Ja­pan’s Ya­sukuni shrine a sym­bol of haunt­ing war­time legacy

Cape Breton Post - - WORLD -

TOKYO - Seventy-five years af­ter Ja­pan’s de­feat in World War Two, Tokyo’s Ya­sukuni Shrine for war dead is a po­tent sym­bol of the con­tro­versy that per­sists over the con­flict’s legacy in East Asia.

Here are some rea­sons why the shrine is a flashpoint in Ja­pan’s re­la­tions with China and the two Koreas.


Es­tab­lished in 1869 in a leafy ur­ban en­clave, the shrine is dedicated to 2.5 mil­lion Ja­panese who died in wars be­gin­ning in the 19th cen­tury and in­clud­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Funded by the gov­ern­ment un­til 1945, Ya­sukuni - its name formed by com­bin­ing the Ja­panese words for “peace” and “coun­try” - was cen­tral to the state reli­gion of Shin­to­ism that mo­bi­lized the war­time pop­u­la­tion to fight in the name of a divine em­peror.

Since 1978, those hon­oured have also in­cluded 14 Sec­ond

World War lead­ers con­victed as “Class A” war crim­i­nals by an Al­lied tri­bunal in 1948, among them war­time prime min­is­ter Hideki Tojo.

Tojo and the oth­ers were se­cretly el­e­vated to the sta­tus of gods at the shrine in a solemn cer­e­mony that year, news of which sparked a do­mes­tic firestorm when it be­came pub­lic.


Many Ja­panese pay re­spects to rel­a­tives at Ya­sukuni and con­ser­va­tives say lead­ers should be able to honour those who died in the war.

Chi­nese and Kore­ans, how­ever, re­sent the hon­ours ac­corded there to the war crim­i­nals.

Kore­ans still chafe over Ja­panese rule from 1910 to 1945, while China has bit­ter me­mories of Ja­pan’s in­va­sion and bru­tal oc­cu­pa­tion of parts of the coun­try from 1931 to 1945.

Crit­ics in Ja­pan see Ya­sukuni as a sym­bol of a mil­i­tarist past and say lead­ers’ vis­its vi­o­late the sep­a­ra­tion of reli­gion and state man­dated by the post-war con­sti­tu­tion.

A mu­seum on the grounds has been crit­i­cised as de­pict­ing the war as one that Ja­pan fought to lib­er­ate Asia from Western im­pe­ri­al­ism, while ig­nor­ing atroc­i­ties by its troops.

The names of thou­sands of men from Tai­wan and Korea killed while serv­ing with Im­pe­rial forces are also recorded at Ya­sukuni. Some rel­a­tives want their names re­moved.


Em­peror Hiro­hito, in whose name Ja­panese sol­diers fought the war, vis­ited Ya­sukuni eight times be­tween the con­flict’s end and 1975. His­to­ri­ans say he stopped due to dis­plea­sure over the en­shrined con­victed war­time lead­ers.

His son, Ak­i­hito, who be­came em­peror in 1989 and ab­di­cated last year, never vis­ited, nor has cur­rent Em­peror Naruhito. The royals have at­tended a sep­a­rate, sec­u­lar cer­e­mony.


Many Ja­panese pre­miers vis­ited Ya­sukuni af­ter the war, but re­frained from say­ing it was in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity, un­til Aug. 15 1985, when Ya­suhiro Naka­sone made an of­fi­cial visit.

The move, on the 40th an­niver­sary of the war’s end, drew harsh crit­i­cism from China. Naka­sone did not go again.

Ju­nichiro Koizumi made an­nual pil­grim­ages while pre­mier from 2001 to 2006, con­tribut­ing to a deep chill in ties with China.

Abe, whose agenda in­cludes re­viv­ing pride in Ja­pan’s past, vis­ited in De­cem­ber 2013, say­ing he went to pray for the souls of the war dead and “re­new the pledge that Ja­pan must never wage a war again”.

The pil­grim­age sparked out­rage in Bei­jing and Seoul and an ex­pres­sion of “dis­ap­point­ment” from the United States. Abe has not gone since, but has sent rit­ual of­fer­ings in­stead.

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