Kin: Get Koreans out of Yasukuni

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Kin: Get Koreans out of Yasukuni


Descendants of Koreans enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine (pictured in the middle), visit the controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Oct. 22 to protest Japanese officials’ paying respects there. Provided by the Korean Council for Redress and Reparations for the Victims of World War II Atrocities

“‘When I die, open up my chest and you will find some sort of a lump,’ my mother always used to say,” said Nam Yeong-ju, 75, with a weak voice and teary eyes.

By “lump,” the mother meant deep, heartbreaking and bitter feelings from losing her one and only son. The son, Nam Dae-hyeon, was born in 1923 and forcibly mobilized by the Japanese in 1942 during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. At the time, he was a 19-year-old student living with his wife in Uiryeong, South Gyeongsang.

The mother died three years later after Nam was taken, without knowing whether he was alive or not. As it turned out, he had died a year earlier than her, on August 10, 1944, according to data by the Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism in Korea.

“I don’t have many memories of my mother because she died when I was just 6 years old, except that she was ill in bed all the time,” Nam Yeong-ju, the sister of Nam Dae-hyeon, said. “But I do remember my grandmother, who always prepared a bowl of rice for my brother, even though he was gone.

“And my father, who felt like a sinner for the rest of his life for losing his son, would travel anywhere if there was any news of a mobilized Korean coming back alive,” she said.

Today, Nam Dae-hyeon is enshrined in the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, along with 14 Class-A war criminals who were executed after the Tokyo war tribunal in 1948.

In fact, Nam is one of about 20,000 Koreans who are enshrined at the controversial war memorial. What’s more, 60 of them are still alive and well.

The controversial war shrine is dedicated to about 2.5 million people, including Korean and Taiwanese residents who were forcibly mobilized to contribute to Japan’s aggression. Many of them are there without their descendants knowing that their fathers, brothers or uncles are enshrined along with those who most likely caused their deaths.

Nam Yeong-ju, for instance, found out that her brother was enshrined at Yasukuni only in 2010 - seven years after she learned he had died - when a civic group called the Korean Council for Redress and Repatriations for the Victims of World War II Atrocities notified her, saying that the brother’s “spirit” was at Yasukuni.

On Dec. 26, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing strong condemnations from Korea, China and the international community. It was the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to the shrine in seven years, an act that some experts liken to a German chancellor visiting places that celebrate the memories of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler.


Descendants of the Koreans enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine against their will or without the knowledge of their families hold up photos and relevant documents in the front row. Japanese lawyers and an official leading their lawsuit are in the back row. In the front row, from left: Dong Jeong-nam, Kim Jin-seok, Lee Hee-ja, Nam Yeong-ju, Park Nam-sun, Jang Jin-hwa, Lee Myeong-gu. In the back row: Fumio Asano, Naoyoshi Yamamoto, Akihiko Oguchi, Akira Ibori, Fukai Tsuyoshi. By Park Sang-moon

Trial may begin in March

On Jan. 12 - a cold, clear Sunday - a group of four Japanese lawyers visited the office of the Korean Council for Redress and Repatriations for the Victims of World War II Atrocities in Dongdaemun District, eastern Seoul.

The lawyers opened up their laptops while officials of the council set up video cameras and an interpreter prepared her notes in the humble office, which had several old-style heaters here and there to keep the place warm.

They were there to interview four descendants, including Nam Yeong-ju, whose family members were enshrined at Yasukuni. The lawyers would hear their stories and prepare for a possible trial, which may begin in March.

The four people are among 27 descendants who, on Oct. 22, filed a lawsuit with Tokyo District Court, in which they called on the Japanese government and the Yasukuni Shrine to remove their family members’ names from the shrine.

“How do you pay respects to your father?” Akira Ibori, a lawyer with the Tokyo Taiju Law Office and one of 12 Japanese lawyers involved in this case, asked Dong Jeong-nam.

Dong’s father, Seon-hong, is also enshrined at Yasukuni. Upon hearing Dong’s answer that due to the family’s Christian background, they mostly pray for their father, Ibori asked, “Are you commemorating your father the same way even after you found out that your father is at Yasukuni?”

The Oct. 22 lawsuit filing is not the first legal action Koreans have taken in this matter. The council’s co-president, Lee Hee-ja, whose father is also enshrined at Yasukuni, filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in June 2001, along with other people.

“I felt as if my blood was streaming upward when I found out that he was at Yasukuni,” said Lee, who discovered her father’s enshrinement in 1997.Lee’s father was taken to Japan several months after she celebrated her first birthday.

The case was dismissed in May 2006, with a Japanese court ruling that said the government only provided information of the war dead to Yasukuni as an administrative service.

The next year, Lee and 10 other people filed another lawsuit. This time, they included the Yasukuni Shrine as a defendant, in addition to the Japanese government. Also, one of the 11 plaintiffs was Kim Hee-jong, 88, who is alive but is enshrined at Yasukuni.

Again, the Tokyo District Court dismissed the case in July 2011, saying Yasukuni is a private religious entity and that people should be religiously tolerant. The court also repeated its previous stance that the Japanese government’s actions were simply administrative.

