The Yasukuni Shrine Issue – Neglecting Japan’s Domestic Politics and Considering the War Histories

The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, visited the “controversial” Yasukuni Shrine at the end of December 2013. That has especially inflamed and irritated the people in China and South Korea. The United States also voiced its disappointment with Abe’s visit. The reasons why Abe decided to visit the shrine at this time presumably were diverse: Japan’s relationships with China and South Korea would not become any more worse regardless of this visit because these relationships have chilled lately; and/or it was the last chance to visit Yasukuni before the hectic times due to both the Tokyo governor elections in February and the consumption tax increase in April, etc.[1]

The establishment of China’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and South Korea’s continuous criticism of both Japan’s historical role in and Japan’s missing reappraisal of the Second World War show the tense diplomatic situation in this region.

Political movements concerning this region have rapidly and incalculably been developing today: China and South Korea seem to have gotten much closer, what America might not quite welcome; North Korea’s foreign policy has become unpredictable again; Russia is seemingly trying to expand and strengthen its presence on the Korean Peninsula with the proposal to build a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea either via North Korea or through the sea, and the Siberia Railway connection to the South Korean railway system would also be attractive for both Koreas and Russia.[2] ; the United States just announced an increase of its military personnel in South Korea despite handing over the military command rights in 2015.[3]

The Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 to honor people who dedicated their lives to the Japanese nation. The souls of these persons since 1853 up to the Second World War have been enshrined.[4] The Japanese war criminals of the Second World War had not been enshrined there from the beginning. The Tokyo Tribunal (The International Military Tribunal for the Far East) judged three classes of war crimes: A (against peace), B (conventional war crimes), and C (against humanity). A total of 28 people were sentenced as A-Class war criminals, and seven of them were hanged. In 1978, 14 A-Class war criminals ‑ including the above-mentioned seven ‑ were moved to the Yasukuni Shrine. Over 4,000 B- and C-Class war criminals besides the A-Class war criminals are enshrined in Yasukuni. The reason stated for this movement was the rejection of the Tokyo trials, reported Akahata Shinbun, a communist party owned newspaper.[5] The argument of removing the souls of the A-Class war criminals from Yasukuni started in the 1980s. The bereaved were asked to agree to this removal of the souls from Yasukuni, but some disapproved. According to Akahata Shinbun, the reason given was that the criticism of the Prime Minister’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine due to the enshrined war criminals is merely the logic of the victors of war. Neither would the bereaved accept the Tokyo Tribunal.[6]

Masayasu Hosaka, who is one of the leading Showa-History researchers (the Pacific War was staged in the Showa-period) in Japan, wrote in his book that many Japanese citizens did not know anything about real wars. All wars after Japan’s feudal period were always fought on foreign soil, not in Japan. As America started the bombings on Japanese cities around November 1944, the Japanese citizens experienced the fear and cruelty of war for the first time. Their hate with wars is solely based on this short experience. The experience of war and the experience of the battlefield are not the same, said Hosaka.[7] Only Okinawa and a few islands saw land warfare, but the majority of the Japanese homeland never suffered the battles of ground forces unlike many Asian countries. Though, around 300,000 people in Japan were killed by American air raids.[8] It seems that many Japanese have not seriously asked themselves until now why and how wars start. They closed the curtain of the war history with the death penalty for the seven A-Class war criminals without ever even studying the bold outlines of war history.

Moreover, the Japanese attitude for the dead also has an influence on praying for war criminals: crimes are atoned for by death.

The Yasukuni Shrine has caused arguments in Japan, too. The definition for “the dedication of one’s life for the nation “is ambiguous. There is the question whether it violates the separation of politics and religion. A further argument pertains to the very justification of the Tokyo Tribunal which punished some war criminals but let others go free despite their crimes.

However, the answers for all these problems have to be found by the Japanese even if the conclusions reached would not appeal to the Chinese and South Korean notions. Some of the critical voices might be mitigated after then. Japan has neglected discussing these issues. A similar behavior can be seen in the case of the Fukushima nuclear incidence after the great earthquakes and the devastating tsunami in March 2011. The sense of responsibility lacks. Without first finding answers to these problems in the domestic sphere, any diplomatic explanations concerning Yasukuni Shrine visits cannot help much abroad. Japan’s purported remilitarization has been strongly and selfishly stressed by both China and South Korea since Abe’s visit to Yasukuni. To avoid unnecessary tensions with surrounding nations, Japan should finally face its own war history. Using history as a “weapon” in foreign affairs is not an accepted means, but this is realpolitik. Japan traditionally discusses whatever issues only within Japan and neglects explaining the logic of thoughts without. This might be attributed to Japan’s sometimes isolationist history and the concomitant mono-culture. The importance of communication and the advantage of soft power should seriously be reconsidered in order to avoid isolation within the international community and unnecessary tensions with neighboring countries.

[1] Asahi Shinbun: Totsuzenno sanpaini sanpi, kangeisuru sanpaikyaku, kokusaimondai kenen mo (Surprise visit divided opinions, supported by other visitors, rouses foreign affairs concerns), December 26, 2013. [Accessed December 27, 2013]

[2] The Voice of Russia: Russia and South Korea, Energy kyoryoku wo kyoka (Energy cooperation strengthened), November 16, 2013. [Accessed January 7, 2014]

[3] NZZ: Amerika verstärkt Truppen in Südkorea, Januar 9, 2014.

[4] Yasukuni Shrine, Homepage. [Accessed January 8, 2014]

[5] Akahata Shinbun: A kyu senpan no goshi wa Tokyo Saiban hitei ga douki (Enshrinement of A-Class war criminals is motivated by the rejection of the Tokyo Tribunal), July 25, 2006. [Accessed January 8, 2014]

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hosaka, Masayasu (2009): Taiheiyo Senso, nanatsuno nazo (Pacific War, Seven Mysteries). Tokyo, Kadokawa.

[8] Yanagisawa, Jun: Nihon Rikugun no hondobouku ni taisuru kangaeto sono boukusakusen no ketsumatsu. Senshi Kenkyu Nenpou, vol. 11, March 2008, the National Institute for Defense Studies. [Accessed January 30, 2014]

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