Yasukuni, from an East Asian perspective.

An adapted version of an MA in East Asian History assignment by Lewis Tatt.

The main hall of Yasukuni Shrine
The main hall of Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is somewhat notorious. Every year, around August 15th, the issue of whether individuals should visit the shrine to commemorate the war dead is hotly debated in Japan, particularly if one such individual also happens to be the prime minister. Chinese critics are particularly vocal; the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia calling it the “shame of humanity” (整个人类的耻辱). In 2006, the South Korean President, Roh Moo-hyun, even refused to meet Japanese prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, in protest of the latter’s visits to Yasukuni. The problem is ultimately a conflict between alternative historical narratives, and by analysing Yasukuni as a site of material evidence we can perhaps come to a better understanding of the narratives it presents.

Yasukuni was built in 1869 to enshrine those who died in conflicts during the Meiji Restoration. It subsequently enshrined military personnel who had died in further conflicts for the state. Having been built under Meiji , Yasukuni commemorates those who died fighting imperial wars and had ultimately died for the emperor. In this sense, Yasukuni is explicitly imperial and militaristic.

A statue of Omura Masujiro on the approach to Yasukuni.
A statue of Omura Masujiro on the approach to Yasukuni.

Even before entering the main precinct visitors are greeted by a statue of Omura Masujiro, founder of the modern Japanese army. The outside of the main hall (above) is decorated with large banners displaying the imperial crest and in 1874 the Meiji emperor composed a poem on his visit to the shrine, which is now displayed in the main hall. One passage of the poem states ‘I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine’ (我國の為をつくせる人々の名もむさし野にとむる玉かき).

The poem written by Emperor Meiji
The poem written by Emperor Meiji

It was claimed that those enshrined became kami and joined a pantheon of deities protecting the state. The shrine itself was initially administered by the army and navy ministries. It was later made a ‘special state-funded shrine’, and rituals were conducted on the dates of military victories (until the number became too large to commemorate). On a material level, Yasukuni therefore cannot be separated from the imperial system or Japanese militarism, an important fact when understanding Yasukuni and the debates surrounding it.

Yasukuni was not destroyed after the war, despite the shrine’s clear association with militarism, perhaps on the basis that individuals had the right to honour their war dead. It has also been argued that Yasukuni offers a religious aspect to remembrance, and so fulfils a function that secular memorials cannot. This argument in particular has been forwarded by Georgetown University’s Professor Kevin Doak, who claims rites at Yasukuni are ‘a universal practice that transcends the everyday in order to make a spiritual link to the dead.’ Quite contradictorily, Doak also argues that it is acceptable for Christians to take part in Yasukuni rites precisely because ‘ceremonies of this kind are endowed with a purely civic value.’[1]

This raises the question of whether Yasukuni is actually a religious site, or not, and more importantly whether those visiting Yasukuni consider themselves to be religious (the two are not necessarily related). One particularly significant point that Doak overlooks is how the meaning of Yasukuni changes depending upon whether or not you actually follow Shinto as a religion, and subsequently believe that the souls of the dead really exist there in afterlife, or whether you simply believe enshrinement is symbolic.

In this light, the Meiji Emperor’s poem, quoted above, takes on a new significance. Interestingly, the emperor claims that the names of the dead will live at Yasukuni, not the actual souls. The verb とむる can mean to bury, hold a funeral, hold a memorial service or mourn. It does not imply the souls of the dead exist at Yasukuni or their afterlife is affected.

Similarly, Shinto academic Naokazu Miyaji, speaking on behalf of the shrine after the war, claimed the emperor’s visits meant Yasukuni ‘was very precious to the bereaved families of the war dead’, implying what was really important was what the shrine meant to the living.[2] All this suggests that the site is symbolic.

In reality, Yasukuni serves purely a commemorative purpose,  the problem is what is being commemorated, because, in 1978, fourteen men classified as Class A war criminals were enshrined there.

Yasukuni’s enshrinement of Class A war criminals must be placed within the physical context of the shrine itself, which only commemorates Japanese military dead (one monument, the chinreisha, was built in 1965 to memorialise non-military deaths but lies well hidden from public view, cannot be seen from the main precinct, and cannot be entered).

Located directly opposite the main hall is the Yushukan War Museum, which displays war materials and weapons without any mention of Japanese aggression or atrocities during the war period. For example, a plaque accompanying the Thailand-Burma railway locomotive, displayed at the entrance of the museum, states that the building of the railway ‘was difficult in the extreme’. It fails to mention this ‘difficulty’ involved the deaths of 90,000 prisoners of war and Asian conscripts.

