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(DV) Petersen: The Morbid Symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine







The Morbid Symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine 
by Kim Petersen
December 12, 2005

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The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Tokyo that is a focal point of searing controversy since the kami (souls) of 14 Class A war criminals were secretly enshrined there in 1978. One expatriate writer located in Japan has seen fit to defend visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by government leaders of the nation that was a World War II aggressor. Mike Rogers wonders what the problem is since: “Yasukuni Shrine is not run by the State and it is not a cemetery.” He asserts that Yasukuni Shrine is not a symbol and glorification of Japanese militarism, that Japanese prime ministerial visits there are not a glorification of Japan’s militaristic past, and that such visits do not constitute a denial of Japan’s past war crimes and deeds. [1]

Besides, points out Rogers, no one is buried there. “There are no bones, ashes, graves, graveyard, or headstones at Yasukuni Shrine.” But there are nearly 2.5 million kami in Yasukuni Shrine. What, one might wonder, is of greater importance to people: the corporeal remains or the life essence that is the soul? It is puzzling logic then that Rogers argues conversely that people should relax because only the kami are in Yasukuni Shrine. 

Japan has never issued an official government apology for its WWII aggression. A friend, Geoff Botting, who is a longtime resident of Japan and a writer for the Japan Times opines about the lack of “an apology in the form of a Diet resolution to represent the sentiments of the Japanese people”:  

Nor will there be one: Most Japanese, including young ones, continue to believe that Japan's wartime actions were to defend the country. But when asked why they had to invade and occupy every single one of their neighboring countries and kill 6 million people in the process as a way of "defending" themselves, they can't come up with a coherent answer.  

Yet, Rogers wonders why Japan’s victimized neighbors get upset about Yasukuni Shrine. He speculates, “If you were to ask a Japanese nationalist about it, I’m sure they’d say because those countries just want money from Japan.” As to why China, South Korea, and North Korea are upset about Yasukuni Shrine, try the symbolism it evokes. Besides, who  cares much about what a Japanese nationalist thinks about the countries victimized by Japanese aggression?  

Rogers further suspects “the average person on the street in China or Korea couldn’t care less about what some politician is doing in another country. I do strongly suspect that the governments of China and the two Koreas are using Yasukuni Shrine as a method to whip up nationalism.” Quite possibly, in a broader sense, Rogers’ suspicion about the average person on the street in China or Korea is correct. But narrow the question down to the Yasukuni Shrine and likeliest this perception changes. My own anecdotal experiences with Chinese and Koreans while living in China revealed that emotions ran quite high whenever the topic of Japanese militarism was broached. The symbolism of Yasukuni Shrine does matter to informed Koreans and Chinese.  

Probably there is government exploitation of nationalism in the victimized countries but what Rogers states afterwards is far off the mark: that it is “a way to blame Japan for their economic problems; Japan is a handy tool to take people’s eyes off of the problems at home.” 

Economic indicators reveal that South Korea is doing just fine with its low unemployment rate and stable growth (IMF data shows a GDP growth rates of 3.8 percent forecast for 2005 and a rate of 5 percent for 2006). Currently, China is the world’s leading growing economy -- a market that Japan is becoming increasingly reliant upon! Japan's economy on the other hand is chugging along at a 2 percent GDP growth rate. It would seem highly more plausible to suggest that the Yasukuni Shrine visits are designed to whip up Japanese nationalist sentiments to detract from Japan’s comparatively tepid economic performance. 

Rogers adds that the nationalist anti-Japan sentiment is “especially true in North Korea.” Northern Korea is a victim of Japanese aggression and remains uncompensated for its years under Japanese occupation. [2] It is bizarre to label a victim as being anti its victimizer.  

Taiwanese, however, according to Rogers, are now “pro-Japan” because of Taiwan’s strong economy (strange statement in that there is little to starkly differentiate Taiwan and southern Korea in economic development). Also, the labeling of Taiwan as pro-Japan is dubious. Earlier in 2005, a delegation of Indigenous Taiwanese and legislator Kao-Chin Su-mei traveled to Yasukuni Shrine to have the kami of their ancestors unenshrined. Yasukuni officials refused. Kao-Chin asked, “How could we tolerate the victims being honored together with their persecutors?” A spokesman for the protesting Japanese nationalists claimed the Taiwanese delegation was “collaborating with Japan's pro-China leftists” to “smear the image of Taiwan through their planned visit to Yasukuni.” [3] 

A much more credible explanation for any perceived pro-Japan stance is that Japan serves as a somewhat manipulable adversary to frustrate mainland China's aspirations for the return of Taiwan to the motherland. Needless to say, this is another source of irritation between Japan and China. 

