Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine founded under the will of Emperor Meiji with the hope to "preserve peace for the entire nation" ("History"). According to Shinto religion, descendants express their respects by serving the dead souls. The shrine sanctifies about 2.5 million Japanese men, women and children who sacrificed their lives for their country in wars since 1853. However, homages by Japanese officials provoked controversy among Asian countries, especially China and South Korea ("Japan's"). The criticism peaked when former Prime Minister Nakasone officially visited the shrine in 1985 ("Yasukuni"). One of the reasons for this is because the shrine honours 14 Class-A war criminals, who were responsible for the wars in Asia. Furthermore, these countries regard politicians' visits as beautifying the history of an aggressive past and claim that Japan has been whitewashing its history ("How Asians"). On the other hand, Japanese officials argue that it is a normal deed to commemorate war dead and to "renew the pledge that Japan must never wage war again" (Moore). In this way, the official visits to Yasukuni Shrine have been an irritant in Japan's relationship with major neighbouring countries (Prestowitz). This research identifies the most critical reasons for Japanese government officials to visit the shrine: namely, the traditional belief and unique religious aspects. It also examines the Chinese perspective in terms of criticizing those actions. The first section of this paper defines Yasukuni shrine, and its brief background is explained in the next section. The paper then focuses on different views from Japan and China, and finally, the last section examines shared approaches towards the issue, followed by concluding remarks.
Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine located in the center of Tokyo. It enshrines about 2.5 million souls in honour of sacrificing their lives for Japan since 1868 ("History"). In this respect, Yasukuni seems to have a similar role to that of a cemetery in other countries, but it has religious recognition. The shrine emphasizes that it does not bury bodies or bones of war dead, but rather commemorates the spirits of the dead that are believed to be transformed into divine spirits (Kotler). This unique understanding creates two symbolic meanings for the shrine. First, the shrine represents peace. During World War II, Yasukuni was the place where Japanese soldiers and others who served under imperial Japan could finally rest peacefully (Fisher). Additionally, "Yasukuni" means to preserve peace for the entire nation ("History"). On the other hand, Yasukuni also symbolizes militarism for some people. In 1969, 14 Class-A criminals, who are the guiltiest figures for the wars in East Asia, were sanctified secretly into the Yasukuni shrine. Also, it implies that the war crimes tribunal had no legitimacy and that Japan has not accepted the aggressive behaviours (Higurashi). Furthermore, official visits continually cause fury in neighbouring countries, especially from China and South Korea. These two countries criticized Japan for beautifying the imperial history and have demanded a sincere apology ("Japan's"). These two symbolic concepts are often used by Japan, China and South Korea to negatively provoke one another.
The most recent official visit to Yasukuni was made by the former defence minister, Tomomi Inada, in 2016. Since the shrine has been seen as a symbol of militarism in Japan, his action provoked anger from China and South Korea (Kubo). One of the reasons for this is that Yasukuni shrine embraces souls of Class A war criminals from World War II. In other words, Yasukuni was not controversial until war criminals' spirits were secretly enshrined there in 1978. Surprisingly, officials had visited even after the ritual, but there were no criticisms from other countries. It was the visit of former Prime Minister Nakasone that triggered the current issues (Woolf). The fundamental problems are that he made a visit in an official capacity, and he went to the shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender (Burns). Although official visits have been avoided for the sake of criticism, Prime Minister Koizumi challenged the situation when he visited Yasukuni six times during his administration. From the Chinese points of view, these behaviours are to beautify the Japanese imperial past ("Japan's"). Prime Minister Abe also visited the shrine in 2013, but he has refrained from going there since then. However, he has been sending offerings on the anniversary of Japan's surrender, which may have proven to be a continuous irritant on neighbouring countries (Kubo).
Various Attitudes Toward the Official Visits to Yasukuni Shrine
From the Japanese perspective, visiting Yasukuni shrine reflects a genuine belief in showing respect to their ancestors. Yasukuni shrine was established in 1869 by the will of Emperor Meiji to commemorate those who devoted their lives to the country ("History"). Unlike a cemetery, Yasukuni is a religious shrine based on Shintoism where dead souls are embedded (Kotler). According to the official web page of the Yasukuni shrine, more than 2.4 million divinities are embedded there. These souls are worshipped equally regardless of social status and gender; they include soldiers, war-time nurses and students, from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of World War II. Initially, Yasukuni shrine had peaceful connotations. First, the name of the shrine was given by the Emperor to wish for eternal peace for the whole nation. Second, this was a place where the reunion of family members separated by the wars was realized (Fisher). In Shinto religion, a human can be transformed into kami, or deities, after they die because spirits are believed to be refined through purification rituals.
In other words, Shinto has been a fundamental aspect of Japanese life. Therefore, it is an essential ritual for the descendants to show respect and pray for their harmonious life. Many other religions may believe the souls of faulty individuals will also be bad; whereas, in Japanese culture, there is an idea that souls can be reformed. Moreover (Books), a shrine is built to keep evil spirits from coming out into this world. Therefore, when Japanese visit Yasukuni Shrine, they may subconsciously believe that they are paying respects to reformed souls, not evil souls. In other words, from the Japanese perspective, those war criminals may now be reformed spirits. Also, they may visit and pray in a shrine to appease those evil spirits. In this respect, it is understandable that many Japanese officials stress that they are not paying homage to war criminals, but instead, they visit the shrine to pledge never to provoke war tragedies and to pray for eternal peace (Yoshida, and Aoki). Thus, it is natural for the Japanese to visit Yasukuni Shrine.
