Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s War Dead

Getting Back to Basics on Yasukuni

Every August, Japan and many other nations begin a “Yasukuni watch” to see whether the prime minister or other government figures will visit the controversial shrine. Here we take an in-depth look at Yasukuni, its history, present reality, and significance.

Each summer in Japan, Yasukuni Shrine and the political and historical issues associated with it reemerge in the national conscience—and in the international media. The question of whether the prime minister and other members of his cabinet will visit the shrine on August 15, the day marking Japan’s defeat in World War II, becomes a pressing one not just on the domestic political scene but in terms of Japan’s foreign policy and regional relations as well.

But what precisely are the problems associated with this Tokyo shrine? To many observers, including in Japan, the matter is vaguely defined as follows: As the souls of the class A war criminals convicted in the Tokyo Trials (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East) are enshrined at Yasukuni, any prayers offered by the prime minister or cabinet members here are considered tantamount to approval of the war waged in the name of the Empire of Japan and a sign that the nation is on its way to militarism once again.

There are questions that should be asked. Exactly what sort of place is Yasukuni Shrine? Why have the war criminals been enshrined there through a process known as gōshi, or the addition of their souls to the communal kami worshiped at the shrine? What was the background to these developments? In fact, there are relatively few people even in Japan who could offer clear answers to these queries.

Overseas, meanwhile, when the topic of Yasukuni comes up, it is invariably associated with a certain image in people’s minds—that of the shrine as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Some people go so far as to believe that the shrine grounds house memorial tablets for the war criminals themselves, or even their remains. And not so many people realize that Yasukuni has since the end of the war been a private religious corporation, not a state facility. Those who would deny Japan’s aggressive invasions of other countries are clearly mistaken. But it is equally clear that there are many misunderstandings in play when the subject of Yasukuni Shrine is brought up abroad.

The Shrine as an International Problem

The same can be said about visits to Yasukuni by the prime minister, which become full-fledged international incidents whenever they take place. After the gōshi rites took place for the class A war criminals in 1978, Prime Ministers Ōhira Masayoshi (1978–80), Suzuki Zenkō (1980–82), and Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982–87) all paid their respects at the shrine without triggering any friction between Japan and China, at least until Nakasone’s August 15, 1985, visit. This, too, is little known abroad. Even in Japan, there is some awareness that China and other nations came to view official visits to the shrine as a problem due in part to Japanese media coverage of these visits, but this is not paired with an understanding of how this later formed the basis for treating politicians’ prayers at the shrine as symbolic of problems of historical recognition.

There have actually been some moves to address the misunderstandings and insufficient understanding of Yasukuni Shrine and the problems related to prayers offered there. One such project aiming to present factual information and demonstratively lay down a course to better understanding of the issues was the National Diet Library’s online publication in 2007 of a newly compiled collection of reference materials on Yasukuni issues (in Japanese only). Expanding on a collection originally published in 1976, this is a vital resource tracing developments related to the shrine and presenting a wide range of factual information on the issues involved. But a collection like this is not something that will instantly become widely known to the Japanese people, or to foreigners with an interest in the subject; it will not soon lead to the formation of a shared understanding of the Yasukuni question. Indeed, it is rarely easy to take a set of historical materials and make them the basis for common understanding within one societal community or among multiple communities.

In this set of essays on Nippon.com, we seek to return to the basics and take a fresh look at Yasukuni Shrine to outline what sort of place it actually is and the nature of the “Yasukuni visits problem.” It is beyond our scope to examine the issues from all possible angles, but we will present two studies: one by the historian Hiyama Yukio on the nature of monuments to the war dead in modern Japan and the position of Yasukuni within that context, and one by the political scientist Higurashi Yoshinobu on the significance of the gōshi inclusion of the war criminals among the shrine’s deities.

While we know that no collection of this size can adequately cover all the angles of this complex debate, we do hope that the information we present here will prompt our readers to reconsider Yasukuni Shrine and how to approach it.

China Korea history World War II Yasukuni Shrine Shintō war dead war criminals controversy