Every year, since 1979, Japan has been subjected to criticism from China, North and South Korea, and the West for its past Asian aggression. The focal point of these attacks have centered on the Japanese Prime Minister visiting Yasukuni Shrine. Yasukuni Shrine is the place where 14 Class A war criminals (including war-time Prime Minister Hideki Tojo) were enshrined after the war’s end. One thing must be made perfectly clear here: Yasukuni Shrine is not run by the State and it is not a cemetery. There are no bodies buried there. So what is the problem? The questions that need to be asked when discussing Yasukuni Shrine are: Is Yasukuni Shrine a symbol and glorification of Japanese militarism? Are the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by a Japanese Prime Minister a further glorification of Japan’s militaristic past? Are these visits against the law requiring separation of church and state? Do these visits constitute a denial of Japan’s past war crimes and deeds? Would Yasukuni Shrine be at the center of a resurgent Japanese militarism if one were to come about? I would answer an emphatic "No" to all these questions. But for anyone to understand more about the controversy concerning Yasukuni Shrine, one must look at the history of the shrine to come up with an educated and objective opinion. Here, I have attempted to make this complicated issue easy to understand in the shortest amount of space possible.
The History of Yasukuni Shrine
Between 1868 and 1869, the Boshin War was fought in Japan between forces loyal to the Imperial family and a feudal military dictatorship known as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Despite having a 3:1 numerical advantage in military forces — as well as training by French military advisors — the forces of the Tokugawa Shogunate were routed in a battle near Kyoto which led to the unconditional surrender of the Shogunate’s forces in 1869. This sealed the accession to the Imperial throne for Emperor Meiji in an event called "The Meiji Restoration."
Yasukuni Shrine (which literally translates into "peaceful nation shrine") was constructed in June 1869 to commemorate all victims of the Boshin war — as well as those who died in earlier wars since 1853. This beginning is an important point in understanding what Yasukuni Shrine is all about. Yasukuni Shrine was built to respect all of Japan’s war dead — not just the war dead from the Second World War — all of Japan’s war dead regardless of circumstances.
Samurai soldiers from the Boshin War
After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the US Occupational Authorities ordered Yasukuni Shrine to become a secular institution or a religious institution wholly separate from the Japanese government. Yasukuni Shrine, of course, stayed with being known as a religious institution that is privately funded.
Japanese Religious Practices
If you were to ask most Japanese people today if they were religious, they would tell you, "No." That being said, the Buddhist church in Japan — namely the Soka Gakkai claims to have a higher percentage of followers than any other church in the country.
Even though most Japanese would tell you that they are not religious, today’s Japanese follow a decidedly strange religious ritual — especially from a Westerner’s point of view: They annually visit a Shinto shrine on New Year; have weddings in Christian or Buddhist churches; and practice a sort of Shinto/Buddhist ritual at funerals. The ashes of the dead are entombed at Buddhist or Christian cemeteries. Shinto religion, although a minor one, is a purely Japanese religion. And, as they are famous for, the Japanese family unit is still strong to this day and most Japanese have a small temple even in their homes to pray for the souls of their loved ones who have passed away.
Shinto religious beliefs say that when a person dies, they become Kami (a spirit or god). From ancient times, the Japanese believed that the spirits of the dead remained upon the land to be worshipped by their ancestors. In a book called Senzo no Hanashi (Talk of Ancestors) published in 1946 and written by Kunio Yanagita, he states:
"After death, the soul remains eternally upon this land. It is believed that the soul does not travel to a distant world. This faith has endured for centuries until the present day… Upon leaving the body, the soul is in a more peaceful a pure state far from the hustle and bustle of this world."
Who Is Buried at Yasukuni Shrine?
No one. There are no bones, ashes, graves, graveyard, or headstones at Yasukuni Shrine. Only the souls of the dead are "placed" there. As of 2004, in Yasukuni Shrine’s Book of Souls, there are the names of 2,466,532 Japanese and former colonial soldiers (mostly Korean and Taiwanese) listed as being honored among the dead. The priests merely perform purification rituals for the souls of the deceased. After the war ended, Japan and the United States signed the San Francisco Treaty in 1953. In that treaty — Article 11 states:
Japan accepts the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied War Crimes Courts both within and outside Japan, and will carry out the sentences imposed thereby upon Japanese nationals imprisoned in Japan. The power to grant clemency, to reduce sentences and to parole with respect to such prisoners may not be exercised except on the decision of the Government or Governments which imposed the sentence in each instance, and on recommendation of Japan. In the case of persons sentenced by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, such power may not be exercised except on the decision of a majority of the Governments represented on the Tribunal, and on the recommendation of Japan.
Thus, since all convicted Japanese war criminals were either executed or sentenced to life in prison, they paid their penalty — as prescribed by the Allied victors of the war — and then the souls of the dead were "cleansed" by ritual at Yasukuni Shrine as was the case with all who died in Japan’s wars — whether they be Japanese, Chinese, Korean, women, children, and animals.
