Yasukuni Shrine at the Heart of Japan's National Debate: History, Memory, Denial
Yasukuni Shrine at the Heart of Japan’s National Debate:
History, Memory, Denial
Tomita Tomohiko, former grand steward of the Japanese
imperial household, recorded in his diaries (1) that
Emperor Hirohito ceased visiting the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo
when it decided to honour certain men sentenced to death by
the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (2). Seven of the 14 class A
criminals condemned, including the prime minister, former
general Tojo Hideki, were executed; the others died in
The Shinto Yasukuni shrine was built in 1869 on the sacred
order of the Emperor Meiji, to glorify the deeds of soldiers
who fell during the overthrow of the shogunate and the
restoration that inaugurated the new imperial state of the
Meiji period (3). Subsequently this shrine honoured all the
soldiers and auxiliaries from the former Japanese armed
forces -- 2,460,000 "heroic souls" -- killed in foreign wars
from modern Japan's first overseas deployment, the Taiwan
Expedition of 1874, up to the Pacific war of 1941-45.
During Japan's colonial period the emperor was the sovereign
and religious power, and commanded its armies. The
populations of Japan and its colonies were all regarded as
his servants, with a moral duty "to dedicate themselves to
the emperor and the state in times of national crisis, with
no regard for their own lives." Soldiers who died during
these wars, which were considered holy, were an example to
the nation and it was the responsibility of the Yasukuni
shrine to raise military morale and foster the spiritual
mobilisation of the nation for war.
At the end of the Second World War, the shrine, seen as a
"symbol of Japanese militarism", a "shrine to war" and even a
"shrine to invasion", was neutralised. In December 1945,
under the Shinto Directive issued by the occupying allied
forces, it was removed from state control. In accordance with
the separation of politics and religion, introduced under the
1946 Japanese constitution, it was administered as a private
religious association, like Christian churches and Buddhist
temples. This remains the situation today.
During his term as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006,
Koizumi Junichiro paid annual visits, the last on 15 August,
the day that Japan commemorates as the end of the second
world war -- celebrated by China as a day of victory, and by
South Korea as a day of liberation from colonial domination.
These visits became the most sensitive diplomatic issue
between Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul. Koizumi rejected protests
and presented himself as a politician defending Japan's
position against foreign pressure.
Prime Minister Koizumi
visiting Yasukuni Shrine
A number of politicians and newspapers suggested that the
class A war criminals might be excluded from the shrine.
Citing Tomita's journals, they suggested that "if even
Emperor Hirohito refused to visit . . . because [the shrine]
honoured these war criminals, then prime minister Koizumi
should also stop." That suggestion covered up many aspects of
The Yasukuni shrine and the official visits clearly represent
a denial of Japanese responsibility for the war. To be fair,
no postwar prime minister who went there has openly denied
that responsibility. Speaking on behalf of the government,
Koizumi reaffirmed the validity of a 1995 declaration by then
Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi, expressing "sincere regret
and profound remorse for the enormous suffering and damage
that [Japan] inflicted upon its neighbours during the
all-too-recent past, through colonial domination, invasions
and misguided policies."
This did not prevent officials at the shrine from insisting
that these wars had been conducted "for the defence and
survival" of Japan, in an attempt to free Asia from western
colonial domination, and from asserting that the "falsely
accused" war criminals, from classes B and C, as well as A,
had been unjustly categorised as such by the winning side.
If the presence of class A war criminals at the heart of this
communal commemoration were the only problem, their
removal would end the controversy. This solution will not
satisfy. The concept of class A allowed Japan's leaders to be
judged for alleged crimes committed from the Manchuria
incident of 1931 (4), even its preparation in 1928, to the end
of the Pacific war in 1945. In the process, Japan's earlier
history of colonial aggression against Asia, including Korea
and Taiwan, has been overlooked. It is fair to add that among
the allied countries that passed judgment on Japan, the United
States, Britain, the Netherlands and France were all
themselves colonial powers and had neither the desire nor the
ability to judge Japanese responsibility for colonial
The shrine honours all Japanese soldiers who have fallen in
combat since the 1874 Taiwan Expedition and the subsequent
repressions first of Taiwanese of Chinese origin and then of
native peoples [of Hokkaido and Okinawa] who resisted Japanese
occupation. Japan attacked Korea in 1876 and put down a
series of rebellions. Japanese soldiers and all those who died in
combat during this period are recognised as divinities at the
shrine. Their glorification, beside the class A war criminals,
represents a continued denial of colonial aggression.
Far-right revisionists are not the only problem. Although
progressive intellectuals recognise the responsibility of
class A war criminals, they view the Meiji period as a
remarkable success that allowed Japan to match western
powers. In their view, only after the 1920s did Japan turn
bad: until the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95, and the
Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, the Japanese army was
wholesome. The turning point was the aggression against
China after 1931.
