Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s War Dead

Yasukuni and the Enshrinement of War Criminals

Politics Society

The advent of the second Abe Shinzō cabinet has rekindled the bitter controversy over official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are honored alongside Japan’s other war dead. Diplomatic historian Higurashi Yoshinobu sheds light on the process that culminated in the secret enshrinement of Class A war criminals in 1978.

Each year, as the summer heat reaches its peak, Yasukuni Shrine enters the glare of the media spotlight again. The issue is always the same: Will the prime minister or other members of the cabinet visit the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II? And are such visits appropriate?

Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō visited Yasukuni Shrine each year between 2001 and 2006. He was at pains to explain that his visits were motivated by feelings of “condolence, reverence, and gratitude” toward the war dead in general, rather than by any impulse to glorify militarism. Still, few people here have forgotten the intense reaction his visits elicited from Japan’s East Asian neighbors. The memory of that backlash may be the main reason no prime minister has visited the shrine since Koizumi.

Why should a visit by the prime minister to Yasukuni Shrine be sufficient to provoke an international incident? After all, the secular memorial services the government holds on August 15 each year typically pass without controversy. The simple answer is that Yasukuni honors, among others, the souls of Class A war criminals.

Because of this connection, some have suggested defusing the issue by “de-enshrining” the spirits of these criminals or “moving” them somewhere else. Still, it is uncertain whether such a measure would solve the problem or simply shift the focus of controversy to Class B and C war criminals, large numbers of whom are also enshrined at Yasukuni.

Be that as it may, the enshrinement of war criminals in general, and of Class A criminals in particular, is clearly at the heart of the controversy. In this essay, I hope to shed some light on the origins of this controversy and answer a few basic questions: Who are the war criminals in question? Why are they honored at a religious institution like Yasukuni Shrine? And finally: Who was responsible for the enshrinement of Class A war criminals, and what were the motives?

Class A War Crimes and the Tokyo Trials

World War II war criminals are people who were tried and convicted by any of the international military tribunals held by the Allies after the war to prosecute war crimes. In order to facilitate prosecution of those deemed responsible for the war and the atrocities associated with it, the Allied powers established three broad categories of war crime.(*1)

The first category was “crimes against peace” (Class A), defined as the “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression,” or conspiracy to those ends. Although wars of aggression had been regarded as violations of international law prior to World War II, they had not been treated as criminal’s offenses for which individuals could be tried and punished. For this reason, the tribunals have been criticized for convicting and punishing people under ex post facto laws—statutes enacted only after the offense has taken place.

The second category (Class B) corresponded to conventional crimes of war, including the mistreatment of prisoners, murder of civilians in occupied territory, and wanton destruction of cities. All of these had been punishable under international law since before World War II.

The third category (Class C) was “crimes against humanity.” This covered widespread or systematic persecution and atrocities carried out against a group of people. This category was established by the Allies toward the end of World War II—again, ex post facto—to cover Nazi crimes carried out against German Jews and others in the lead-up to the war. As atrocities committed by a state against its own citizens, these crimes were not encompassed in the traditional definition of war crimes covered by Class B.

Notwithstanding the hierarchical nuance of “class,” (kyū in Japanese), the categorization does not necessarily refer to the severity of the crime. Class A war crimes are not by definition worse or more serious than Class B or C crimes. However, Class A war criminals have drawn much more much attention than Class B or C criminals in Japan, primarily because of their high rank and the manner in which they were tried.

In Japan, the prosecution of Class A war criminals was handled exclusively by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), also known as the Tokyo Trials, held under the joint auspices of the Allied powers between 1946 and 1948. Because Class A war crimes pertain to the planning or initiation of wars of aggression, the accused are inevitably those involved in decision-making at the highest level—cabinet officials, senior army and navy officers, and other top government and military brass. In the context of Japanese history, the term “Class A war criminals” refers to the 28 Japanese leaders tried for crimes against peace in the Tokyo Trials (although Class B and C crimes were also prosecuted by the IMTFE).

