Why Yasukuni hurts

Print edition : September 22, 2006


Many Japanese support a national shrine to mourn the dead, not just soldiers but all those killed in battles.

JAPANESE Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni shrine on August 8 has become an annual feature that causes the expected furore in Japan as well as in China and Korea. It seems unexceptionable for a country to mourn its dead, so why the furore?

This is because Yasukuni is not just a simple national memorial. The elevation of Yasukuni into a national shrine is but one plank in an ideological programme that is trying to reconstruct and reinvigorate Japan based on a backward-looking and closed nationalism; a position that is seriously contested and debated within Japan.

The elevation of Yasukuni in post-war Japan, along with the whitewashing of Japan's colonial past, is seen by large sections of society as hampering Japan from resolving its own social problems and putting at rest its colonial crimes.

To understand why the Prime Minister's visits to the Yasukuni shrine evoke such partisan emotions it is important to understand its history.

Yasukuni was built in 1869, a year after the new Meiji government came to power, to enshrine (actually, `apotheosis' is more accurate, as the person is raised to a Shinto god) those who died fighting for the Emperor and the new government.

That is, it was a shrine for the victors in a civil war. The Meiji forces had fought and overthrown the Tokugawa shogunate though the political fiction was that the Shogun was returning power to the Emperor.

This new government carried out a range of reforms but central to them was the elevation of the imperial house and the crafting of a nationalism based on the uniqueness of Japan and the Japanese people.

To this end it began the process of separating Buddhist from Shinto practices, as until then the two had been inextricably linked, and creating `State Shinto'. This was a state ideology and scholars distinguish it from `kami Shinto' (kami, translated as god, actually means `superior person') or the popular religion.

The Meiji government argued that `State Shinto' was not a religion but a `rite of state', and so all Japanese had to follow Shinto regardless of their personal religious beliefs. These policies to craft a religious nationalism were, in part, the product of the new influences from the West.

The government established a bureau to spread these new ideas among the people and brought Shinto shrines under its control. Sometimes small shrines were destroyed or amalgamated with others for greater efficiency, but unlike other shrines Yasukuni was put under the control of the Army and Navy Ministries and its head was not a Shinto priest but a General or an Admiral. It was protected by the military police and until the end of the Second World War, 24,600,000 soldiers were enshrined there.

PRIME MINISTER JUNICHIRO Koizumi at the Chidorigafuchi national war memorial cemetery in Tokyo on August 15, the 61st anniversary of Japan's defeat in the Second World War.-JIJI PRESS/AFP

After Japan's defeat, the United States occupied the country and carried out democratic reforms. In the new democratic atmosphere many Japanese began to question their past and the nature of the militant nationalism that had led the country on the path of war and destruction. The questioning was a long-drawn and difficult process but out of this emerged a broad-based support for rejecting war as an instrument of foreign policy, building a peace movement and the questioning of Japanese wartime aims.

The new Constitution drafted by the U.S. occupation authorities removed religion from state control and the Yasukuni shrine became an independent religious institution. However, after Japan became independent, some of the reforms were reversed and an attempt was made to bring the Yasukuni shrine back under national control. To this end four attempts were made to enact a Bill in the Diet. Public opinion was alive to the significance of these failed attempts. The conservative groups then turned to a strategy of making public visits to Yasukuni as a way to reclaim it as a national shrine.

In 1978, 14 Class A war criminals, condemned by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, were enshrined at Yasukuni, among them those responsible for the Manchurian Incident (Itagaki Seishiro, 1885-1948), which began the war with China, and the Nanking massacre (Matsui Iwane, 1878-1948).

In 1985 when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, a man who wanted to put the legacy of the war behind him, paid a public visit to Yasukuni, there was, understandably, an uproar within Japan as well as in China and Korea. Subsequent Prime Ministers did not go to Yasukuni until Junichiro Koizumi began his annual visits in 2001, leading to widespread protests in Japan, China, Korea and parts of Southeast Asia.

The practice of mourning soldiers in its present form is not an old custom. It was during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 that a special ceremony was created for soldiers who died in battle (Gunjin sogi shidai) and as the war spread, Buddhists groups began to publish rules and explanations for mourning to inform the people, as these were departures from accepted practice. These ceremonies were initially restricted to soldiers and not to any other people who died in war. The remains of soldiers who died fighting were formally received and treated as those of "heroes". Buddhists treated all the dead as equal and did not see them as becoming spirits (rei), but said that they attained Buddhahood (hotoke ni naru).

But from 1938 they began to describe the soldiers as `spirit of the departed hero' (eirei, a word straight from the State Shinto lexicon), and invested them with all the accompanying political baggage. In 1988 the Supreme Court overturned the judgment of two lower courts and ruled against Nakaya Yasuko, a Christian widow, who sought to prevent the state from enshrining her husband, a member of the Self-Defence Force who died in an accident.

This history of the Yasukuni shrine is one of the reasons why Koizumi's visits arouse such intense passions. He has a great deal of support from people who argue that Japan was driven to war by the international climate and that even though it may have committed atrocities, these were neither planned nor part of official policy but merely the natural fallout of war and battle. Above all, they argue that Japan was trying to liberate its Asian neighbours from Western colonialism.

In the museum attached to the Yasukuni shrine, the Yushukan, is a permanent exhibition of pictures, artefacts and maps related to the wars Japan fought in the modern period, but it skirts controversy by avoiding any discussion on the nature of the wars. However, the museum also shows a film, made by a private organisation, that extols the Japanese attempt to liberate Asia, glossing over colonial policies that exploited the people and suppressed their national languages and culture. It is this history and the attempts to revive a discredited vision that arouse passions against Koizumi's visits.

A major impetus for trying to make Yasukuni a national shrine comes from the shrine management. Survivors of the war and their relatives are slowly passing away and these declining numbers mean fewer visitors and dwindling revenues. Recognition as a national shrine would bring state support and improve the shrine's dwindling resources.

The Yasukuni visit also needs to be understood in the context of the growing insecurities about Japanese economic and political strength, which fuels a divisive debate and promote a defensive nationalism. Koizumi's popularity taps into one vein of this rising nationalism, but it would be short-sighted to view Japan only from this position. There is widespread support for a more open and confident nationalism that can accommodate differing views.

Many sections of society, including religious groups, support a national shrine to mourn the dead, not just soldiers but all those killed in battles, regardless of their nationality (for instance, forced Korean labour or foreign prisoners of war who died in attacks on Japan). Close to Yasukuni is the war memorial for the unknown solider in the Chidorigafuchi cemetery. This memorial, built after the war, is one such candidate. Visits there would arouse no passions and yet serve the purpose of honouring all those who died. They would also signal the emergence of a more confident and forward-looking Japan.

Brij Tankha is Professor of Modern Japanese History, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.

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