Some questions were unanswered in Rogers’ article. Does Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro sign the guest book as a private citizen or as a prime minister? He claims to visit Yasukuni Shrine as a private citizen but he signs as a prime minister. What about the symbolism of visits to Yasukuni Shrine in the eyes of former victims of Japanese militarism? Is not penance a part of atoning for past crimes against humanity?  

Rogers replied by email: “And if it really did matter to the defeated victims, they would have started complaining way before 1979. As I pointed out, Japanese PM visit that shrine as custom every year since the war ended, yet no one complained until 1979. The question is not the visits, the questions is why didn't they complain in 1950's, 60's, 70's, until 1979?” 

But the notorious war criminals weren't enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine until 1978. It is thereafter that the protests began, and surely the firestorm of protests from Japan’s aggrieved neighbors was no surprise. 

While history must always be open to scrutiny, Yasukuni Shrine has been criticized for sales of revisionist history, such as referring to an “alleged” Nanjing Massacre. [4] Yasukuni Shrine is also criticized for glorifying Japanese militarism; for example, a 52 Zero fighter is on display in the entrance hall of the Yasukuni Museum. A perusal of the Yasukuni Shrine website readily demonstrates militaristic sentiments: 

This matter is drawn upon the judgment professed by the Military Tribunal for the Far East that Japan fought a war of aggression. Can we say that this view is correct? We must pass judgment on this matter in the same manner of a tribunal that passes judgment after gathering credible proof. We cannot help but feel that the possibility of ulterior motives have not been discounted. Isn't it a fact that the West with its military power invaded and ruled over much of Asia and Africa and that this was the start of East-West relations? There is no uncertainty in history. Japan's dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia. We cannot overlook the intent of those who wish to tarnish the good name of the noble souls of Yasukuni. [5] 

Japan-based colleague Jenna Matsui observes the rise of an anti-foreign sentiment among the historical revisionists of Japan’s role in WWII:  

Japanese hawks, emboldened by the increasingly anti-Chinese sentiment amongst the people, are brazenly thumbing their noses at the notion that Japan waged a war of aggression against its Asian neighbors.  Japan, they insist, was defending these nations against "terrorism," communism, and Western Imperialism. Rightwing pundits and politicians seize upon the latter to justify Japanese [wartime] expansionism into East Asia as a "benevolent" policy, aimed at defending China against foreign occupation. 

The danger is that the lessons learned from Japan’s militaristic past are being forgotten and that a new aggressive nationalism is rising to undermine Japan’s pacifist constitution. Yasukuni Shrine is a cynosure for this nationalist movement. 

Rogers concludes:  

Regardless, until the day comes when war is abolished, Yasukuni Shrine will probably always be a sticking point in the relations between Japan and its neighbors. The point that must be remembered is that Yasukuni Shrine is not a shrine glorifying Japanese militarism, it is a shrine to pray for the forgiveness and rest of the souls who died in war. For whatever reason, showing respect to the dead should be a sign of basic human compassion. Anyone, in any country, should be able to respect that.  

Respect, however, transcends human passion; it is something that is earned. Warmongers who have exhibited ultimate contempt for the lives of other humans have forfeited the right to receiving respect. It is illogical to argue that those without compassion for the living should be accorded compassion when dead. 

Certain Japanese government officials have made a conscious decision to honor the memory of Japanese war dead over the memory of the victims of Japanese aggression. It is not necessary for war to be abolished for Japan to remember and honor its victims. That is what the sticking point is: a decision to repudiate its victims and to honor its own militarists. 

In another email, Rogers writes, “I don't think it's anyone else's business what the Japanese do in their own country -- what anyone does in their own place is no one else's business...” But enshrinement of Class A war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine symbolizes an evil wrought by Japanese outside their maritime borders. As such, Rogers’ proffered rationale fails.  

The controversy over Yasukuni Shrine can best be encapsulated by a simple question. Concerning aggression and other war crimes, whose sensitivities are paramount: those of the aggressor or those of the victim? 

Kim Petersen, Co-Editor of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi'kmaq homeland colonially designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: 


[1] Mike Rogers, “Yasukuni Shrine,”, 8 December 2005. 

[2] In an earlier article I analyzed just how twisted the treatment of a country victimized by Japanese occupation forces could be. This came to a head when a Japanese government minister spoke openly of Japanese sanctions against northern Korea. “Gizen: Perverted Principle in Japan,” Dissident Voice, 15 October 2005. 

[3] China Post staff, “Lawmaker and aborigines forbidden to visit Yasukuni,” China Post, 15 June 2005. 

[4] I visited the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre in 2003 and viewed the piles of skeletal remains and graphic photographs.  

[5] “Yasukuni Jinja

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