TOKYO (TR) – On Wednesday, August 15, the anniversary of the conclusion of World War II, great debate will once again fall upon Yasukuni Shrine as embattled Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decides whether to accommodate conservative pressures and follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who during his administration repeatedly raised tensions with Japan’s Asian neighbors by visiting the historic rallying point for militarism.
“Controversy over Yasukuni is rooted in the broader historical debate about war memory, responsibility and reconciliation,” explains Jeff Kingston, a Professor of History and Director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus. “Competing narratives about this past send mixed signals to neighbors and prevent reconciliation.”
Yasukuni, constructed under the name Shokonsha in 1869 by the Meiji Emperor, enshrines roughly 2.5 million soldiers, airmen, and seamen, many of whom were inspired by the belief that their spirit be enshrined should they die in battle fighting heroically for the Emperor. More importantly to Korea and China, two countries that suffered the wrath of Japan’s military might over a half-century ago, it also memorializes 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.
Kenichi Matsumoto, a noted writer and professor at Reitaku University, notes that Yasukuni raises many conflicting and complex issues.
“The problem is not just in the context of Asia,” cautions Matsumoto. “Because the shrine was constructed by the government, Yasukuni represents almost a nationalist religion, where the god is the country. In Yasukuni, the spirits enshrined passed away for Japan, not because they belong to the Shinto religion. To me, that is immoral.”
The Yushukan Museum is one of the shrine’s most controversial attractions. On display are thousands of bloodstained uniforms, artillery pieces, an engine from the Thai-Burma railway (for which the Japanese government enslaved 61,000 Allied POWs and 250,000 locals for construction purposes), a green Mitsubishi Zero fighter, and a kaiten human torpedo casing used for suicide missions.
The general message projected throughout the exhibits is that Japan’s wars were fought for protection and not belligerence. “In achieving a free and egalitarian world where the color of one’s skin is not important,” reads one poster, “there were many unavoidable battles of self-defense. Those who sacrificed their lives are enshrined as the spirits of the dead soldiers whose service was virtuous.”
Kingston says that Yushukan provides a vindicating and valorizing account of Japanese history, one that since its renovation a few years ago has adopted modern terms to justify past deeds. “This is a post 9/11 museum,” he says, “one in which contemporary concerns are projected onto the past. We learn that Japan was fighting against Chinese ‘terrorists.’ There is no mention of invasion, aggression, massacres or atrocities committed by Japanese troops.”
Yuko Tojo, the granddaughter of Hideki Tojo and an independent candidate in last month’s upper house election, subscribes to the version of history told at Yushukan. At a press luncheon preceding the vote, she said that Japan did not engage in a war of aggression when it entered World War II; the war was a correct and just war that since its conclusion has tarnished the reputation of her grandfather, she said. “After the war ended, he has been treated consistently as a war criminal in Japan,” she said of her grandfather, who was hanged following the Tokyo tribunals. “I believe very strongly that restoring the honor in my grandfather’s name will lead to the restoration of pride and honor to all of Japan.”
Such ideas do not go unchallenged. At a campaign speech last month outside Shinjuku Station, Tojo, who was speaking about the importance of visiting Yasukuni, began to be heckled by a non-Japanese, Asian gentleman who was accompanied by a person in a wheelchair and a woman. When the protester had turned his back to the gathered crowd, one of Tojo’s supporters rushed him, plunging a forearm between his shoulder blades, and cowardly scampered into a department store.
Japan’s right-wing groups, or uyoku dantai, will most certainly be out in force on the anniversary. Known for everything from extortion to associations with gangsters, each group’s official motto typically includes staunch support of Japan’s past militarism and the divinity of the emperor.
Mitsuhiro Kimura, the leader of the shin uyoku (new right wing) group Issui-kai, believes that it is the duty of any self-respecting proponent of the right to pray on the anniversary. “As a part of Japanese culture and tradition,” he says, “it is very important to visit the spirits of the victims that died on behalf of Japan.”
In spite of the many complaints lodged by the governments of China and Korea over the course of his administration, Koizumi last year made his sixth pilgrimage — and his first on the anniversary — to Yasukuni. In doing so, he filled a gap in visits by prime ministers that had extended back to the mid-’80s, when Yasuhiro Nakasone worshipped in an official capacity. Abe, whose administration has been plagued by a string of recent scandals, such as the ongoing fallout of the Social Insurance Agency’s misplacing of 50 million pension records and former Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma’s statement that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were “inevitable,” has publicly wavered on the issue.
Kingston predicts that Abe will not go, reasoning that a trip is out of synch with the general public’s view. Further, he argues, Abe’s policies presently have a nationalist sentiment: “He is already promoting patriotic education and working towards constitutional revision.” How Abe’s decision will be affected by the LDP’s crushing defeat in last month’s election, which perhaps signals a repudiation of these goals, remains to be seen.
Tojo, of course, hopes Kingston is wrong. “Before Prime Minister Abe became prime minister,” she said, “he was very open in his beliefs and visited Yasukuni Shrine quite often. But now having become the leader of the nation he has rethought his position and decided to adopt tactics of ambiguity. I feel very strongly that the fact that he has had to change his policies is very saddening.”
Right-winger Kimura has great confidence that Abe will pay his respects, imploring that it is a natural action too important to neglect. “It is a matter of heart,” he says.
Note: This article originally appeared in August 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.