Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s War Dead

How Japan Honors Its War Dead: The Coexistence of Complementary Systems

Politics Society Culture

Japan’s modern memorialization of its war dead has its roots in the conflicts accompanying the restoration of imperial rule in the nineteenth century. These led to the establishment of Yasukuni Shrine as a national institution for those who died fighting for the emperor, along with the emergence of various local observances and memorials. The dual structure continues to this day.

The memorialization of the war dead in modern Japan has its origins in the honoring of the soldiers who fell in civil strife that occurred before and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when forces supporting the Tokugawa shogunate fought unsuccessfully against those supporting the restoration of imperial rule. Those who fell on the imperial side in the fighting that preceded the restoration were recognized as having died in the course of exercising the will of the sovereign (Emperor Meiji). And those who fell during the Boshin Civil War, which was waged for about a year and a half after the new imperial government was formed in January 1868, were memorialized in a premodern fashion as “loyal retainers” who sacrificed their lives for their respective lords. In neither case was the concept of the nation involved. This is the origin of the fundamental dichotomy seen in Japan’s memorialization of its war dead to this day.(*1)

Honoring the Spirits of “Loyal Retainers”

In 1868 a shōkonsai (literally, “ceremony to summon the souls”) was held in Kyoto, the imperial capital, to pacify the spirits of the warriors from Satsuma, Chōshū, and three other domains who died in two battles preceding the restoration of imperial rule. This was the first such ceremony held at the behest of Emperor Meiji to comfort the spirits of “loyal retainers.” The following year Tokyo Shōkonsha, the predecessor of today’s Yasukuni Shrine, was established in Tokyo, which had become the capital of the new imperial government. This Shintō shrine (whose original name means “shrine to summon the souls”) became the apex of the structure for honoring the souls of those who died fighting for the emperor.

At the same time, a number of shrines were established by daimyō (lords of feudal domains) for the souls of their own loyal retainers. Notable examples were Yamaguchi Shōkonsha in the Chōshū domain, Isatama Reisha in Satsuma, Shōkonshi in Tottori, Mikusa Reisha in Hiroshima, and Seichūsha in Owari. The shrines established for the deceased soldiers from the domains that had banded together in support of the imperial cause also formed part of the memorialization structure with the new Tokyo Shōkonsha at its summit. This was a structure that honored the souls of those who gave their lives for the sake of the emperor and the empire, but it did not invoke the concept of honoring them as symbols of national unification.

The absence of the concept of honoring the war dead for their contribution to the nation became even clearer after the 1874 Taiwan Expedition. This military action cost the lives of 538 soldiers and others on the Japanese side, 13% of the 3,658 soldiers and civilian personnel and 500-plus supporting laborers who took part. But just 12 individuals, 2.2% of the total, were enshrined at Tokyo Shōkonsha. In other words, even in the case of this overseas conflict undertaken by and for the state, those who died were not automatically treated as heroic spirits who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the homeland. The essential dichotomy in the empire’s memorialization of its war dead lay in its differentiation among them based on the concept of honoring the spirits of loyal retainers. The gap left by the system at the national level ended up being filled by the popular memorialization of the war dead at the level of local communities.

Popular Memorialization of the War Dead

This memorialization actually began not with an external conflict but in the wake of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Emperor Meiji had the souls of 6,959 war dead from this civil conflict and the Saga Rebellion that occurred three years earlier enshrined at Tokyo Shōkonsha. Meanwhile, spontaneous moves emerged at the local level to conduct ceremonies or build monuments for the heroic spirits of countrymen who perished in this fighting. In Wakayama Prefecture,(*2) Tokugawa Mochitsugu, the former daimyō, conducted a ceremony honoring the local war dead, and in Chōsei-gun, Chiba Prefecture, a monument was erected on the grounds of Tamasaki Shrine for the war dead from Nagara-gun and Habu-gun, two local communities. In addition, the members of a local police force in Tokyo built a monument to their fallen comrades on the grounds of Otowa Gokokuji, a temple in Koishikawa.

Another example of this sort of memorialization was seen in Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture. Matsue Shōkonsha, enshrining the spirits of the local war dead, was built shortly after the conclusion of the 1877 conflict, and a major commemorative observance was held 10 years later. One year later, in 1888, a monument to those who died in the rebellion was built with money contributed by the former daimyō, the prefectural governor, and local residents, including the proceeds of collections conducted at elementary schools throughout the prefecture. The completion of the monument was marked with an official ceremony and a combination of Shintō and Buddhist rites, and the city was decked out with flags, floral arches, and lanterns, with tens of thousands of people thronging the streets in something similar to a victory celebration. A variety of memorial observances were also held at this time in Fukumitsu, a village in the same prefecture, including Shintō and Buddhist rites and a round of sumō wrestling matches; in addition, local residents paid for the construction of a monument to the local war dead. In this way the war dead came to be memorialized as local heroes on the basis of a logic distinct from that of the state.

