The Yasukuni Shrine and the Rise of Japan

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The Yasukuni Shrine and the Rise of Japan’s New Nationalism

The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto shrine established in 1869 in Tokyo. It was constructed in order to honor and worship the soldiers who have died for their country in the Boshin Civil War that brought about the Meiji restoration and sacrificed their lives in the service of their emperor to build a firm foundation for Japan to become a truly peaceful country. For some Asian countries such as China and South Korea, which had been victims under Japanese imperialism and aggression in the first half of the 20th century, the shrine was built to commemorate Japanese war criminals in the World War II, and it has become a blatant symbol for Japanese wartime militarism from the perspectives of these Asian countries. At the center of Yasukuni Shrine’s controversy is the fact that those venerated included 14 convicted class-A war criminals, including former Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. The Yasukuni Shrine is therefore frequently at the center of political storms, especially when several Japanese cabinet members and prime ministers pay their visits to worship the souls of the military war dead at the Shrine each year, as neighboring countries consider the visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine as an attempt to legitimize Japan’s past militarism. The politicized symbolism of the Yasukuni Shrine involves the conflict between incompatible Japanese party identities, the significance of Yasukuni in the Japanese nationalism, how the Japanese wartime history is perceived, and Japan’s diplomatic and political relations with its neighboring East Asian countries.

Once an important site for rituals centered on the imperial emperor, Yasukuni symbolizes the nation’s former fusion of the state and the Shinto religion, and it is the shrine where Japanese soldiers, officers, and civilian employees of the military who died in modern Japan's wars have been enshrined as heroic spirits. The shrine was administered by the army and navy up until the time of defeat in World War II when the American occupation authorities imposed the constitutional separation of religion and the state. The controversy over visits by Japanese prime ministers to the shrine arose from the fact that in 1978, the Yasukuni Shrine enshrined 14 executed World War II class-A criminals among the war dead, which generated dispute from neighboring Asian countries who view these visits as representing the glorification of Jingoistic nationalism and militarism in Japan. The essence of the issue lies in the historical heritage from the Japanese invasion and occupation which influenced the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean collective memories of the war. Yasukuni is not merely a memorial site where Japan’s 2.5 million military war dead are enshrined as deities, but the shrine, accompanied by a museum, is devoted to glorify Japanese militarism as a noble cause that strived to liberate Asia from Western powers and to promote an unapologetic view of Japan’s past atrocities through Korea, China, and much of Southeast Asia during the first few decades of the 20th century. The issue of shrine visits is exacerbated when Prime Minister Koizumi took office in 2001, and Japan’s diplomatic relations with China and Korea became increasingly intransigent.

From the Chinese and Korean perspectives, Koizumi’s visits to the shrine is regarded as an assertion of Japan’s wartime militarism, as the actions of democratic leaders are often taken as a reflection of the people they represent. Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits to Yakusuni have revived the antagonism between Japan and China. As the situation in 2005 illustrated, both China and South Korea called off summit meetings with Koizumi, and both countries have vehemently opposed Japan’s bid for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, unless he agreed to stop his controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where top-ranked war criminals are honored among the war dead, and shows...
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