That did not stop the Koreans, though. The plaintiffs appealed immediately, but the Tokyo High Court was equally persistent, dismissing the appeal on Oct. 23 on the same grounds.

Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced the decision.

“Enshrining victims of forceful mobilization and colonial labor at the Yasukuni Shrine that glorifies Japan’s history of imperialistic aggression causes significant damage to the descendants,” ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young said a day later. “It is extremely regrettable that the court has reached such an anti-humanitarian, thoughtless decision.”

Lee said they will certainly appeal, but at the moment they want to exert all their efforts on the case filed on Oct. 22.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, visits the Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, drawing condemnation from Korea, China and others. [JoongAng Ilbo]

Religious entity?

“I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine.”

This is written on the website of the Yasukuni Shrine, built in 1869 as Tokyo Shokonsha and renamed Yasukuni in 1879.

It is actually a poem written by Emperor Meiji, who ordered the establishment of the shrine. The current name of the shrine means “preserving peace of the nation” or “peaceful country,” an ironic name for a war-related shrine.

The names of the war criminals were added to the roster of those enshrined there in 1978. Some observers have emphasized how the shrine’s authorities took a deliberate - and quite secretive - decision to do that.

Yasukuni is different from other war memorials around the world because the shrine includes Class-A war criminals. Also, there are no bodies or remains at the shrine. The shrine’s website says, “The spirits of these deceased are the object of worship” and called them “divinities.” Further, the shrine’s authorities believe that the spirits are indivisible, like drops of water that are part of an ocean.

Some people might wonder why removing just a few names is such a big deal. But this is why all appeals so far to remove the war criminals from the shrine - or the Korean colonial laborers - were turned down. Notable figures in Japan like Hiromu Nonaka, a former cabinet secretary and secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, have called for the war criminals to be removed from the shrine.

Ibori, one of the Japanese lawyers, said he had an inner conflict about getting involved in a case against a religious institution. However, he concluded that the shrine is not a pure religious entity but rather closely related to national policies. Glorifying wars and using those who lost their lives during war is not something a religion should do, said Ibori.

Akihiko Oguchi, another Japanese lawyer who has been involved in the Koreans’ lawsuits early on, also said, “Yasukuni Shrine is, in its essence, different from other shrines, in that before Japan was defeated in World War II, it was part of a government institution. … Only after the defeat, the Allied Forces and conservative Japanese agreed to leave it as a private religious entity.”

The shrine also has special connections to Japan’s imperial family and the Japanese government, and its ties to the head of state, or the emperor, cannot be denied. An emissary and offerings from the emperors play a key role in the ritual held at the shrine every spring and fall. What’s more, the archive of the shrine, where the names of the dead are kept, was built with donations from Emperor Hirohito in 1972.


Left: Nam Dae-hyeon, who was forcibly mobilized by the Japanese in 1942, is one of the 20,000 Korean people enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine, alongside those who caused his untimely death. Right: Documents that prove Koreans’ enshrinement at Yasukuni.Provided by the descendants and the council

Descendants pessimistic

Akihiko Oguchi says there is another reason why Korean names must be removed from Yasukuni: The shrine represents Japan’s encroachment of the Korean Peninsula during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

“Also enshrined at the Yasukuni are Japanese military officials killed in an incident that led to the 1876 signing of the Korea-Japan Treaty of Amity as well as the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Movement,” Oguchi said, adding that “Yasukuni’s ties to Korea have their roots in Japan’s plunder of Korea in the early years.”

The Korea-Japan Treaty of Amity refers to the treaty Korea signed under pressure from Japan, although it was reluctant to open its doors to foreign powers.

And the 1894 Donghak Peasants’ Movement first began as a revolt against corrupt government officials, but later expanded to defend national sovereignty amid increased Japanese influence after the Sino-Japanese War, in which China and Japan fought over the rule of Korea.

Oguchi, who says that Koreans’ enshrinement at Yasukuni along with those who attacked them is painful and humiliating for the descendants, pledged to lead the lawsuit with a more in-depth approach this time.

Although the lawyers and the Korean Council for Redress and Repatriations for the Victims of World War II Atrocities expect the trial could start in March, they are also well aware of a possible postponement, as Japan is turning more and more to the right.

However, Ibori said there is no need to be so pessimistic.

“Yasukuni is an institution that would do anything to survive,” Ibori said. “At one point, it also attempted to transform into a facility similar to an amusement park. … And as for the government, it cannot be on its own without the support of the public. If we let the people know what Yasukuni really is, their perceptions could change, and so can politicians and the government.”

Nonetheless, one of the concerns is that the descendants are aging.

“It’s obvious. They are waiting for us to die,” said Park Nam-sun, one of the descendants and plaintiffs in the Oct. 22 filing.

Park’s father, who was a worker at a post office in Namwon, North Jeolla, was taken to Japan in 1942, one month before Park was born. Park is 71 years old.

“At least you are not ill, and you are a few years younger than me,” Nam Yeong-ju, told her with an emotional voice. Nam, who lost her twin sister not long ago, recently underwent surgery herself.

“When I’m gone, this pursuit is gone, too. … If only my brother left some children behind,” she sighed.


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