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.