese Constitution, Yasukuni Shrine was made an independent entity of the government. As an independent religious organization, it now operates without any input from the government.

What Are the Issues with Yasukuni?

The primary controversy surrounding Yasukuni is the fact that 14 A-class War Criminals were interred in the shrine in 1978 as the Showa Martyrs Memorial.

These 14 are Hideki Tojo, Seishiro Itagaki, Heitaro Kimura, Kenji Doihara, Akira Muto, Koki Hirota, Yoshijiro Umezu, Kuniaki Koiso, Kiichiro Hiranuma, Toshio Shiratori, Shigenori Togo, Osami Nagano, and Yosuke Matsuoka. They were considered to have died in the service of the state, and thus were chosen by the shrine’s priests to have their souls included in the memorial.

“Class A” War Criminals are those convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) of being part of the conspiracy to  start and wage war. As a whole the individuals convicted and sentenced to the heaviest sentences were those involved in the colonial occupation of China and Korea, with the associated atrocities. A number were also convicted on charges stemming from atrocities committed against prisoners of war during the conflict.

Because they are part of the Yasukuni Memorial, the act of a politician going to Yasukuni Shrine and paying tribute to the war dead is considered by a number of countries (the People’s Republic of China, Republic of Korea, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to be the equivalent of memorializing those 14 Class A war criminals. This is particularly notable when the politicians are either cabinet ministers or the prime minister.

The Showa Emperor (Hirohito) and his successor the current Emperor have refused official visits to the shrine since the inclusion of the 14. Although there were visits from Prime Ministers, the issue gained traction starting in 1985 when Prime Minister Nakasone visited the shrine. Since then it has become a plank of right wing politicians in Japan to conduct visits to the shrine when they feel they need to brush up on their bona fides.

Why Not Just Remove Those 14?

As a private religious institution, Yasukuni is protected by the freedom of religion clause in the Japanese constitution. Because the choice was made to include the infamous 14 as a private matter, for the state to intervene to force their removal would face a series of challenges in court.

From a religious perspective, the Yasukuni priests maintain that once a soul has been integrated into a shrine, that in practice it is impossible to simply separate it. Even in cases where shrines are divided to form new branches, the shrine’s kami is said to simply divide as a whole rather than separate specific elements.

What Do You Think About It?

As a Shintoist I find the inclusion of the 14 to be in bad taste, and I would prefer if the priests would find a way to remove them. The continued inclusion of them remains a problem from an international perspective, and it is something that needs to be addressed in some form if we’re to find closure on the subject. The bigger problem to me is the Yushukan and the Uyoku ultranationalist nutjobs who run the museum and throng the shrine every waking moment. These people are an embarrassment and we should firmly renounce them both officially and privately.

On the other hand, I am entirely sympathetic to the notion that we ought to pay respects to the war dead in general, and to refrain from doing so at all on the basis of those 14 feels wrong. As a practical matter, I think simply disinterring the 14 would probably be the easiest solution.

Finally, from a purely nationalistic impulse, I find it rather risible to have criticism about militarism or nationalism from countries that as a practical matter celebrate some of the greatest tyrants in human history. Whether this is China’s criticisms despite their own veneration of Mao, or Russia with Stalin. Further, this seems ridiculous coming from Europeans or Americans, the former of whom celebrate colonial warlords with no sense of irony (from Columbus to Napoleon) or the celebration of Confederate war generals.

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69 thoughts on “A Shintoist’s Guide to the Yasukuni Controversy

  1. My instinct is that

    “Finally, from a purely nationalistic impulse, I find it rather risible to have criticism about militarism or nationalism from countries that as a practical matter celebrate some of the greatest tyrants in human history. Whether this is China’s criticisms despite their own veneration of Mao, or Russia with Stalin. Further, this seems ridiculous coming from Europeans or Americans, the former of whom celebrate colonial warlords with no sense of irony (from Columbus to Napoleon) or the celebration of Confederate war generals.”

    Will hijack the thread.

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      • Well let me handiwipe all the fresh Inuit blood off my hands first…….done….So is the only people who can make that point are those who truely understand FREEDOM and see how every government law is just turning us into future Kulaks…..point taken

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      • So is the only people who can make that point are those who truely understand FREEDOM and see how every government law is just turning us into future Kulaks…..point taken

        Well, it depends on what country they were born in, doesn’t it?

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      • I bow to your moral superiority Jay. I don’t understand your point, since i don’t know why an american can feel Nob’s point was a good one, but i’ll just assume your questions should, if i could only see, lead to the moral high ground.

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      • Hmm is there a state that can throw such a stone Jay? If I’m getting your oblique reference correctly that is would we confined to… where… Iceland maybe? Nowhere in the western hemisphere certainly, not Europe or Asia generally… I’m drawing a blank short of maybe Iceland and/or Greenland.

