Yasukuni Shrine & Yushukan Museum, Tokyo

Situated in Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the spirits of the men, women and children who have died for the nation of Japan and its Emperors since the Meiji Restoration in 1869. Originally the Shrine was titled ‘Tokyo Shokonsha’ or ‘shrine to summon the souls’ and was founded by the Meiji Emperor to honour the 7,000 men who died restoring power to the Emperor in the Boshin War. Ten years later the Emperor changed the name of the Shrine to ‘Yasukuni Jinja’, which translated means ‘pacifying the nation’.

Comprises of a number of religious buildings, monuments and Torii’s (shrine gates), the Yasukuni Shrine nowadays holds the souls of almost 2.5 million people. Both military people and local civilians who fought in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, the Manchurian Incident, Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II have been honoured at Yasukuni for sacrificing their lives to help build the foundation for a peaceful Japan. Not only have Japanese civilians been honoured here, but a large number of Taiwanese and Koreans as well. Each soul enshrined is documented by name, origin, birthdate and date and place of death on a special handmade paper list that is kept onsite at the Shrine.

In Japan during the 1930s, the military government took command of the memorialisation of the war dead and as a result those enshrined at Yasukuni took on the status of national heroes. During the Second World War, the role of the Yasukuni Shrine further boosted civilian morale and inspired those sent off to the frontline, in particular the kamikaze pilots sent to their death. However, following Japan’s loss in the Pacific region, the occupying US-forces issued the Shinto Directive – an order that enforced the separation of church and state. As a result the Yasukuni Shrine, which had been privately operated since 1946, chose to become an individual religious corporation and as such, was to make the decisions of who was to be enshrined without the instruction or advice of the state.

As of the present day, the Yasukuni Shrine stands at the centre of a controversial debate about how Japan interprets its military history. Two main issues lie at the heart of the debate, the first being the inclusion of 14 Class A War Criminals at Yasukuni. The details of these 14 men, including prime ministers and war generals, were sent to the Yasukuni Shrine in 1966. However, due to the leading priest’s opposition to the enshrinement they were not accepted until he had passed away and his successor inducted the men in a secret ceremony in 1978. Along with these 14 Class A War Criminals, there are almost another 1,000 Class B and Class C War criminals from World War II enshrined at Yasukuni. For many people, especially in the neighbouring countries of South Korea and China where many of the crimes were committed, the inclusion of these men is an insult to the memory of those tortured and killed by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The second issue, very much linked to the first, relates to Japanese leaders and politicians, including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, visiting Yasukuni Shrine and sending ritual offerings. In the realm of politics, the recent visit to Yasukuni in 2016 by Prime Minster Abe is interpreted as incredibly damaging to relations between Japan and China and South Korea. In China and South Korea, leaders and locals alike claim that the visit reflects a denial of the wartime aggression Japan inflicted on its neighbouring countries and a growing desire for Japan to return to its nationalistic militaristic ways. With thousands of people coming to Yasukuni every year to offer prayers and pay their respects at important rituals, the resolution of diplomatic tensions does not look to be easing any time soon.

Another controversial site located within the Yasukuni Shrine is the Yushukan Museum. Maintained by the Shrine, the museum opened in 1882 and claims to be the first and oldest military museum in Japan. During the first half of the 20th century, the museum preserved and displayed a large collection of military weapons and artifacts from the Meji Restoration era, through to World War II, including a number of looted items from their various opponents. Following the end of the Second World War, the museum was closed and did not open again until 1985.

Nowadays, the museum focuses on the Shrine’s dedication to those enshrined and the contribution they made to Japan’s military history. On the first floor, visitors can observe a large number of military weapons, restored fighter planes used throughout World War II and a Class C56 steam locomotive used on the Thai-Burma Railway. More personal items, such as hand written letters and military uniforms, are displayed throughout the exhibition space as a way of illustrating the everyday experiences of Japanese soldiers taking part in the assorted campaigns of the 19th and 20th centuries. Before ascending to the second floor, the photographs and portraits of the ‘Spirits of Yasukuni’ are exhibited on the walls.

The second floor, much like the first, displays a collection of military weapons and war related memorabilia. Each of the items on show provides a broader historical insight into Japan’s military activities, in particular the various battles of World War II. A small cinema plays a selection of documentaries that relate to the Shrine and Japan’s military history throughout the 20th century. Outside the museum a number of monuments and statues dedicated to military heroes (and even the animals who assisted in military victories) stand to attention.

Like the Yasukuni Shrine, the Yushukan Museum is also considered to be rather controversial to many people for the way it interprets the history of World War II. Critics argue that the interpretation focuses only on the military victories gained by Japan and omits entirely the atrocities the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted on other nations, including the Nanjing Massacre, Unit 731 in Harbin and the use of Comfort Women. Others claim that the museum puts forward a nationalistic view – rather than demonstrating regret and remorse, the museum instead lays the blame elsewhere and maintains Japan's actions were in self defence – a denial of the proactive aggression that many historians tend to write about. In the last ten years, the museum has edited some of its interpretive material, however it claims that this is not as a result of international pressure but to preserve the museum's ‘intellectual integrity’.

Related Web-links

  1. http://www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/