The Coexistence of State and Popular Memorials

Japan thus developed its own distinctive system of memorialization of the war dead, based on the “loyal retainer” memorializing by former daimyō of those who fell in the Boshin Civil War and on the sense of local identity that emerged from the Satsuma Rebellion. The system was completed following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, which was a “national” war in the sense that it drew on support from the nation as a whole. At this stage the basic shape of Japan’s mode of memorialization of the war dead solidified; it was subsequently reinforced by the arrangements to support the military and the sense of nationalism that were built up by conflicts with other nations and ethnic groups, notably the fighting accompanying the takeover of Taiwan in 1895, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5.

The system that emerged was one in which two types of memorialization coexisted: One was that conducted by the imperial government as an official state activity, with the emperor and the military having deceased fighters enshrined as divinities at Yasukuni. The other was the popular memorializing of fallen countrymen grounded in the sense of local identity linked to the old feudal domains, which were often called kuni, or “countries,” and in the traditions and culture of local communities.

With the rise of militarism in the 1930s, the authorities attempted to impose state control over the memorialization of the war dead, promoting movements to build monuments and to establish local gokoku jinja (shrines for protection of the nation) under the aegis of the state. But to judge from the existence of cemeteries for the war dead at the level of towns and villages, it seems that this drive to impose a state-led, militaristic system of memorialization did not fully take hold at the popular level.

Popular consciousness of the enshrined war dead at Yasukuni grew stronger after World War II, as the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association emerged as an active organization. But traditional forms of memorialization continued to be conducted at the local level of towns and villages, as did the local operation of cemeteries for the war dead. In other words, the remembrances after the war were split between the honoring of heroic spirits conducted most prominently at Yasukuni and the local memorialization based on traditional practices, which focused on contrition and mourning. The big difference from before the war was that both types of memorializing were grounded in prayers for peace.

Exclusion of Taiwanese from Enshrinement at Yasukuni

It was in 1887 that the imperial system of memorialization of the war dead primarily at Yasukuni Shrine, a religious institution, took its final form. Under the rules adopted at this juncture, the notification of souls to be enshrined at Yasukuni, which was previously done in the name of the daijō daijin (grand minister of state), came to be done in the names of the army and navy ministers. With this shift in the locus of authority from the civilian government to the military, what had been a state system of memorialization, at least in form, became limited to the military sphere. And this gave rise to a new dichotomy, namely, discrimination regarding the enshrinement of Taiwanese.

Inasmuch as the memorialization of the empire’s war dead was grounded in the concept of honoring the emperor’s “loyal retainers,” the decisions on who was to be enshrined at Yasukuni were made in observance of the emperor’s will. Imperial Japan had adopted a policy of treating the residents of the entire empire, including the people of conquered territories, as imperial subjects. So the soldiers from these territories were not considered “colonials.” Okinawans were enshrined at Yasukuni starting with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, as were Ainu from Hokkaidō starting with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. And Koreans who died serving in the military from 1914 through 1920 were enshrined in 1926.

In other words, eligibility for enshrinement at Yasukuni or for service in the imperial military did not depend on ethnic identity. But there was one exception: No Taiwanese were among the enshrined souls. Neither the aboriginal residents of Taiwan nor those of Han (ethnic Chinese) origin welcomed or accepted Japan’s takeover of the island from China under the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Han residents conducted an organized military resistance for months, and even after this was defeated, both Han and aboriginal residents continued to take up arms against the Japanese occupiers, killing many police officers and members of local defense units.

Tokyo Shōkonsha was renamed Yasukuni Shrine and given the status of “special governmental shrine” in 1879. The above photograph comes from a collection of notable sites in Tokyo, published in 1910. From the National Diet Library website.

In 1908 the colonial government (Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan) submitted a request for the enshrinement at Yasukuni of police officers who had died fighting against local insurgents. The Army Ministry in Tokyo strongly opposed the request, and it was not granted. But the colonial government persisted with energetic efforts to persuade the Army Ministry, since this was a matter that involved the core of its governing policies, and two years later its request was approved, subject to the condition that members of the civil defense units made up of aboriginals would be excluded. The Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan immediately started the necessary paperwork, and in March 1911 its formal request was submitted to the emperor via the minister of the army. But word came back from the imperial household minister that the emperor had turned down the request, and so the Taiwanese could not be enshrined at Yasukuni.

This development served as a reminder that the authority to have souls enshrined at Yasukuni rested with the emperor. In other words, nobody could be enshrined there against the emperor’s will; any such action would make the shrine lose its essential nature.