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      • Well, Iceland had AFAIK no native population prior to Danish colonization (by vikings!!). Then they peacably spun off into their own country and have had no real wars of their own… I suppose one could indict them for any wars that their Father country engaged in while Iceland was a colony? Beyond that their sheets seem relatively clean.

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    • So Jay if there isn’t a state aside from Luxembourg maybe that can’t throw said stones, then wouldn’t that be Nob’s point. That countries with long histories of killing lots of people then erecting big ol monuments to them shouldn’t be lecturing the Japanese. It seems like you agree with Nob’s point, i know i do. Are you suggesting that by agreeing with Nob, that is somehow doing something or other? Beats me at this point. Just say what you mean.

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  2. I taught English in Japan from 2002-2003. My school was at Musashi-kosugi at the Toyoko and Kuji lines.

    Every now and then we would hear trucks blarring slogans and such. My students informed me that these trucks were run by ultra-right wing nationalists. They seemed sincerely embarrassed by the trucks and the sloganeering.

    Is this the general view in Japan of the right-wing sound trucks? Was I teaching in a more left-wing area? I did have one student who was active in the Japanese Communist Party. She was neat. Older, a psychologist and she worked in shelters for battered women.

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    • My students informed me that these trucks were run by ultra-right wing nationalists. They seemed sincerely embarrassed by the trucks and the sloganeering.

      Is this the general view in Japan of the right-wing sound trucks?

      Yes.

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    • Well we all know those Kanagawans are a bunch of good for nothing moochers that take advantage of their proximity to Tokyo for their economic dependence…. but yeah, for the most part, people do treat right wing nationalism as something of an embarrassment. It’s something we don’t talk about, or try to brush off as an eccentricity than something that’s wholeheartedly embraced.

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      • Speaking as someone who knows very, very little about Japan, I imagine that right wing has some constituency. Is there a possible “silent majority” dynamic going on? Or to Frenchify it a bit, do the right wingers “say out loud what most Japanese think silently”?

        Again, this is a sincere question born of ignorance and not an attempt to bait Japan as singularly right wing.

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      • To live in Japan is to realize that Japanese culture is comparatively apolitical. Most Japanese people react to the antics of the lunatic right wing the way Americans do to the Westboro Baptist Church.

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  3. This was very helpful Nob, thanks.

    So, based on what you’re saying these 14 Class A War Criminals are only “interred” at the shrine in a spiritual sense, rather than in the more literal way someone of European extraction might think.

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  4. Is the Emperor still the Head of the Shinto Religion?
    If so, could he not make a formal request for the 14 to be removed?
    (or, if not, could he create some way of venerating the shrine
    without praising said war criminals?)

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    • I believe that’s been proposed before, and refused by the priests in charge of the shrine. De jure, religious freedom is part of the Japanese constitution, so the Emperor can’t force a shrine to do anything. The extent of his spiritual authority is less clear to me, but the imperial disapproval of inclusion of the war criminals looks pretty clear to me, and it hasn’t made a difference thus far.

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    • Not anymore I believe. During the Occupation of Japan, the United States instituted separation of religion and state and officially got rid of the Emperor’s status as a divinity and High Priest of Shinto. Shinto shrines are controlled by the National Association of Shinto Shrines, which is an extremely conservative body.

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    • He doesn’t have the authority to push any decisions from the clergy, and more than likely they’d just thumb their noses at him anyway.

      The Showa Emperor was furious at the Yasukuni Shrine’s clergy for their decision to include the 14 war criminals, but his disapproval (which included a stern rebuke of the head priest for being disloyal to the memory of his father, who happened to be the head of the Imperial Household Agency during the war) had no effect on the shrine’s decisions.

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  5. Thanks for this, Nob. This is all fascinating.

    I’m most intrigued by an idea you sort of brush up against, which is this: How do we come to terms with what we all actually do, authorize, approve of, or at the very least turn a willing blind eye to in times of war, while at the same time mourn or even celebrate the victims of those same wars?

    This is probably just me being me, but the idea of just separating 14 guys seems to carry both a tacit approval of everything else that was done, and a declaration that everything monstrosity that occurred during that time period was just the result of a few bad eggs.

    It’s an incredibly thorny issue, and one that extends way past Japan to pretty much every other county and culture.

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    • there’s also the issue that by the shrine’s definition, they were (I assume) fighting for their country.
      Now, they may have brought dishonor and shame on their country, but does that mean that they do not deserve to be interred there?

      Should the Crusaders who slaughtered Christians enmasse be thrown out of Heaven?