The Allied powers established several other military courts in Asia to prosecute Class B and C war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese. These included an American military court in Yokohama, a British court in Singapore, a Dutch court in Batavia (Jakarta), and a Chinese court in Nanjing. These trials focused on violations of the traditional laws of war, such as the mistreatment of prisoners. Most of the accused were officers of low to intermediate rank. According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Health and Welfare (now the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare), a total of 4,830 Japanese citizens were tried for Class B and C war crimes. (This figure does not include those who died while their trials were underway.)

Against this background, let us examine the process leading up to the enshrinement of various classes of war criminal at Yasukuni Shrine.

Early Moves for Enshrinement

Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to the souls of those who gave their lives for their country, the majority of them members of the armed forces. During the war, Japanese soldiers often promised one another to “meet again at Yasukuni” before going to their deaths. Enshrinement at Yasukuni certifies that these people gave their lives for their country and aims to dignify their deaths with meaning and nobility.

Even before the Allied Occupation came to an end, the survivors of convicted war criminals began seeking the same honor for their own relatives. Testifying before the House of Councillors Committee on Judicial Affairs in late 1951, Imamura Hisa(*2) (head of the Tokyo Rusu Kazoku Kai, a support group for the relatives of war criminals), summed up the feelings of such survivors. “Because those who were punished for war crimes cannot currently be enshrined at Yasukuni,” she said, “the bereaved pass their days feeling shunned and forlorn and are truly to be pitied.”

Moves to rehabilitate Japan’s war criminals quickly gathered momentum after the Occupation ended in April 1952.

In May that year, the Ministry of Justice issued a memorandum overturning the legal interpretation that war criminals were to be treated in the same way as criminals convicted in a Japanese court of law. This restored their civil rights. In 1953, a change in the laws on public relief benefits made the surviving relatives of war criminals who had been executed or died in prison eligible for the same benefits as those of other public servants who had died in the line of duty.

In 1956, in response to lobbying from the Nippon Izoku Kai (Japan War-Bereaved Families Association), the Ministry of Health and Welfare began working with Yasukuni Shrine on a program it referred to as gōshi jimu kyōryoku, or “administrative cooperation on enshrinement.”

How did the Ministry of Health and Welfare become involved with the enshrinement of the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine?

The Health and Welfare Ministry’s Ex-Military Faction

Before World War II, Yasukuni Shrine was a special organ of the state under the jurisdiction of the Army, Navy, and Home Ministries. At that time, the Army and Navy Ministries were responsible for deciding who would be enshrined, providing Yasukuni with information on those eligible for enshrinement in the form of documents known as saijin meihyō, or “enshrinement information cards.”

In September 1946, the shrine’s status was changed and it became a private religious institution. This was in accordance with Article 20 of the (soon to be enacted) postwar Constitution, which mandated the separation of government and religion. But the shrine lacked the resources to compile comprehensive information on the war dead, and had no choice but to rely on government data. Initially, this was the responsibility of the First and Second Demobilization Ministries created in late 1945 when the Occupation abolished the Army and Navy Ministries as part of the disarmament process. When the demobilization apparatus was dismantled, these functions were transferred again.

In April 1954, government services relating to repatriated persons, veterans, and survivors became the responsibility of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Repatriation Relief Bureau (renamed the War Victims’ Relief Bureau in 1961). This was accompanied by an influx of former military personnel into the Health and Welfare Ministry. The new procedure for nominating deceased persons to be enshrined was as follows.

  1. Yasukuni Shrine applied to the government for information on the war dead.
  2. Acting on this query, the Health and Welfare Ministry sent notices to each prefecture requesting a survey to compile the necessary data. Verification of death was the task of municipal administrators.
  3. The Health and Welfare Ministry used the results of the surveys to draw up the saijin meihyō, which were sent to Yasukuni Shrine.
  4. Yasukuni Shrine made the final decision regarding enshrinement of those nominated by the Health and Welfare Ministry.

According to records, the enshrinement of the war dead from World War II (excluding war criminals) was largely completed by April 1959, when the shrine held a mass memorial service for that purpose.(*3)

Enshrinement of Class B and C Criminals

A solution to the problem of Japan’s war criminals also began to look more likely around this time. The last war criminals were paroled from Sugamo Prison in May 1958 and their sentences came to an end in December the same year. At that point, the enshrinement of executed war criminals (and those who had died in prison) began to appear feasible.

