Built in 1869, the purpose of this Shinto Shrine was to commemorate and honor soldiers that had died fighting in service of the emperor. Throughout its history more than 2 million soldiers have been enshrined for their ultimate sacrifice to the emperor but this has led to much of the controversy surrounding it.
On a cold, overcast November day our program director took us to witness first hand the shrine as well as the museum that is part of the complex. After passing through two massive Torii gates we witnessed several black vans with blacked out windows and loud speakers. We were told that these vans belong to Japanese ultra-nationalists who view the war in Asia and Japan’s colonization as a positive; as such many of these right-wing supporters believe Japan’s place in the modern world should be to restore its empire in full.
At first glance the shrine at Yasukuni is in itself nothing special and looks like any other but to people of countries that japan occupied it represents Japanese unwillingness to admit wrongdoing. At Yasukuni there are about 1000 war criminals enshrined with 14 of those being A-class ( in effect equivalent to Nazi war criminals). The controversy originated from the release of some of these war criminals in 1958 and their enshrinement 20 years later, making many in Japan believe that perhaps they were not criminals after all. Since under Shinto beliefs enshrinement means absolution after death the possibility of removing war criminals from the shrine is impossible.
The controversy of the shrine has come and gone on many occasions but recent visits by Prime Minister Shino Abe while in office has caused further souring of relations with china, North Korea, South Korea and Taiwan. The inclusion of Koreans and Taiwanese soldiers that fought for the emperor though not always willingly is yet another point of contention. Finally we have Japanese revisionist history that fails to go into depth as to Japan’s role in World War II; in fact many textbooks make a distinction between “The Greater East Asia War” (War with China), “The Pacific War” (War with U.S. and European powers) and “The Soviet Invasion”.
In a country that is primarily pro-pacifist and has not participated in a war militarily since 1945, Yasukuni Shrine and its war criminals are out of place. Furthermore its out of place to have a very shallow understanding or for that matter to actively refute them. After going to Yasukuni Shrine’s museum it becomes more apparent the erroneous view that it promulgated; in particular the view that Japan’s war paved the way for independence movements in Asia. To be fair this has a vein of truth or at least it did initially as Japan was viewed in a more positive light than Europe; yet Japan did not give independence to Asia rather they submitted the peoples of Southeast Asia to their own brand of imperialism.
Amidst a country of pacifists, Yasukuni Shrine is a peculiar sight; it is a dark stain that has endured in the country and does not show signs of going away anytime soon.