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    • As a side-note, the actual “trigger men” of a lot of the atrocities are class B or class C war criminals, who for some reason, have not kicked up the same amount of fuss by the Chinese and Koreans. (Nor for that matter, domestically)

      I think there’s a different level of culpability when we’re looking at the “bad eggs”. There’s the bad eggs who were responsible for following orders and doing horrible things, which we understand and accept, and there’s the bad eggs who went out of their way to start and encourage war. Given the stigma attached to the very concept of being the aggressor in post-war Japan, at least, the Class A criminals are therefore guilty of a greater national sin than those who were fighting.

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  6. Pingback: What Is a ‘Class-A War Criminal’? More on the Yasukuni Controversy. | Radio Free

  7. Pingback: What Is a 'Class-A War Criminal'? More on the Yasukuni Controversy. | TOJFL ®

  8. Nob, in what way are you a “practicing Shintoist”? I’ve lived much of my life in Japan, and aside from actual priests, I’ve never met anyone who would fit that label. In fact, this is the first usage of “Shintoist” I’ve run across—that’s the only term I can think of, but I’ve never had occasion to use or hear it.

    Are you deliberately using terms that make sense in a Western/Christian context, perhaps? I’m curious.

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    • Part of it is in a context that a westerner might understand the notion of “being” part of a religion.

      The self-identification is definitely not something people in Japan ordinarily would use. In many respects Shintoism is so thoroughly embedded into the culture and identity of being Japanese, that in many respects I would even compare it to being ethnically Jewish. I realize this is a minority view, and I think this is something that’s stood out for me the longer I’ve spent abroad and noticed the spiritual nuance differences in worldview. Simply put, my viewpoints are Shintoism based, even if layered atop them are all of my accumulated life experiences and knowledge.

      I admit, too, that a fair part of it is also superstition. I carry magatama, I have a tendency to believe in kotodama, things like that.

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      • Thanks for that. For me, too, spending a long time in another culture really taught me to see my own, as an American. (We Americans, we’re consumed by religion, one way or another. We hate to hurry. We love drinking, and other people’s drunkenness makes us want to fight.)

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      • Does shintoism:Japan::Judeo-Christian principles:America roughly work as an analogy? I don’t identify as Jewish or Christian, but fully recognize how the underlying principles of those faiths are inherent to my worldview. I would never identify as Judeo-Christian, but I couldn’t deny their relevance in my life.

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  9. One thing that I can’t help but notice is the supposed belief that the souls are there.

    Is this something that everybody knows is fake the way that we know that the flying spaghetti monster is fake and belief in souls is a belief that only small children, the elderly, and some subsets of the right wing hold?

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      • Well, it seems to me that if the belief that the spirits are there is a belief that is shared by most everybody, we’re best not comparing this to a visit to a graveyard but a visit to thousands and thousands of loved ones that happen to have 14 sons-of-a-bitch scattered in there and the emphasis is on “I don’t know how he would dare visit those 14 sons-of-a-bitch” rather than on “he’s doing his part to visit the thousands and thousands.”

        Of course, if the only people who believe in ghosts over there are the Duck Dynasty types, that changes the dynamic and it is, indeed, a visit to a shrine rather than a visit to thousands and thousands of ancestors.

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      • As a way for Americans to frame the issue, that’s less than useful. As a way to understand the Japanese, Chinese, or Korean perspective, it’s not even wrong.

        I used to hate it when people would say, “You can’t understand, because you’re not _____.” I thought it was a way to say “I can’t explain it, but the deficiency is yours.” Now I’m more comfortable letting issues be bigger than can be easily solved in a morning. The Yasukuni issue is comparable to the U.S.’s Second Amendment issue—the insiders have painted themselves into a corner, and the outsiders are baffled that they can’t just fix it.

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      • As a way for Americans to frame the issue, that’s less than useful. As a way to understand the Japanese, Chinese, or Korean perspective, it’s not even wrong.

        So the useful comparisons are to the Confederacy and/or Nazi Germany?

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    • You know, given that 70 odd percent of americans are nominally Christian, I doubt belief in souls is confined to some subset of the right wing, small children and the elderly. Literal belief in souls is not always the best way to look at it. Religious obligation can feel just as binding even when one is a lot more agnostic about the metaphysics of the thing. This is in large part driven by existing norms.

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    • If only small children, the elderly, and some subsets of the right wing believe in souls, why do so many people visit cemeteries every year? Why is the funeral business such a big one? Why do the vast majority of Americans believe in heaven?

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  10. Pingback: What Is a ‘Class-A War Criminal’? More on the Yasukuni Controversy.

  11. Pingback: What Is a 'Class-A War Criminal'? More on the Yasukuni Controversy | TOJFL ®

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