The Health and Welfare Ministry’s Repatriation Relief Bureau, largely staffed by former military personnel, played a leading role in getting war criminals enshrined. Concerned about a possible public backlash, the bureau pursued its aims quietly, beginning with Class B and C war criminals. In March 1959, it sent Yasukuni the first batch of saijin meihyō for Class B and C war criminals.

The head priest at Yasukuni at the time was Tsukuba Fujimaro (1905–1978), formerly Prince Yamashina Fujimaro. From the Meiji era until the end of World War II, male members of the imperial family were expected to pursue military careers. Prince Yamashina deviated from this tradition, studying Japanese history at Tokyo Imperial University. In 1928, he stepped down from his official capacity in the Imperial Family and took the title of marquis (kōshaku), which he continued to hold until the aristocracy was abolished after the war. In January 1946 he was appointed head priest, or gūji, of Yasukuni Shrine, a post he held for 32 years.(*4)

Tsukuba moved quickly after receiving the saijin meihyō in March 1959, and 346 Class B and C war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni the following month. Between April 1959 and October 1967, a total of 984 Class B and C war criminals were enshrined in four groups. It appears the shrine did not seek permission from the surviving family members (some of whom opposed enshrinement).

The Health and Welfare Ministry continued to send notices to the prefectures in connection with “administrative cooperation on enshrinement” from 1956 until 1970. Then, in February 1971, it notified the prefectural governments of its intention to “suspend all notices regarding administrative cooperation on enshrinement” forthwith.(*5) Apparently the notices had raised concerns that the ministry might be in violation of Article 20 of the Constitution, mandating the separation of governmental and religious affairs.

Proceeding Cautiously with Class A Criminals

The authorities thus felt obliged to proceed with great caution even with Class B and C war criminals, few of whom were prominent figures. They needed to be even more circumspect about enshrining the widely reviled big shots in Class A.

The Health and Welfare Ministry sent Yasukuni Shrine the first batch of saijin meihyō for Class A war criminals in February 1966. It contained information for 12 of the 14 deceased Class A war criminals, including 7 who were hanged (Doihara Kenji, Hirota Kōki, Itagaki Seishirō, Kimura Heitarō, Matsui Iwane, Mutō Akira, and Tōjō Hideki) and another 5 who died in prison of natural causes (Hiranuma Kiichirō, Koiso Kuniaki, Shiratori Toshio, Tōgō Shigenori, and Umezu Yoshijirō). The remaining two, Matsuoka Yōsuke and Nagano Osami, died of natural causes during the trial; they were placed in a separate category for the time being.

In January 1969, the Health and Welfare Ministry’s War Victims’ Relief Bureau and Yasukuni Shrine agreed on a plan to enshrine the Class A war criminals but to “avoid making it public.” But a year later the rites had yet to be carried out, and the more zealous advocates of enshrinement were growing impatient. These proponents of enshrinement were driven in large part by ideology, arguing that the Tokyo Trials had no legitimacy, and excluding Class A war criminals from Yasukuni Shrine was a tacit acceptance of the tribunal’s judgment. In 1970, the powerful lay council of Yasukuni Shrine passed a resolution calling for the enshrinement of Class A war criminals. However, the resolution left the timing to the head priest. And Tsukuba was determined to put off enshrinement of Class A war criminals as long as possible.

A Head Priest’s Ideological Agenda

The impasse continued until Tsukuba’s sudden death in March 1978. Matsudaira Nagayoshi (1915–2005) was installed as head priest in July that year.