Establishment of a Secondary System of Memorialization

The colonial government of Taiwan could not, however, let matters stand as they were. In 1928 the Office of the Governor-General established Kenkō Jinja, a Shintō shrine whose divinities were the souls of those who sacrificed their lives in Taiwan fighting or performing their professional duties for the sake of the empire from 1895 on. The shrine housed 16,805 spirits, including 3,339 Han Taiwanese (19.9% of the total) and 281 aboriginal Taiwanese (1.7%).

In the late 1930s, under the militarism of Japan’s fascist period, the conflict with China turned into a fierce war. The Japanese forces were employing many Taiwanese in civilian capacities, and as the fighting intensified, increasing numbers of these personnel lost their lives. This made it impossible to continue the earlier sort of discrimination against them. And when it was decided to recruit volunteers from Taiwan to fight as soldiers, following a similar decision to recruit Koreans, it became impossible not to provide for enshrinement of the souls of the Taiwanese who lost their lives, as had already been done for Koreans. In 1942 Taiwan Gokoku Jinja was established as an additional Shintō facility to honor those from Taiwan whose souls were among the divinities at Yasukuni. Needless to say, this move was related to the authorities’ intention of extending military conscription to Taiwanese.

The names of those whose souls were newly enshrined at Yasukuni were originally announced in the Official Gazette as part of the policy of treating them as the heroic spirits of the nation. But following Japan’s defeat in the Battle of Midway, for which the military leadership wanted to avoid blame, and the subsequent turning of the tide of war against Japan, which the authorities did not want to reveal to the public, this practice was halted in April 1944. After that the souls enshrined at Yasukuni became the heroic spirits just of the military, concealed from the general public. And after the war, they became the heroic spirits just of Yasukuni Shrine.

Postwar Developments

After their defeat in the war, shocked to see their country in ashes and shaken by the tremendous losses of life from the conflict, the Japanese people radically changed their values and their view of war. They adopted a pacifist mind-set based on regret and contrition for the war and a desire for peace. In line with this shift, new facilities were established for memorialization of the war dead, and memorial ceremonies came to be held for the war dead including members of the general public.

In 1959 Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery was established in Tokyo as a resting place for the remains of those who died overseas in the war. This is Japan’s only state-level facility memorializing the war dead. But a number of other national facilities have also been established in memory of particular sets of war victims, including a cemetery in Okinawa for the victims of the fighting there, peace memorial halls for the atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and monuments set up overseas for those who died fighting at various battlegrounds and under detention in Siberia.

Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, established in Tokyo in 1959, features the Hexagonal Hall, which houses the remains of 358,260 soldiers and civilians, as of May 2013.

Numerous additional memorial facilities have been established by local government bodies and other organizations. Notable examples include the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the Memorial Park for the Tokyo War Dead, the Tokyo Memorial Hall, the Cenotaph for the City Air-Raid Victims of the Pacific War, the Manchuria-Mongolia Settlement Peace Memorial Hall, the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, and the Kaiten Memorial Hall (for those who died manning “human torpedoes”). Also, aside from Yasukuni Shrine and the local gokoku jinja established before the war, there are newer religious facilities where the war dead are memorialized, such as the Nihon Chūreiden Pagoda at Zenkōji, a famous Buddhist temple in Nagano.

During the postwar period ceremonies have also come to be held in memory of war victims including ordinary civilians. The most prominent example is the Memorial Ceremony for the War Dead that the government holds every year on August 15, the anniversary of the end of the war. This ceremony is in memory of those who died in the hostilities starting with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937; it does not commemorate those who died in the earlier wars waged by imperial Japan. Commemoration of these earlier victims is left up to the voluntary activities of local governments or communities and of private groups of citizens with links to the victims. Most of the memorial ceremonies conducted by these bodies are based on traditional Japanese forms.

To sum up, the memorialization of the war dead in Japan originated in the form of observances for “loyal retainers” who died in the service of their lords. It thus had a dual structure, split between the center (the imperial government) and the regions (the former feudal domains). And the logical basis for the systems at the local level was different from that at the center. These distinct systems have since coexisted in a complementary manner. And this set of characteristics may be said to be grounded in Japan’s cultural traditions.

(Originally written in Japanese. Title photo courtesy of Mainichi Newspaper/AFLO)

(*1) ^ For detailed notes and a list of references see the original Japanese version of this article.

(*2) ^ In 1871 the Meiji government abolished the system of han—local domains headed by daimyō—and instituted prefectures in their place.

Taiwan emperor Sino-Japanese War Yasukuni Shrine Meiji Restoration Shintō Boshin Civil War Buddhist Russo-Japanese War Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery war dead Pacific War