Yasukuni Shrine is in the news this week. In fact, it’s always in the news come the middle of August. On August 15th, Japan (and the world, for that matter) marks the day of surrender that ended the Pacific War. And every August for the past six decades, the world watches to see if the current Prime Minister will visit the controversial shrine.
Yasukuni hasn’t always had a questionable reputation. Founded in 1869 by Emperor Meiji, the shrine was designed to honor the souls of those who lost their lives while serving Japan. The first soldiers enshrined here were casualties of the Boshin War, the conflict that pitted the reform-minded Imperial supporters against the forces of the dying Tokugawa shogunate.
The controversy began mostly after the Second World War. Thousands of new souls were shrined following Japan’s defeat, from foot soldiers to kamikaze pilots to civilians who were mobilized by the army (such as in Okinawa) or used in forced labor camps (such as in Manchuria). Among the enshrined, however, are the spirits of the men convicted as war criminals in the post-war tribunals. Fourteen of these men were considered Class A War Criminals, such as Hideki Tojo, guilty of planning and carrying out the worst atrocities of the conflict.
At the time of the Class A criminals’ enshrinement in 1979, the government chose not to widely publicize the decision. By the mid 1980s, however, the knowledge was circulated and backlash began. Neighboring nations, particularly Korea and China, were especially incensed by the act; Japan has never publically apologized to any Asian nations for its often brutal role in the conquest of East Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. With prime ministers, most notably Koizumi, paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of the war’s end, tensions in the region continue to simmer.
Since 1978, no Emperor has set foot in Yasukuni and the spate of current prime ministers have also kept their distance. Most tourists never come here, either. Truth be told, it’s an uncomfortable place for me. The museum on the premises (the Yushukan War Museum) presents a very one-sided and revisionist view of Japan’s role in Asian conflicts of the last century. Some “facts” quoted there are downright laughable; others make me question my own understanding of history.
On a whirlwind tour of Tokyo, Yasukuni is probably not worth your time. But if you’re interested in seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly of a destination, this is a sight that will challenge you. You may not like it, but you won’t walk away unaffected.