Walter Hamilton. Yasukuni Shrine and why it matters.

May 4, 2014

Yasukuni–Japan’s Patriotic Lightning Rod

The Shinto shrine known as Yasukuni sprawls over ten hectares in the centre of Tokyo near the northern edge of the Imperial Palace grounds. Here are enshrined 2.47 million ‘deities’––the spirits of Japanese military personnel and civilians on war service from conflicts going back to 1853, including around 1,000 convicted war criminals. To its critics, Yasukuni is a bastion of historical revisionism, which denies that Japan waged a war of aggression between 1937 and 1945. Visits to the shrine by senior members of the government are an ongoing source of friction with China and South Korea.

Australia has the War Memorial in Canberra; the United States has Arlington National Cemetery. Indeed every country raises monuments to remember and honour their war dead. What’s different about Yasukuni Shrine? Why the controversy?

Yasukuni is not a cemetery, nor is it a secular monument. It is a religious institution. Prior to 1945, the shrine was a special organ of the state under the jurisdiction of the Army, Navy and Home Ministries. As ‘ritualist-in-chief’ of the Shinto religion, the god-Emperor had the final say on who could or could not be enshrined at Yasukuni. Shintoism furnished the mythologies that underpinned Emperor-worship in totalitarian Japan, such that soldiers and sailors embarking for the front, and fully expecting to die for the Emperor, would pledge to ‘meet again at Yasukuni’.

Between 1945 and 1952, the Allied Powers set about dismantling the apparatus of Japanese militarism. The nation’s top civilian and military leaders were put on trial in Tokyo by an international tribunal (the Australian judge Sir William Webb serving as president of the court) for war crimes, crimes against humanity and/or ‘crimes against peace’ (the so-called Class ‘A’ category), which was defined as the ‘planning, preparation, initiation or waging wars of aggression’, or conspiracy to do so. Seven of these high-profile defendants were executed, including wartime leader General Hideki Tojo. Two died during the proceedings; one was declared insane; sixteen were sentenced to life imprisonment; and two others were given shorter prison terms.

Another forty-two accused Class ‘A’ war criminals, including Nobusuke Kishi, future prime minister and grandfather of Japan’s present leader Shinzo Abe, were arrested but released without trial. After recovering its sovereignty in 1952, Japan began to reverse certain reforms of the Allied Occupation, and by 1958 all war criminals had been released from jail and politically rehabilitated.

Yasukuni Shrine became a private religious institution in September 1946, in accordance with the principle of the separation of church and state, soon to be enshrined in Japan’s new constitution. Ten years later, however, contrary to this principle, the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Yasukuni Shrine began ‘administrative co-operation on enshrinement’, the process by which individuals were selected as kami or deities. A start was made in 1959 on the enshrinement of Class ‘B’ and ‘C’ war criminals (convicted of mistreatment of prisoners, murder of civilians, wanton destruction and atrocities). By now Prime Minister Kishi was in office. He and other conservative leaders supported the aims of such patriotic groups as the Japan War Bereaved Families Association.

In 1966 the Ministry of Health and Welfare approved the first group of Class ‘A’ war criminals for enshrinement, but when the list went to the shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba no action was taken. In light of subsequent events, it seems likely that the attitude of Emperor Hirohito was crucial. Tsukuba, a former marquis, was himself a member of the Imperial Family, and for as long as he remained in charge at Yasukuni no Class ‘A’ war criminals were enshrined there.

Tsukuba died in 1978. He was succeeded by Nagayoshi Matsudaira, a former lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy, whose father-in-law, a vice-admiral, was tried and executed by the Dutch for war crimes (and later enshrined at Yasukuni). Within three months of Matsudaira’s taking over, fourteen deceased, Class ‘A’ war criminals were secretly enshrined at Yasukuni. While its defenders may claim that Yasukuni Shrine serves no other purpose than to console the spirits of the dead and honour their sacrifices, this sequence of events shows how personal and political motives have driven its use as an instrument of national policy. ‘Even before I made up my mind [to become head priest at Yasukuni], I argued that so-called Class-A war criminals should also be venerated, as Japan’s spiritual rehabilitation would be impossible unless we rejected the Tokyo tribunal,’ Matsudaira told a magazine in 1989, as quoted by the Mainichi Shimbun.

According to Professor Yoshinobu Higurashi of Teikyo University (whose writings on the subject have informed this blog: See the enshrinement of the Class ‘A’ war criminals ‘cannot be attributed simply to religious or filial impulses’. It was ‘a blatantly ideological and political act driven by an urge to justify and legitimize a highly controversial chapter in Japan’s history’.

Even though, as a signatory of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan formally agreed to the outcome of the Tokyo Trials, the nation’s conservative elite––most notably these days, Prime Minister Abe––steadfastly refuse to accept the burden of war guilt. They have a personal and public stake, through ties of blood and marriage, in overturning the verdict of history. On its English-language website, Yasukuni Shrine sets the tone by referring to ‘people who were labeled war criminals and executed after having been tried by the Allies’: in other words, victims not perpetrators. The shrine’s museum continues the narrative of denial of Japan’s atrocious wartime behaviour and, instead, strikes a note of triumphalism in its displays of armaments and trophies of battle.

The Defense Ministry similarly promotes the idea of ‘victor’s justice’. At its compound in Tokyo where the auditorium used for the Tokyo Trials is preserved, the only reference to the court’s verdict is a display devoted to the dissenting judgement of the Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal, who would have acquitted all the accused on the basis that Japan was forced into war by hostile Western nations.

The person best placed to know whether this dissenting view has any merit would be Emperor Hirohito. After the enshrinement of the fourteen Class ‘A’ war criminals, Emperor Hirohito made the decision never to visit Yasukuni Shrine again. No emperor has been there since. Not long before he died, according to a memorandum taken by an aide, Hirohito made clear that the two decisions were directly linked. ‘What’s on the mind of Matsudaira’s son, who is the current head priest?’ he is reported to have asked (the man’s father, Yoshitami Matsudaira, was well known to him as Imperial Household Minister during the war). ‘Matsudaira [senior] had a strong wish for peace, but the child didn’t know the parent’s heart. That’s why I have not visited the shrine since. This is my heart.’

Having controversially escaped prosecution for his role in the war, Hirohito’s stand against the revisionists and deniers––albeit indirectly and by an act of omission––gives the lie to those, like Abe, who insist that Yasukuni can serve both as a symbol of peace and a shrine to warmongers. Could it be that Japan’s swing to the right is, as Hirohito feared, the blindness of the child who does not know the parent’s heart?

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years. He is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story (NewSouth Press).










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