The Yasukuni Controversy

Here’s the main reason I will always feel a little bit sorry for anyone in the prime minister position in Japan: They will have to decide, every year, how to deal with what is probably the most public, and most closely internationally watched, act of national mourning in the world. The choice is to either visit the Yasukuni Shrine, or not.

The controversy in a nutshell:

Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社 Yasukuni Jinja) is a Shinto shrine located in Tokyo, Japan, dedicated to the spirits of soldiers and others who died fighting on behalf of the Emperor of Japan. In October 2004, its Book of Souls listed the names of 2,466,532 men and women, including 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans, whose lives were dedicated to the service of Imperial Japan, particularly to those killed in wartime.

The shrine is a source of considerable controversy. Included in the Book of Souls are 1,068 people convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. A total of 12 convicted and 2 suspected Class A war criminals (“crime against peace”) are enshrined at Yasukuni. The shrine’s history museum contains an account of Japan’s actions in World War II, which is considered revisionist by many outside of Japan.

Visits to the shrine by cabinet members have been a cause of protest at home and abroad. China, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan have protested against various visits since 1985. Despite the controversy, the former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made annual visits from 2001 to 2006.

-from Wikipedia: Yasukuni Shrine

Indeed, Koizumi’s visits spawned protests every year, just like clockwork. He sparked lawsuits in 2001, impacted international relations in 2002, strained relations with China and S. Korea in 2003 and 2005, and stoked anger in 2006, when he actually visted on the anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender. And those are only a few of the articles that were produced every year. His own statements said that he went to pray against the return of war, but many people (particularly in other countries) see any acknowledgement of the shrine as a celebration of the nationalistic militarism that led them into WWII.

Shinzo Abe, by contrast, did not choose to visit the shrine. This should have rendered him safe on the issue, yes? Of course not. A Japanese political activist cut off his finger and mailed it to Abe, with a letter. Granted, Abe’s refusal to visit may have been preferred by his Asian neighbors, but it still wasn’t the right answer for everyone.

Here’s the thing to me. Japan has to deal with the fact that 2.5 million of their people died in war. The shrine’s been there since 1869; it doesn’t only honor the dead of WWII. What’s more, of those 2.5 million dead souls, only 12 of them are convicted WWII Class A war criminals (+2 who were suspected.) Their souls are by far in the minority there, so why make the shrine only symbolize them? Regardless of what people around the world think about Japanese behavior in WWII, not every soldier was a war criminal and committed atrocities, and all of them had family and friends who would feel the need to mourn their deaths in some way.

And I don’t really understand why there is so much criticism of the history museum at the shrine. From the Wikipedia entry again:

Yasukuni Shrine also operates a museum of the history of Japan (the Yūshūkan, 遊就館) which some observers have criticized as presenting a revisionist interpretation. A documentary-style video shown to museum visitors portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the pre-World War II period as an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western pressure.

A pamphlet published by the shrine says: “War is a really tragic thing to happen, but it was necessary in order for us to protect the independence of Japan and to prosper together with our Asian neighbors.” It also says that Japanese POWs executed for war crimes were “cruelly and unjustly tried” by a “sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces.”

Having just finished John Dower’s account of Japan during the post-war period, Embracing Defeat, I have to say, that all sounds pretty accurate to me. Those were the Japanese leaders’ reasons for agression against their Asian neighbors at the time. They did feel economically threatened. It’s pretty obvious now that those weren’t good reasons, but they were the reasons nonetheless. Should the museum instead present the reasons the rest of the world ascribed to the Japanese? Would that be less “revisionist?” And Dower’s chapter on the war crimes tribunal held in Japan makes it pretty clear that the whole thing was a farce, just a show trial, with a great deal of factionalization amongst the judges and dominated overall by the US. What’s more, so what if the shrine’s museum does present a more nationalistic viewpoint? It’s a viewpoint. The shrine isn’t affiliated with the government. Should we deny that there are people who feel this way? Isn’t that, in many ways, more dangerous than knowing what they think?

Another thing highlighted by Dower’s book is the sheer amount of censorship the US forces exercised during the years of occupation, which directly contribute to anger other Asian nations feel toward Japan to this day. Many of the internal Japanese publications and private writings indicate that the Japanese public was extremely shocked and shamed by revelations of the atrocities their troops had committed during the war. But under MacArthur and his censorship bureau, there was no national or international (at least for the Japanese) discussion of these issues allowed, no sense of closure to be formed on an international stage, and therefore no acts of apology or reparation were seen as forthcoming until it was years later, and none of the countries involved could feel like such actions were truly meaningful anymore.

