Minami Funakoshi senior contributor

Why Does the Controversy Over Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine Refuse to Go Away?

Japan’s Yasukuni shrine, pictured here, has been a flash point for Sino-Japanese relations. (By MJ/TR (´・ω・)/Flickr)

[The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily represent the view of the editors.]

In the past four decades since the recovery of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, one issue has constantly haunted the two nations’ relationship: The Yasukuni Shrine controversy. When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited China in 2001, he expressed “heartfelt apology and condolences for those Chinese people who were the victims of aggression.” This apology, which explicitly mentions the words “China” and “apology,” still falls short of the written apology that China demands. But China’s government also condemned these words as insincere because of Koizumi’s continued visits to Yasukuni.

Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo; Shintoism is the traditional belief system in Japan, one that views the islands of Japan as land created by gods, and the Japanese Emperor as the direct descendent of god. Yasukuni Shrine commemorates those who died while serving Japan as “kami,” or gods. Fourteen Class-A war criminals, along with over 1,000 Class B and C war criminals, are enshrined there.  

Many Chinese citizens compare Japan to Nazi Germany when discussing the Yasukuni Shrine controversy. “Imagine [if] Angela Merkel publicly worshiped Adolf Hitler?” Web user @vrts800 commented once on the Yale Daily News in response to an article criticizing anti-Japan riots. “That is exactly what the Japanese are doing. Japanese politicians worship class-A war criminals with impunity.”

Toward a possible solution 

Those enshrined at Yasukuni, however, are not limited to military personnel. Civilians who died during the war, including those killed during the Battle of Okinawa, are honored there as well.

This presents a thorny question. If a Japanese leader wishes to honor only the civilians at Yasukuni, they must also perforce pay respects to the criminals enshrined there; there is, at the moment, no mechanism for selective worship. (This is, however, not to claim that all Japanese leaders visit the shrine with the sole intention of honoring the civilians.) Would removing the spirits of the fourteen Class-A war criminals from Yasukuni Shrine or transferring them to a different site resolve the issue? No less than a senior member of Japan’s center-right Liberal Democratic Party suggested to do just this in 2005.

At first glance, a transfer or removal seems sensible. But it poses the question: Who will remove or transfer the spirits of the war criminals? Some Shinto priests argue that because this solution is a diplomatic one, it would be the Japanese state that removes or transfers the spirits. But doing so would likely violate Article 20 of the Japanese Constitution, which both guarantees individual freedom of religion and forbids “the State and its organs” from engaging in “any … religious activity.” Other Shinto priests oppose this proposal for doctrinal reasons, claiming that enshrined kamis are impossible to “remove.”

Even if no one opposed the proposal, however, simply removing or transferring the kamis of the war criminals is but a temporary, surface-level solution. The Yasukuni Shrine controversy, like all other issues between China and Japan, is too complex to be solved in one fell swoop.

The battleground of memory

When discussing Japanese wartime aggression, the Chinese tend to characterize the Japanese soldiers as heartless, relentless devils, while the Japanese tend to glorify them as heroes who willingly sacrificed their lives for the nation. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese view them as human beings.

The surviving Japanese soldiers’ testimonies, however, suggest otherwise. In Risa Morimoto’s documentary Wings of Defeat, which recounts World War II from the perspective of surviving kamikaze pilots, one former pilot states, “As I flew over the burnt cities, I thought to myself, Japan had already lost—the suicide missions were meaningless.” Another pilot confesses, upon being told he was to fly his mission he thought to himself, “Oh, I’m screwed.” “I wanted to live; I didn’t want to die,” he later added.

If they had such misgivings, why did the pilots volunteer to undertake the kamikaze mission? “They were made to rejoice in their own death. It was the exploitation of their youthful idealism that made it such a wicked enterprise,” Ian Buruma, an expert on 20th century Japan, explains in his book The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and in Japan. Through propaganda, the state equated self-sacrifice to glory, honor, and duty; dazzled by the rhetoric of glory, many Japanese people marched into the battlefield, which eventually turned self-sacrifice for the sake of the nation into a social norm. 