The Mitsubishi Zero which stands in the entrance of the Yushukan War Museum.
The Mitsubishi Zero which stands in the entrance of the Yushukan War Museum.

Whatever the reasons for individuals visiting Yasukuni, prime ministers included, to many observers, particularly Chinese and Korean, it is the symbolic elements that stand out – leading politicians visiting a shrine that glorifies Japan’s war in Asia, is linked to the imperial system that presided over that war, and enshrines Class A war criminals. This act is often carried out without any recognition of, let alone atonement for, the aggression and atrocities committed.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, there is no doubt that war crimes took place during the Asia-Pacific War. Critics of Yasukuni do not see the enshrinement of individuals but that of ‘Class A War Criminals’, separate from the individuals and their souls. In effect, the names have simply become symbolic representations of the atrocities attached to them, and to many Chinese observers the enshrinement of individual Class A war criminals amounts to nothing more than the enshrinement of Class A war crimes.

It is likely that many people ‘worship’ at the shrine as a personal act of remembrance and respect for lost relatives or those who died fighting in a war brought about by Japan’s military leaders. However, there is no escaping the fact that the site is national in character, not individual, and enshrinement there is effectively compulsory.[3] By mourning at a national, imperial site the lines between individual and national identity are blurred. In effect people’s desire to mourn the suffering of friends, relatives, or ordinary individuals they can relate to is used to funnel them into a site that fosters nationalism.

A war widow with children.
A war widow with children.

This can be seen in the layout of the shrine itself. For example, a monument titled ‘statue of war widow with children’ is located directly next to a monument to Radhabinod Pal.The ‘war widow’ is not a specific individual, but an intended focal point of mourning or remembrance for ordinary civilians who suffered.

Radhabinod Pal was the only Judge to reject the Tokyo war crimes trial, arguing it was a vindictive act and on that basis all defendants should be acquitted. By placing a monument to ordinary civilians next to the memorial to Radhabinod Pal, Yasukuni appeals to the act of mourning as a means of overcoming trauma and places it within a context that promotes a particular historical narrative. A historical narrative in which the imperial system is venerated, military death glorified, and (as Pal’s memorial implies) Japan’s war criminals innocent. Furthermore, the desire to memorialise individual experiences, represented by the nameless women and children, is utilized to promote a national narrative that fosters national identity.

Radhadinod Pal Memorial
Radhadinod Pal Memorial

It is perhaps for reasons of identity that several Japanese prime ministers have visited Yasukuni. The Tokyo war crimes trial did more than put individuals on trial, it essential put history on trial, with the result that Japan’s modern history became criminalised, something to be ashamed of.[4] Surely nothing stands in greater contrast than the way Britain’s history is glorified by its virtuous role in World War II, and the way Japan’s history is criminalised. Yet Britain’s history as an aggressive imperialistic power can apparently be overlooked, whilst Japan’s cannot.

That this impacted on Japanese national identity is clear. Prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone , who visited Yasukuni in 1985, even stated in his autobiography that he ‘felt humiliated’ by Japan’s defeat in World War II and the fact ‘two-thirds of a century of modernisation […] had been reduced to dust.’ Here Nakasone displays the sense of shame that the war, and subsequent criminalisation at the war crimes trial, has cast over Japan’s ‘two thirds of a century of modernisation.’[5] It’s likely that his visit to Yasukuni was therefore not an attempt to advocate militarism and war crimes, or even an attempt to reject Japan’s war responsibility, but an attempt to reject an America-centred history that casts the shadow of guilt over all of Japan’s modern history and subsequently modern Japanese national identity.

Refrences –

1. Kevin Doak, ‘A Religious Perspective on the Yasukuni Shrine Controversy’, in John Breen, Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s past (London, Hurst and company 2007).

2. Hiyane Antei, ‘An Interview with Dr. Naokazu Miyaji’, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 7, 2 (1966) 148.

3. Norma Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor, (New York, Pantheon Books, 1991).

4. Carol Gluck, ‘Past in the Present’, in Andrew Gordon [ed], Postwar Japan as History, (Berkeley University of California Press, 1993).

5. Nat Sayer, Nakasone Yasuhiro: My Life in Politics, (draft of translation), 5-6. Cited in Joshua Safier, ‘Yasukuni Shrine and the Constraints on the Discourses of Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Japan’. (MA thesis, University of Kansas, 1991) 46.

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