Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

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As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

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First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

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There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

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Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

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The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

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During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

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Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

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During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

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Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

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Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

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Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

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Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!