Yasukuni – what’s the problem?

Last week, some of Japan’s leading politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition, visited Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社) in Tokyo. Following the visits, there was a negative reaction from other countries in Asia. It’s the kind of story that rolls around every so often; the visit and then the objections.

Why do some Japanese politicians visit Yasukuni? And why does it anger other countries in Asia?

First of all, some background to what Yasukuni Shrine is. There are many Shinto shrines in Tokyo and throughout Japan; some are grand and imposing, many are neighbourhood shrines. The grandest of all in Tokyo is Meiji Jingu (明治神宮), but Yasukuni is also very big. It was built in 1869 under the Emperor Meiji, and is the principal place where the souls of those who died fighting for the emperor are enshrined, though there are others. Currently there are almost two and a half million souls enshrined there, and more are added every year. The majority of those enshrined are fallen soldiers, but also included are other categories of civilians including women and children; people caught in the crossfire in any way; conscripted to work in factories for the war effort and people interned in POW camps. Yasukuni is separate from the state and the priests there make the decision about who is enshrined there.

The controversies:

One controversy which we hear about sometimes in Japan is connected to the conscripted workers who are enshrined there. The families of these workers in some cases do not want their ancestors enshrined there; some are not Japanese but Korean or Chinese. Despite requests that their ancestors’ souls (神) be removed, Yasukuni refuses to do so. The reason given is that all the souls are enshrined together and it’s impossible to separate them.

The controversy which was re-played last week is because by visiting the shrine and paying their respects there, the politicians were in part paying their respects to a number of Class A war criminals, executed or imprisoned after the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. There is an underlying friction which South Korea and China react to; it reappears with every new textbook approved which doesn’t address Japan’s wartime behaviour to their satisfaction, with any action by the Japanese government which reminds their Asian neighbours of their past aggression, and with every official visit made by politicians to Yasukuni. The countries who were invaded during the 1930s and 1940s, who were on the receiving end of Japan’s militarism which only ended with Japan’s defeat in August 1945 feel, to put it bluntly, that Japan has form. Japan, for its part, maintains that in defeat it made reparations and there is nothing further to be answered to or done.

I have been to Yasukuni a number of times. It’s a good place to view the cherry blossoms in the spring, though as I write that after all that is above it seems like a flimsy reason to go there. About fifteen years ago I visited the museum there, and it was an uncomfortable experience. I didn’t read every scrap of information there, so I can’t write with any authority about how much is condones Japan’s militarism. What has stuck with me is seeing the submarine version of a kamikaze plane. It was a chilling thing to see, to imagine how many young lives were ended under the water or in the air. I also walked past the entrance to Yasukuni quite often when I used to attend the Lutheran church in Iidabashi. Sunday is the day all the extreme right-wing hobbyists favour for their outings in their black trucks, riding round blaring military music and yelling their demands for the return of the northern islands (now part of Russia) among other things. I often saw a lot of military-garbed men standing around, and it was a menacing sight.

Of course, every country has a right and a duty to honour the sacrifices made by previous generations, and just because Japan was defeated does not mean they have no right to do that. But it is also true that the Japanese military did some terrible things, and that these things are not always taught clearly to the generations that have followed is hurtful to the countries whose citizens and soldiers suffered and were killed. It is always a balancing act, and really, can anyone say that they were taught the dark side of their own country’s historical adventures? Being British, I know I can’t.

But this is the place some politicians choose to visit. The Prime Minister had asked his cabinet members to refrain from visiting, yet two of them did last Thursday, just one day after the newly-elected leader of an opposition party (former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) did the same. With Japan already embroiled in disputes with both China and South Korea over islands (Senkaku / Diaoyu with China and Takeshima / Dokdo with South Korea), these politicians visited knowing what the reactions would be.

And so they reacted. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said, ‘China’s position on this issue has been clear-cut and consistent: we urge the Japanese side to face squarely and reflect upon history and strictly abide by its solemn statements and pledges regarding historical issues, and face the international community in a responsible manner.’ The South Korean Foreign Ministry responded with, ‘It is really regrettable to hear about the irresponsible behaviour that ignores the feelings of the people in neighbouring countries, who have been victimised by Japanese imperialism in the past.’

So predictable. So avoidable. Just because you have the right to do something, should you, if by doing it you further damage relations with your neighbours? Is it worth it?


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