This glorification of self-sacrifice by the state continues to this day. Yushukan, the history museum operated by the Yasukuni Shrine, depicts Japan as the liberator of Asia, and kamikaze pilots as selfless heroes who willingly died for the nation. The museum simply does not mention Imperial Japan’s World War II-era atrocities or the propaganda and social pressure that drove many people to death.

Getting to the heart of the matter

This distorted view of history propagated by Yushukan–not the composition of the enshrined—is the true core of the Yasukuni Shrine controversy. Because the Yasukuni Shrine operates the museum, Japanese prime ministers visiting the shrine suggest in turn a “worshipping” of the museum’s deeply flawed historical narrative.

Should Japanese prime ministers, then, stop visiting the shrine, as the Chinese demand?

If Japanese prime ministers were to simply stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine, this would be another act of historical obliteration. But historical obliteration is not a sufficient solution to the Yasukuni Shrine controversy; only through facing history, and rectifying our understanding of history through introspection and dialogue, can we move forward.


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Minami Funakoshi

After spending her childhood in India, Malaysia, and Japan, Minami moved to the U.S. to attend Yale University. Currently, she is studying abroad in Beijing and Taipei to improve her Chinese. She will work as an editorial intern at the Wall Street Journal Hong Kong Office through the Robert L. Bartley Fellowship Program.
  • http://theinconvenienttruthonwhaling.blogspot.com/ kujirakira

    Shinto as a whole does not believe that the imperial family is descended from God. It’s also not a monotheistic god, nor a male… but a goddess among many imagined deities.

    But more importantly you seem to have confused State Shinto with what the varieties of Shinto that exist throughout the country. That or, for your political angle, you deliberately mistook “all Shinto” past and present to be the “State Shinto” which was only practiced by court nobility until the 19th century.

    In either case, I stopped reading at this point since you don’t even have an understanding of what Shinto is and isn’t.

  • David Wong

    reminds me of the Filipinos who draped their National Flag over the coffin, of a ex policeman who shot and killed a bunch of Chinese tourist on a bus

  • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

    Again, lots of food for thought here, Ms Funakoshi. But here’s what I don’t get. Why is the Japanese government removing the criminals from the shrine considered unconstitutional, but not the members of that government (acting as members of that government) paying respects there? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not an advocate of laicism or complete separation of Church and State (Shrine and State?), but it just strikes me as awfully convenient that Japanese politicians get all of the benefits amongst their constituencies for visiting the shrine, but can hide behind the Constitution to avoid having to take responsibility for making it even marginally less odious in the eyes of Japan’s erstwhile enemies (including the US, I might add – my grandfather was a Navy medic who was at Iwo Jima and Okinawa).

    To me, there doesn’t seem to be much difference at all between the visits to the Yasukuni shrine and, say, Reagan’s 1985 visit to the Waffen-SS graveyard at Bitburg (which caused a notably massive uproar amongst WWII vets and Jews). Facing history head-on does not mean, and should not mean, riling up these sorts of recriminations. If Japanese politicians want to face history head-on, they need to visit Nanjing, not Yasukuni.

  • tangxue

    Because they keep visiting it. I have no problem with ordinary Japanese people. I’m aware most of the soldiers listed at Yasukuni are just regular war dead, but still. If they don’t want to tear down Yasukuni, then at least remove the listed war criminals. The only obstacle seems to be “it’s not proper with Shinto”, but no one has ever said how this is the case. Shinto appears to have no dogma like Christianity or Islam. If the shrine or government really wanted to, I’m sure they could have the names struck.

  • pug_ster

    As much as i would like to empathize with the author, I don’t. I think the comparison between the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany is good. For one thing, where are Hitler and Himmler buried? In some grand tomb to honor their greatness? Nazi Germany during WWIi was considered a black stain in Germany’s history, written in their textbooks. Are those deeds of the war criminals during WWII are a black stain in Japan’s history and portrayed the same in Japanese textbooks?

