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Yasukuni Shrine: the Basics

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013, was the first by a Japanese leader for seven years and drew fierce criticism from China and South Korea. What started as a place to honor those who fell while fighting the Tokugawa shogunate has become a center of controversy in East Asian relations. This article presents the key historical, religious, and political information regarding the shrine.

The Origins of Yasukuni

Statue of Ōmura Masujirō within Yasukuni Shrine. © Fujifotos/Aflo

Yasukuni Shrine has its beginnings in a proposal by Takasugi Shinsaku (1839–67), a samurai who played a key role in the 1865 civil war in the Chōshū domain that helped bring about the 1868 Meiji Restoration, for a shōkonsha—a shrine dedicated to the spirits of the war dead—to honor members of Takasugi’s Kiheitai militia who had fallen in the fighting against the pro-shogunate forces. Following the 1868 Boshin War, a ceremony took place at Edo Castle (now the site of the Imperial Palace) to honor the spirits of the pro-imperial forces hailing from the western Japan domains of Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Bizen. Concurrently, the souls of the lost soldiers were enshrined in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto.

This touched off a nationwide movement to honor and console the spirits of those who had perished in the Meiji Restoration struggles. Ōmura Masujirō (1824–69), the “father of the modern Japanese army,” recommended that Emperor Meiji establish a shōkonsha in Tokyo. The emperor responded in 1869 by founding the Tokyo Shōkonsha in what is today the Kudanshita area of central Tokyo, and 3,588 souls of the Boshin War dead were enshrined together—a process known as gōshi. Construction of the shrine was completed in 1872, and it was renamed as Yasukuni in 1879. (No actual remains are interred at Yasukuni; the shrine is a place of repose for the souls of the dead.)

The aim of the shrine was originally to honor only those who had fallen in battle while fighting for the sake of the emperor. This means that famous military figures including Saigō Takamori (1828–77), killed in battle while opposing the Meiji government in the Satsuma Rebellion, and Etō Shinpei (1834–74), who had launched the Saga Rebellion in 1874, were branded as rebels and not included in the honored souls at Yasukuni. Members of the famed Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Squad”—who fought against the Meiji government in battles in the Aizu domain (today’s Fukushima Prefecture) and committed suicide when faced with inevitable defeat—have similarly been passed over for enshrinement.

This does not mean that the shrine’s gōshi policy has been applied consistently through the years. Yoshida Shōin (b. 1830) and Hashimoto Sanai (b. 1834)—both executed in 1859 as part of the Ansei Purge carried out by the Tokugawa government against opponents of its trade treaties with foreign powers—are both enshrined at Yasukuni, despite their deaths coming well before the Boshin War. Takasugi Shinsaku died of tuberculosis rather than in war, but is nonetheless enshrined in this monument to the war dead. This inconsistent approach to candidates for gōshi inclusion in the shrine’s rolls of souls has been a subject of debate—and a source of friction—right up through the inclusion of the class A war criminals in 1978.

The Shrine’s Postwar Rebirth

Initially Yasukuni Shrine was conceived as a place for the repose of the souls of Japan’s war dead. As the nation went through the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I, though, the nature of the shrine shifted, and it gradually became a place to pacify the spirits of the deceased, and then to honor them publicly. During World War II in particular, Japanese soldiers would head off to battle with promises to one another to “meet again at Yasukuni.” With this, the shrine had become a spiritual touchstone for Japan’s fighting men. In the militarist atmosphere of the day, it was also defined as a place to honor the “glorious spirits” of those who had died for Japan.

Following Japan’s defeat in the war, though, the victors stepped in to change this. On December 15, 1945, the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers issued the so-called Shintō Directive. This established freedom of religion and sought to sweep away vestiges of militarism by abolishing State Shintō, which had brought the native religion under control of the imperial government and made it a tool of state policy. In 1946 the newly passed Religious Corporations Law provided the basis for turning Yasukuni into an autonomous religious corporation with no ties to any state authorities.

Those enshrined in Yasukuni include not just fallen soldiers, but others held to have died in service of the empire: civilians involved in battle zone relief efforts, workers in factories producing war materiel, Japanese citizens believed to have perished in Soviet war camps following their capture in Japan’s continental holdings at the end of World War II, and crew members and evacuees killed when their vessels were sunk. During the postwar era the shrine continued to add the souls of the dead to its rolls, performing gōshi rites to add them to the enshrined deities as new war deaths were discovered. Shrine officials state that a total of nearly 2.5 million souls have been subject to gōshi over the years.

Politics Steps Back In

Yasukuni Shrine attracts considerable attention today when key politicians—notably the prime minister or members of his cabinet—officially visit the shrine to pay their respects to the war dead. In the postwar era, this first took place on October 18, 1951, when Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, members of his cabinet, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the president of the House of Councillors visited en masse to offer prayers at the Shūki Reitaisai, the autumn festival that is one of Yasukuni’s main annual events.

In 1955, however, the government set forth the position that the prime minister and other ministers of state were not allowed to visit the shrine in their official capacity, as this would fall afoul of Article 20, Clause 3, of the Constitution: “The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” The formal view on the official visits by members of the government was that while they could not be definitively described as either constitutional or unconstitutional, there was an undeniable possibility of the latter. For this reason, Japan’s government has claimed a consistent position on the matter, stating that ministers are not to pay their respects at the shrine in an official capacity given the sensitive nature of the facility.

This does not mean that ministers have followed this guideline over the years. There have been numerous visits by members of the cabinet, made in both their official and private capacities.

  • [2014.09.10]
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