The protests held by the general public every time politicians propose changing the pacifist parts of the constitution indicate, at least to me, that there aren’t a lot of regular Japanese people who think war is an acceptable answer to solving problems anymore. Many people I met there, saw on the news when I lived there, and have taught as exchange students in the US since then have a huge amount of pride in their country’s committment to pacifism. Ironically, it is other countries that are putting pressure on the political leaders of Japan to change that (primarily the US,) at the same time that they act appalled if the PM visits the war dead shrine.

I guess my own feeling is that this is all blown completely out of proportion by all the international attention. At this point, 62 years removed from the end of WWII, I think it’s time to let Japan deal with its own war dead. Leaders of other countries who choose to get outraged about whether or not the PM visits Yasukuni are doing just that, choosing to be outraged. Does it serve any real purpose? If there was evidence that the PM was trying to whip up nationalistic militarism for aggressive purposes, sure, get mad. But if anything, it was the PM who most recently chose not to who encouraged more of that attitude.

-posted by Dana


8 Responses to The Yasukuni Controversy

  1. TheGnat says:

    I visited the Yasukuni Shrine when I was in Japan, as part of my seminar on Japan as a world player in both war and peace since the Meiji Restoration. (Ok, I call it a seminar, but there were only 3 of us in the class…). The museum portion of the shrine really does deserve a great deal of the criticism it receives. To call its presentation of history as “revisionist” is a kindly understatement, to say the least.

    *However*, the museum and the shrine are not entirely one and the same. The Book of Souls isn’t part of the museum, it’s part of the shrine. And the shrine is one dedicated to those who have died in war, regardless of what they did it in that war. It’s like saying an American president can’t visit Arlington Cemetery, or the Vietnam War Memorial!

    Foreigners also forget that while yes the Japanese committed atrocities, they hurt themselves almost as much, and suffered some atrocities themselves. But the winners were never brought to court for some of their actions. Being told they can’t honor their dead because some of those dead did bad things, but that the winners can honor whoever they like, is hypocritical to say the least. I think that’s why Koizumi likely started the whole Yasukuni Shrine thing. Koizumi is a conservative, and did want to make Japan more independent defensively, but I don’t think he ever showed an interest in changing Japan’s *pacifism*.

    Abe is as nuts as Bush is. If he’d gone to the shrine, there’s no way it would be to pray *for* peace. And it would have been even more controversial. In the end though, it’s been over 60 years. When is Japan going to be permitted to move on? How long do they have to be reminded and mistreated about this? Until the next world war makes everyone forget? Nobody treats Germany like this! Why Japan? Probably because it’s an Eastern and not a Western nation. It’s the same problem that has plagued both Japan and China for over 300 years, but that’s a topic for another discussion.

  2. Dana says:

    Word, Gnat.

    I like the analogy with Arlington and the Vietnam memorial.

    I think there are several reasons Japan isn’t permitted to move on. For one thing, in Asia, it’s a much more isolated nation, (being islands and all,) so the other countries don’t necessarily feel like they all have to get along due to proximity. (I’m just guessing about that one, though.) For another thing, Japan’s seemingly miraculous economic post-war boom has brought out a lot of resentment. Germany never really got to have that as a whole country. Plus, Germany is seen as having paid more reparations and showed more repentence, thanks to the greater legitimacy of the Nuremburg trials and the East/West partition, etc. (It’s in my reading plans to look into this more, though.) And it’s in the middle of Europe, so how were the other countries going to act like they could ignore it?

    It’s kind of weird how totally demonized the Japanese were in WWII, through the combination of war and orientalism/exoticism. The Germans were European, familiar, understandable, men, with fighting sometimes taking place in their own country. The Japanese were monkeymen from the other side of the world, in an isolated country few people knew anything about, doing all their fighting on foreign soil. But so many people forget that we bombed most of Tokyo completely to the ground, *before* bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then occupied them for years in a very colonial manner, making them pay for it all to boot. *sigh*

  3. laikal says:

    The problem with the Arlington comparison is simple: those who start wars and don’t win them are condemned. America fought essentially a defensive war to help liberate other occupied nations; sure, there are nuances there, but the overall story is what is important in terms of how the history is viewed. We won, we got to point out all the terrible things that Imperial Japan did, we got to be the liberators.

    That’s how history rolls.

    Germany hasn’t really dealt with their lingering post-world-war-two issues either, though perhaps for different reasons. Nazism and anything that looks like it is banned, and it remains a sensitive subject. Even the small-scale WWII memorials in Germany are often defaced. I’m not certain why Japan’s neighbors aren’t as forgiving as Germany’s.