Media coverage of the Tomita journals emphasised that the
emperor had stopped visiting the shrine because he
disapproved of its glorification of class A war criminals.
The effect was to heap all responsibility on to the criminals
and to exonerate the emperor; that had also happened at the
Tokyo Tribunal, when Hirohito was not called to account,
although he held supreme power and was the commander in
chief of the armed forces. The US, afraid of Japan falling to
communism, kept him in place as a "symbol of Japan and the
unity of the people" (5). His responsibility was again denied
during the controversy over visits to the shrine.
The denials don't stop there. The shrine abuses the memory of
the combatants by transforming their miserable deaths into
sublime acts of heroism. This falsification ignores some
50,000 soldiers from colonised countries who died in combat,
including 20,000 Koreans and almost as many Taiwanese. As
part of its policy of empire building (or assimilation),
Japan required Koreans and Taiwanese to "serve and die for
the emperor and the state." Many were forcibly mobilised.
Many supposed volunteers were actually trying to escape
ethnic segregation and they did not embrace Shintoism.
An `unacceptable disgrace'
In 1978, for the first time, the descendants of a dead
Taiwanese requested the removal of his name from the shrine.
A subsequent request by Korean families led to legal
proceedings. The commemoration of the dead, the families
claimed, "at the heart of this symbol of an aggressor's
militarism, alongside aggressors who invaded and occupied our
countries through colonialism, constitutes an unacceptable
Taiwan aboriginal protesters
at Yasukuni Shrine, 2005
So far the shrine's priests have refused to give a positive
response, insisting: "They were Japanese when they died, so
they can't stop being Japanese now they are dead." (6)
There is also the issue of civilians killed during the battle
for Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Okinawa, an independent
kingdom and part of the Ryukyu islands that stretch between
Japan and Taiwan, was annexed by Japan in 1879, during the
first period of colonisation. In the last days of the Pacific
War, the Japanese army involved non-combatant civilians in
the name of a supposed "unity between people and army."
About 100,000 died in the battle for Okinawa; they were shot
as spies or killed themselves in collective suicides incited by
the soldiers. By commemorating many of them, the shrine
turned the army's victims into its collaborators. Out of the
2,460,000 dead commemorated, two million died in the Pacific
war, but only 40% of them in combat. Many died of hunger --
most of the soldiers sent to New Guinea, for example, died
after exhausting their food supplies, lost in the depths of the
jungle, their bodies left to rot where they fell.
An attempt has been made to use Tomita's diaries to end
official visits to the shrine. In the longer term they may
have the opposite effect. Some influential politicians, most
prominently the foreign minister, Aso Taro, have called for
the renationalisation of the shrine and the resumption of
imperial visits. The ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP)
introduced a parliamentary bill for state patronage of the
shrine in 1968 and 1970-73. The opposition defeated them at
the time, pointing out the risk of a return to militarism.
But 30 years later influential LPD politicians argue: "There is
only one way to obtain a state order for the removal of the
class A war criminals, to placate China and South Korea, and
finally to secure the resumption of prime ministerial and,
above all, imperial visits; and that is to nationalise the
This relates to the proposal for a new constitution that
revises the current article nine, which renounces war and
refers openly to an army of self-defence. The ban on the use
of armed force would end, in order "to preserve world peace."
The current prime minister, Abe Shinzo, has clearly expressed his
desire to pursue this constitutional change during his term
When Japan sent its defence forces to Iraq in 2004, there was
debate among the soldiers: should any of their deaths be
commemorated at the shrine?
Tetsuya Takahashi is a professor of philosophy at the University
of Tokyo and author of the best-selling book The Yasukuni Shrine
issue (Tokyo, 2005). This article is taken from a lecture delivered
at the University Paris-VIII.
This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in Le
Monde Diplomatique April 2007. Published at Japan Focus on
April 6, 2007.
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) The existence of these diaries was revealed by the Tokyo
newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
(2) In 1945 the allies set up three categories of war crime:
class A, crimes against peace; class B, conventional war
crimes; and class C, crimes against humanity.
(3) After the civil war that overthrew the shogunate
(military dictatorship), imperial government was fully
restored in January 1868, marking the beginning of the Meiji
period, which lasted until 1912.
(4) In September 1931 Japan falsely accused Chinese
dissidents of blowing up a section of railway as an excuse
for the annexation of Manchuria.
(5) Article 1 of the Constitution of November 1946.
(6) 1978 declaration by the second priest in charge of the
For a more extended statement by Takahashi, see
The National Politics of the Yasukuni Shrine