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Japan's Yasukuni Shrine Controversy

By Richard Halloran

Tokyo--Strolling through the leafy grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial to Japan's war dead, it is hard to realize that this oasis of calm is caught up in a bitter controversy that courses through this nation and out to its neighbors in China and Korea.

On the surface within Japan, the quarrel looks like a political dispute between the conservatives and the left-wing. Outside, the issue is key to power-plays by the Chinese, South Korean, and North Korean governments seeking an upper hand over Japan on diplomatic and security issues.

Underneath, the struggle over Yasukuni and its role in the life of Japan is part of the shedding of the passive and pacifist cocoon in which the Japanese wrapped themselves after the devastating defeat of World War II.

Perhaps most telling, the conflict has stimulated a new interest in the shrine. This new attention to Yasukuni, a shrine of Shinto, Japan's ancient religion, is emblematic of a revival in Japanese national identify and pride.

"Yasukuni," says a Japanese conservative, "tells us what it means to be Japanese and it reminds us of our values."

About 6 million Japanese a year come to Yasukuni, the central sanctuary of which is an austere wooden hall, to honor, remember, and pray for the repose of the spirits of the 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have died serving their nation since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that ended Japan's isolation. By far the largest number, 2.1 million, died in World War II.

Yasukuni, which means "Nation at Peace," also seeks to comfort the families of those killed in war. Even though World War II has been over for six decades, families still take pains to remember their dead. Says a Buddhist priest, pointing toward Yasukuni, "my father is there."

Often overlooked in this controversy are two critical facets. The shrine is not a cemetery; ashes of the war dead were returned to their families to inter in local cemeteries. Nor is the shrine a place of worship; Yasukuni does not have a god, such as Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of Shinto, or Kannon, the god of mercy and healing in Buddhism.

The immediate conflict revolves around the spirits of 14 men convicted as war criminals, including the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, who are registered in the shrine, and visits to the shrine by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to honor the war dead.

The Chinese and both Korean governments have asserted, in the most vigorous terms, that such homage means that Japan has failed to atone for its aggression during World War II and is returning to those militaristic days.

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), has taken a similar position, telling Speaker Dennis Hastert that Koizumi should not be invited to address the Congress unless he pledges not to visit Yasukuni again.

That has produced a strong reaction even though Japanese seem split over what to do about the 14 convicted men. Says a retired executive: "We Japanese will never back down to that kind of Chinese and Korean pressure." A spokesman for Koizumi said the prime minister was not planning to address the Congress.

Some Japanese argue that the 14 should not have been registered in Yasukuni. "They didn't die in battle," says a publisher, "they were executed." Another says the spirits of the 14 should be moved to a separate shrine.

Still others say that Emperor Akihito, rather than the prime minister, should attend the shrine to honor the war dead. They point out that the emperor is the chief priest of Shinto and the symbol of national unity and thus should be the leader to offer prayers. The prime minister, said a retired military officer, "is merely a politician."

Many Japanese assert, however, that the emperor should not visit Yasukuni while the issue is so politicized because, as a constitutional monarch, he is required to stay out of politics.

The Yasukuni shrine was established shortly after the Meiji Restoration as the Shokonsha, then was renamed Yasukuni in 1879. During the Allied Occupation after World War II, the U.S. authorities ordered that the Shinto religion be separated from the state. Yasukuni became a private shrine.

A majority of the Occupation staff favored burning down the shrine because they considered it to be a symbol of militarism. General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander, however, asked a panel of Christian ministers for their view.

In a written reply, they said the shrine should be preserved. "Every nation has the right and duty to pay respects to the people who died for the nation," their report said. "This must be equally true for either the victor or the vanquished." Destroying the shrine, they said, "would leave a dishonorable stain on the history of the United States military."

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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