    I don’t know as much about the Japanese occupation, but I’d be willing to bet dimes to dollars that Germany had it worse. Beyond the routine reparations (making the loser pay is a standard condition of surrender), the allies were committed to tearing Germany apart, and if not for the shocking eye-for-an-eye brutality of the Soviet occupation and our own fears that the Germans would “go commie”, they might never have had their Marshall-plan fueled “economic miracle”. Even the western allies literally pillaged Germany for anything of value! But then again, that’s how war used to be. World War II is what gave us our modern notion that if we must fight, we should do it without demonizing our foe or attacking their civilians.

    It’s interesting that both nations did undergo “miraculous” economic transformation in the 50s.

  4. Dana says:


    On the contrary, the comparison with Arlington is good. Both are places where the nation’s war dead *in general* are honored. They were, in fact, both instituted at nearly the same exact time; Arlington in 1864, Yasukuni in 1869. Is there any kind of guarantee that there is absolutely noone buried in Arlington who ever committed an atrocity during a time of war? Hardly. We haven’t won all the wars people are buried there for, but people from Vietnam and Korea don’t hold massive protests when the president visits, and he’s hardly praying for peace (no matter which president is in question.) The identification of Yasukuni exclusively with WWII, and more specifically with WWII war criminals, is an artificial one imposed from the outside.

    Your immediate reaction that even though you don’t know much about the Japanese occupation, but Germany must have had it worse is kind of funny, because it’s proving my point that it is what everyone *assumes.* That occupation was far more observed by the world. Multiple countries and factions were involved, everyone got to feel like they had their say, and in the end, they went away at least partly mollified. Japan’s occupation happened in isolation, behind a curtain, under the auspices of not just one country, but one man, and MacArthur certainly wasn’t prone to listening to other people’s opinions. Other countries didn’t feel like Japan had suffered enough and/or paid enough, because they had never gotten any say of their own in how things should be handled there. The overall Japanese response to the aftermath of WWII is seen as haughty and proud mostly because, as far as most of the world could see, it didn’t exist. Silence, fueled by ignorant exoticism, allowed them to attribute any attitudes they wanted. More on the occupation here.

    The anti-communism wave is also what got Japan into their economic boom, since they became a protected supply depot for MacArthur’s Korean campaign, even though they were specifically denied a Marshall-Plan-like program, on the grounds that they didn’t deserve it and had to be taught to pull themselves up. (Ah, 1950s conservatives. Sounds familiar…)

  5. TheGnat says:

    There’s a small(ish) error in your comparison with Germany as well. You forgot that, ignoring whether the RyuuKyuu Islands were or are part of Japan, IwoJima and Okinawa are both most definitely part of Japan, and they were two of the fiercest battlegrounds at the end of the war, for *both* sides. (Admittedly, Manila was an absolute horror for the Japanese…)

    And Arlington contains/honors people who are almost certainly war criminals by modern definition (*ahem* civil war generals anyone? plenty of people from wars *after* WW2 as well…).

    But now I’m just nitpicking because I think we’ve all covered everything I can think of without writing a dissertation on the topic….and who knows how many times that’s been done!!

  6. Dana says:

    True, Gnat, I should know better than to use words like “all.”

    Interestingly, many of the pre-WWII, modern-definition war criminals to be found in Arlington would probably have not been considered so before WWII, just like the Yasukuni criminals. Harsh when modern politics gets all retroactive on your history.

    Fun how all of this history interpretation stuff is so subjective.

    Oh, and laikal, I was just talking to Mark about how all the WWII video games seem to focus nearly exclusively on the European front. So maybe that’s helping skew American perspective. 🙂

  7. kidsilkhaze says:

    Of course, this conversation is long dead, but I’ve been out of town. In a country that really, really hates Japan, in a large part because of the awful, awful, horrible things Japan did during WWII.

    See, Germany doesn’t deny the Holocaust happened. Germany has at least acknowledged that it committed unspeakable horrors and has tried to honor that and apologize.

    I think the Asian community in general would be a lot more tolerant of Japan’s war dead if Japan, oh, I don’t know, acknowledged what it did and actually apologized, and maybe taught it in schools?

    Germany teaches its school children what happened. The US teaches its school children what happened.

    Japan won’t even acknowledge it and continues to deny what it did. Maybe once it acknowledges it’s past, admits its wrongs and apologizes, such a visit will cease to be controversial.

  8. […] I’ve written about the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan before, and all the controversy it causes, especially every year when the prime minister decides to go or […]

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