    If Japan wants to start to “correct” its history, they should start by exhuming the war criminals from Yasukuni Shrine and put it in some mass grave, and correct its history by portraying in its textbooks what these criminals are really are.

    • Sd

      Typical paternalistic Western perspective. Doesn’t address the sins of Western imperialism in Asia prior to Japanese expansion during World War 2

  • Jaycasey

    How do the dead “get into” Yasakuni? Is every soldier automatically enshrined or is there a qualifying process? Why were the war criminals enshrined? Did that take place before or after the trials? Who actually runs the museum – the Shinto priests? Who makes the museum policy? I’ve been to the museum and the white-washing of history was disturbing. Why can’t the Japanese come clean about this? I’ve seen exhibits at the Smithsonian in Washington that were honest about the terrible things the US Government did to the Indians and to the Japanese-Americans during WW2. Why can’t the Japanese do the same?

  • 孙中山党派

    Although I’m glad I was not raised with religion I do believe that we should honor and respect others beliefs and spirituality. You say that the kami and fallen soldiers have become gods that can’t just be removed from the shrine or it will violate their religion. I thought that was a really flimsy excuse. It is absolutely not impossible for Shinto priests or the Japanese people or even the government(under my narrow understanding of the Japanese constitution) to revoke kami status to war criminals. You even bring up the kamikaze pilots which I think are an example of flexible religious beliefs. Kamikaze, heavenly(godly) wind, embodied by hero worshipped young pilots. Now all of a sudden we get firsthand opinions of how ludicrous it was, and no one decries this as sacrilegious? Seems to me that whatever kami means is up to the people who use the word in their lives. Seems to me that maybe we were wrong about Class A war criminals being kami deserving worship.

    Even if this doesn’t solve every problem Japan should still stop worshiping war criminals as divine heroes. How can any apology have an ounce of sincerity if you then go on to worship the wrongdoers whose behalf you are apologizing for as divine heroes alongside innocent civilians at the same shrine.

  • johngilinsky

    Some very good points in the article and the comments section as well. Ambiguity deliberate or otherwise, unclear divisions(?) of modern Japanese state powers in relationship to state recognized and sustained organized religious practices [ the cumulative effect of the article and the comments raises more questions why there is silence while concurrently admitting misdeeds and even the presence of the war criminals in this shrine ] and the sheer culturally based political power or more importantly modern day Japanese politicians’ views of Japanese popular culturally derived and manifested cultural values appear to generate a toxic cultural political soup which compulsively ingested by almost everyone in Japan has served to poison the Japanese collective historical consciousness. It appears that the Japanese political system is not sufficiently modern to address pre-1945 pervasively Japanese societally ingrained cultural religious practices thus presumably precluding or prohibiting the removal of either ALL the Class A war criminals or even ALL the war criminals convicted yet somehow commemorated in this Japanese capital city shrine. Will someone please specifically clarify just what it is that precludes or prohibits Japanese politicians or the Japanese state/government from the removal of this shrine above and beyond what I have only in general terms referred to above? Why not have a state and Shinto leadership joint declaration, agreement or the like publicly stating that ALL convicted war criminals human remains, bodies, names or individual names will be effaced from the shrine proper and all such remains, names, references be deposited at a site just outside of the capital city limits collectively so that if anyone for historical research, commemoration or the like wished to go visit or see these convicted war criminals post-life public commemoration they could still do so? This would not given a) the passage of time, b) globalization, c) modern education and publicity through the internet, inter alia and d) needs to build both Asian and non-Asian alliances and relationships foster a so-called state sanctioned martyr’s shrine to Japanese militarists or war criminal worshippers. The state would absolutely only minimally fund such removals and recreation of historical memory with the bulk coming from private sponsors and individuals. Recognizing the powerful religious, cultural and yes militaristic pride in Japan such funding should not be very difficult to obtain. Any thoughts on this?