It is worth going over Matsudaira Nagayoshi’s background. His grandfather, Matsudaira Yoshinaga (1828–90), was the feudal lord of the Fukui domain. In the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Yoshinaga called for a merger of the shogunate and the imperial court. After the shogunate fell, he was granted a position inside the new Meiji government. Matsudaira’s father, Yoshitami (1882–1948), was the last minister of the Imperial Household. Matsudaira himself was a lieutenant commander in the Imperial Navy during World War II and an officer in the Self-Defense Forces after World War II. His father-in-law, Daigo Tadashige, was a vice admiral in the Imperial Navy. He was tried by the Dutch after the war, convicted of Class B and C war crimes, and executed by rifle shot. He is listed among the war dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine.(*6)

Matsudaira unequivocally rejected the verdict of the tribunal and argued that the Tokyo Trials had produced a distorted view of history that cast Japan as the sole villain. He was determined from the outset to enshrine Japan’s Class A war criminals at Yasukuni. This was part of an ideological crusade to discredit the Tokyo Trials. Once appointed, he moved quickly. In a secret ceremony on October 17, 1978—just three months after becoming head priest—he enshrined all 14, including Matsuoka and Nagano.(*7)

When the story broke in April the following year, the public reaction was relatively muted. But controversy erupted with a vengeance six years later, when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro became the first postwar prime minister to pay homage at the shrine in an official capacity. When Nakasone and his cabinet visited Yasukuni on August 15, 1985 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the visit unleashed a storm of criticism from Japan’s Asian neighbors. The next year Nakasone agreed not to visit the shrine in deference to the views of Chinese leader Hu Yaobang. From that time on, visits by cabinet officials to Yasukuni Shrine have been a hot-button issue, drawing intense criticism from abroad and stymying diplomatic progress between Japan and its neighbors.

The ultimate source of this ongoing conflict was the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in 1978. And the enshrinement of this group cannot be attributed simply to religious or filial impulses. In fact, it was a blatantly ideological and political act driven by an urge to justify and legitimize a highly controversial chapter in Japanese history.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 11, 2013.)

(*1) ^ Higurashi Yoshinobu, Tōkyō saiban (The Tokyo Trials), (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2008).

(*2) ^ Imamura Hisa was the wife of Vice Admiral Imamura Hitoshi (1886–1968), who was convicted of Class B and C war crimes at an Australian court and imprisoned until 1954.

(*3) ^ Jinja Honchō (Association of Shinto Shrines), ed., Yasukuni Jinja (Yasukuni Shrine) (Tokyo: PHP Institute, 2012).

(*4) ^ Asami Masahiko, Kōzoku to teikoku rikukaigun (The Imperial Family and the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy), (Tokyo: Bungei Shunjū, 2010).

(*5) ^ See Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan (National Diet Library) ed., Shinpen Yasukuni Jinja mondai shiryō shū (New Compilation of Materials on the Yasukuni Shrine Controversy) (Tokyo: National Diet Library, 2007).

(*6) ^ Mainichi Shimbun Yasukuni shuzaihan (Yasukuni Shrine Reporting Team of the Mainichi Shimbun), Yasukuni sengo hishi (Yasukuni’s Secret Postwar History), (Tokyo: Mainichi Newspapers, 2007); Hata Ikuhiko, Yasukuni Jinja no saijin-tachi (The Deities Registered at Yasukuni Shrine), (Tokyo: Shinchō sha, 2010).

(*7) ^ On July 20, 2006, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) reported that the Shōwa Emperor (Hirohito) had expressed displeasure at the enshrinement of Class A war criminals. This was based on a memo discovered in the papers of Tomita Asahiko, who was Grand Steward of the Imperial Household Agency from 1978 to 1988. (Tomita died in 2003.) The memo records remarks supposedly made by the emperor in April 1988: “I understand Tsukuba dealt with the issue (the enshrinement of Class A war criminals) with proper caution, but Matsudaira’s son rushed them through as soon as he took over. What was he thinking?” This was followed by reports in several major newspapers on April 26 and 27, 2007 concerning a diary entry written by Urabe Ryōgo (Chamberlain 1961–91; died 2002). The entry claimed that the emperor’s disapproval of the enshrinement had been “directly related” to the circumstances that led him to stop visiting the shrine. After the war, the emperor visited Yasukuni a total of eight times, at irregular intervals. The last two visits took place in October 1969 and November 1975.—Ed.

Koizumi Jun'ichirō World War II Yasukuni Shrine