In contrast, an official visit to Yasukuni shrine gives a negative impression to neighbouring countries, especially to China. One of the significant reasons is that Yasukuni Shrine embraces Class A criminals, who are the most responsible for starting and waging wars in East Asia from the Japanese imperial past. These were the Japanese wartime leaders who were immediately captured by the Allied Powers for committing crimes against the peace. In 1948, these criminals were executed according to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East ("Hideki Tojo"). However, the souls of fourteen war criminals, including General Tojo, were secretly enshrined in Yasukuni through a refining ritual. It was only the following year that the public knew about the story. Consequently, many Chinese politicians and media criticized the official visit to the shrine as "paying homage to devils." Furthermore, recent significant changes in Japanese security policy seem to make the Chinese more sensitive towards this issue. Chinese officials have claimed that they are powerful enough to protect the region from any faulty militaristic practices when Prime Minister Abe visited Yasukuni shrine for first time in six years (Malkin). In other words, this might suggest that China believes that Japan has not atoned for her military aggression and is beautifying the past to revive militarism.
Moreover, China emphasizes its role as being a victim of Japanese imperialism and of the war criminals. The country estimates that 21 million people were killed under Japanese imperial order. In this respect, many Chinese regard any soldiers worshipped in Yasukuni shrine as being equated with honouring war criminals. China often marks out Japan as the assailant. For instance, there is a memorial museum for the Nanjing Massacre, in China, which is named in full as "the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders" ("Memorial Hall"). Professor Reinhard Drifte, an emeritus professor of Japanese politics, mentioned that although there are many other museums which tell the tragic events that occurred in history, they rarely point out who is to be blamed. This signifies that China is playing victim to any aggressions done by the Japanese. In addition, the constant demand for a "sincere apology" also represents that China is playing the role of being a victim. Therefore, many Chinese see official visits to Yasukuni Shrine as evidence of Japan being unrepentant about its past.
So far this paper has focused on different perceptions towards Japanese government visits to Yasukuni shrine. The following section will discuss the similar attitudes taken by both countries. The issue of an official visit to Yasukuni shrine could be propaganda for domestic politics in each country. First, both governments need nationalists for their political initiatives to succeed. Professor Jeff Kingston at Temple University in Tokyo indicates that there is some political calculation behind Japanese officials visiting Yasukuni shrine. Prime Minister Abe has the ambition to revise the Japanese constitution, which preceding administrations could not achieve. He believes that constitutional change is necessary because the constitution was imposed by the U.S. and constrains Japan from playing an active role in international security (Wingfield-Hayes). However, it is challenging to change the constitution, since more than half of the population must approve. To make the matter more troublesome, many Japanese cherish the "peace constitution." According to one poll, 58% of respondents oppose making any changes ("Poll:"). In order to achieve Abe's goal, he needs to be supported by many Japanese (Park). According to Professor Kingston, having a common threat like China might provoke nationalism in Japan to help him become re-elected. Therefore, criticisms from China might be specifically what the Japanese government wants.
This aspect is similar to that found in China, where the country might also have similar intentions in severely criticizing Japan. Much of the Chinese public wants their government to be hardened toward Japan because they had a "century of humiliation" including Japanese imperialism. China has been defeated, occupied and deprived of the highest status in East Asia by the Japanese since the 19th century (Florick). This history has shaped nationalistic views which aim to eradicate that humiliation. Chan Che Po and Brian Bridges, associate professors in the department of political science in Lingnan University, argue that acceptance of the past from Japan is the least that the Chinese are looking for to strengthen their self-esteem (Chan and Bridges 135). Perhaps the fundamental dilemma faced by the Chinese government is that even if it wants relations with Japan to improve, it is almost impossible to reject the emotional sentiments of the public. It needs public support to maintain its legitimacy. Thus, the Chinese government has been solidifying harsh attitudes towards Japan, thereby gaining support from the public (Chan and Bridges 134). From this view, the issue of Yasukuni Shrine could trigger each country to be on poor terms, and helps to strengthen nationalism against the common enemy. Therefore, Japan and China might have been utilizing the Yasukuni Shrine issue as propaganda for domestic politics.
This paper has focused on different perspectives towards official visits to Yasukuni shrine, mainly in Japan and China. Then, the paper further identified similar aspects of utilizing the issue for domestic propaganda. Japan explains the official visits to Yasukuni shrine based on traditional views. Shintoism influences many Japanese, in that they believe that dead souls would turn into deities, which deserve to be respected. It is a natural act to visit and pray in a shrine; thus, Yasukuni shrine is not an exception. On the other hand, an official visit to Yasukuni shrine is viewed as a defiant attitude toward history in the eyes of the Chinese. As they emphasize their victimhood under Japanese military aggression, each person who participated in the war is no different from Class A war criminals. In this perspective, China has been furious about Japanese officials' reckless actions. These two aspects have satisfactory explanations which should be respected. In other words, the implication is that it is challenging to appease the tension between the two countries. However, both countries seem to share a similarity. The governments utilize controversial issues to strategically promote nationalism so that they can easily pursue their own goals. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, official visits to Yasukuni shrine will remain a controversy, and there will likely be no definitive answer with regards to which perspective on the issue will receive primary recognition.
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July 9, 2019
9:00 pm Tuesday, Tokyo (GMT+9)
essay, shrine, japan, china, perception
About the author
A sophomore student in International Christian University in Tokyo. Used to live in China, currently studying Mandarin. Her interest is in studying international relations and linguistics at university. I like outdoor activities, currently a member of archery club. Loves to watch movies in her spare time.