Yasukuni: history belies its name

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Yasukuni: history belies its name

The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan’s war dead. The shrine was founded in 1869, originally named Tokyo Shokonsha, by order of the Meiji Emperor. It was renamed the Yasukuni Shrine in 1879. The meaning of Yasukuni is “peaceful country.”
Enshrined at Yasukuni are references to about 2.5 million people who died in battle while serving the nation in the conflicts that accompanied the making of modern Japan ― the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma Rebellion and similar domestic conflicts, the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, the Manchurian incident, the Second Sino-Japanese War and the War in the Pacific during World War II. Enshrined are written records containing the names, origins and the dates and places of death of everyone who gave their lives for their country during war.
Since 1978, when 14 Class A war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni, the shrine has been a center stage of political controversy both within Japan and internationally. Those enshrined also include 1,068 Japanese convicted of other war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal was convened to try Japanese leaders for war crimes committed in World War II; a number of military and political leaders were convicted of Class A war crimes, crimes against peace, for their responsibility in Japan’s war of aggression and atrocities committed against prisoners and occupied populations.
The visits to the shrine by several Japanese prime ministers and other politicians have caused concerns that Japan is trying to glorify its militarist past.
For some people, especially in the Asian countries which suffered most under Japanese occupation, the shrine has become a symbol of Japanese militarism and ultra-nationalism, and many take the prime ministers’ visits there as a sign that Japan’s political leaders are not sincerely reflecting on their country’s past. The current prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has visited the shrine six times during his five years in office, most recently last week. The prime minister said his visits were made as an individual and had no official function.
Conservatives in Japan say that visits by Japanese leaders are an internal political affair in which neighboring countries should have no say. Shinzo Abe, the chief cabinet secretary from the Liberal Democratic Party, and frontrunner to succeed Mr. Koizumi as prime minister, reportedly made a secret visit to the shrine in April. He too claimed that the visit was personal.
The views expressed on the shrine’s official Web site and in its museum are also controversial. The shrine does not regard the conduct of Japan during World War II as an act of military aggression but as a war that was supported by other Asian countries ― a move to form a greater Asian alliance and resist European imperialism. The shrine also refuses to accept the verdict of the Tokyo Tribunal on the Japanese war criminals, while a Japanese foreign ministry statement, defending Mr. Koizumi’s visits, pointed out that Japan accepted the results of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. On the homepage of Yasukuni’s Web site, an article suggests that the tribunal might have been used for ulterior motives.
There are also foreign war dead enshrined at Yasukuni, including Koreans and Chinese who died fighting for the Japanese imperial army. Some families have requested that their relatives be removed from the list of those enshrined at Yasukuni but shrine officials have refused such requests on religious grounds. They argue that once a kami, or spirit, is enshrined, it becomes “merged” with those already there and cannot be separated. According to Japan’s national Shinto religion, humans are transformed into sacred beings when they die, and as such are worshipped and celebrated by their descendants. The kami of remarkable people are enshrined. Attempts to remove the war criminals from Yasukuni have failed due to refusals by shrine officials. Some have suggested creating an alternative site for the commemoration and worship of Japan’s war dead.
After World War II, American occupation authorities ordered the Yasukuni Shrine to either become a secular governmental institution, or a religious institution independent of the Japanese government. Yasukuni chose the latter. Since that time, Yasukuni has been privately funded.
An imperial emissary makes regular visits to the shrine while imperial princes regularly attend shrine rites to this day, although the present emperor has not visited since his enthronement. In July of this year, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported the discovery of a memorandum detailing why the late Emperor Hirohito, who ruled Japan during World War II, stopped visiting Yasukuni. The memorandum, kept by Tomohiko Tomita, the former chief of the Imperial Household Agency, confirmed for the first time that the enshrinement there of the 14 Class A War Criminals was the reason. The discovery has put the conservative right in Japan in a dilemma, because it had previously attributed the reason for the suspension of the emperor’s visits to controversy over its constitutional validity; in other words, until Mr. Tomita’s notes were known, the separation of state and religion was the official rationale for the emperor’s staying away from the shrine.
For South Korea, the controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine is even more amplified because Tokyo has authorized Japanese textbooks seen as whitewashing Japanese atrocities committed during World War II.
In addition, Seoul and Tokyo have been at odds over territorial rights to the Dokdo islets, which Japan also claims and calls Takeshima. Furthermore, recent moves by Tokyo to build up its military might have been viewed by neighboring countries which experienced invasions by imperial Japan in the past with suspicion. They fear that Japan, its militarism revived, is trying to reassert itself on the global stage.


by Brian Lee

Sources: Yasukuni Shrine official web site, News reports, japan-guide.com
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