Hate the crime but not the person. ~ Ancient Japanese Proverb
The Class A war criminals had already paid for their crimes on this earth through their deaths and executions. The Japanese point of view on this matter means that these people had paid their debt to society. This type of thinking should be very easy to understand for people coming from a Christian background. If these people are not to be redeemed after their death, then when will they be? Only God can answer this question and not man. This is why the Japanese war dead — regardless of their circumstances while living on this earth — are enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine.
After signing the San Francisco Treaty, the post-war Japanese government asked all the Allied powers to exempt all war criminals from past deeds. By this time, only 5 Japanese war-time leaders were left alive. Four had their lifetime imprisonments pardoned and one had his 20-year imprisonment forgiven. Seven others, including Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who were sentenced to death by hanging were already dead. Upon receiving this request for pardons, the Allied Powers agreed. The Nationalist government of China signed an agreement with Japan called, The Treaty of Taipei that recognized the San Francisco Treaty and its articles.
Since the Japanese lost World War II, there were only Japanese war criminals. If you believe, as I do, that all war is a crime, then the leaders of the US government and some Allied military leaders were war criminals also. That is not lessening the severity of Japanese war crimes, it is merely to point out that only losers are convicted of war crimes. It would be ridiculous to claim that Allied leaders who ordered the bombings of civilian cities in Japan are not guilty of murdering civilians; and therefore guilty of war crimes. It also stands to reason that the current US leadership is guilty of war crimes in Iraq. But that is not my point here. Keep in mind that no one complains when a US president visits Arlington National Cemetery; or when former US President Ronald Reagan visited the World War II military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, only some Jewish groups protested. Nevertheless, Yasukuni Shrine cannot be directly compared to these military cemeteries as Yasukuni Shrine is not a cemetery; it is a shrine commemorating the souls of people who died in war.
Why Do Asian Countries Complain About Visits to Yasukuni Shrine?
Actually, the only complaints come from the governments of only three countries: China, South Korea, and North Korea; you won’t hear any complaints from any of the other South East Asian nations. The average Japanese on the street doesn’t understand why these countries get upset. Common sense dictates that what a person does in one’s own country is none of anyone else’s business. Let’s go back to the example of Arlington National Cemetery: do the Japanese, Germans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, etc, etc, complain when a US president visits there? No. So, then, why should anyone care whether or not a Japanese Prime Minister visits a church?
The fact of the matter is that Japanese Prime Ministers had been visiting Yasukuni Shrine every year — as is custom — since the end of the war. Whether it be the Japanese leaders after World War II or the leaders of the defeated south after the so-called “Civil War” in the United States, what kind of a leader would a man be considered if he were not to honor the dead, regardless of circumstances?
The complaints about Prime Ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine started after Japan’s economic boom of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Until 1985, Japanese Prime Ministers had been visiting Yasukuni Shrine to pay respects to the war dead — to all the war dead over the history of post-Meiji Restoration Japan — 57 times (nearly every year since the war ended) and there were never any complaints from Japan’s neighbors. Of course, honoring a countries war dead has religious implications, but in 1979 and 1980, Japan’s Prime Minister, Masayuki Ohira, visited Yasukuni Shrine 3 times. Former Prime Minister Ohira is a devout Catholic. So to claim that politicians visiting a church constitutes a revival of Japanese militarism or denial of past war crimes is just absurd.
This is an important part of the misunderstanding about Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine is in no way financed by the State. It is illegal for the State to make any financial donations to Yasukuni Shrine. The Prime Minister — as an individual — and just like the President of the United States — has the right to visit any church of his choice.
The Japanese thinking on this matter goes like this: the current constitution of Japan, written by the US Occupation Authority, requires a separation of religion and politics, but the United States itself does not follow those rules. Doesn’t the US President put his hand on the bible to take an oath of office at inauguration? Is it not impossible to rid any country of some form of religious rites in public and private ceremonies? This is why the Japanese don’t understand why China, South Korea, and North Korea make such a big deal out of some elected official visiting a shrine.
So, then why do China, South Korea, and North Korea make such a fuss about Yasukuni Shrine? If you were to ask a Japanese nationalist about it, I’m sure they’d say because those countries just want money from Japan. I suppose something might be said for that. Actually, I suspect that the average person on the street in China or Korea couldn’t care less about what some politician is doing in another country. I do strongly suspect that the government’s of China and the two Koreas are using Yasukuni Shrine as a method to whip up nationalism and as a way to blame Japan for their economic problems; Japan is a handy tool to take people’s eyes off of the problems at home. This seems to be especially true in North Korea. The evidence for this assumption is that until the 1990’s, Taiwan was a very strong anti-Japanese country; today they are pro-Japan.
Regardless, until the day comes when war is abolished, Yasukuni Shrine will probably always be a sticking point in the relations between Japan and its neighbors. The point that must be remembered is that Yasukuni Shrine is not a shrine glorifying Japanese militarism, it is a shrine to pray for the forgiveness and rest of the souls who died in war. For whatever reason, showing respect to the dead should be a sign of basic human compassion. Anyone, in any country, should be able to respect that. For when it comes to war, everyone is a victim of the State in some way.
Thanks to Robert Klassen.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.