Japan is a country where history and traditions have shifted very rapidly with deep structural consequences over the last two centuries. The most eye catching was in the middle of the 19th century with the Meiji Government, the first active involvement of the Emperor in politics for centuries. The country’s central power changed from the feudal system of the samurai era to a government close to the parliamentary monarchy of the United Kingdom. This deep shift enacted an earthquake in the religions present in Japan.
Indeed, two major religions are present in the country: Shinto and Buddhism. Before the Meiji Government both religions were almost synonymous. In their quest of nation building and the creation of a Japanese national identity, supporters of the Emperor declared Shinto as being the only religion of Japan, it considered Buddhism a foreign addition to Japanese culture. This position was quickly changed but not before plenty of destruction was done to Shinto-Buddhist movements and temples. Even after that reversal and the proclamation of freedom of faith, both religions stayed completely separated in institutions and dogma.
It was during that period of extreme nation building that the Shinto shrine of Yasukuni was built in dedication to the Emperor and those who died for him in the different subsequent wars that dot Japanese history through the 19th century to 1945.
It is a tradition in every form of human civilisation to honour the dead in one way or another. In the event of war, we remember the men and women who died for the their country with extreme reverence, it is of utmost importance for the population of a country to remember, pay their respects and honour those who died in wars. In order to do so, cultural events, songs, emblems and monuments, religious or not, exist to help us commemorate those men and women.
Those monuments are universal for the same reasons; they have a cathartic effect on helping a country grow after a war through meetings, commemorations and simply communications throughout the society. Japan’s wars desperately need to be buried but the country’s role in them has often been controversial and as it is the case with the shrine, the current political landscape is always caught up by the past.
The Yasukuni shrine belongs to the Shinto religion, based on honouring the spirit of the dead, called “kami,” or soul. It is the souls of all the war dead, friend or foe that are enshrined in the Yasukuni, and it is thus highly sacred in Shinto religion and for the Japanese State. Crucially, the emperor was worshipped as a living god by the some of enshrined, all followers of the then official state religion. Until 1945, the emperor was the head of the Shinto religion, dying for him was seen as an honour.
Today the shrine’s existence is a scandal to many of Japan’s neighbours because along with the dead, 14 of the enshrined souls are class-A war criminals. Among them is Hideki Tojo, the chief of the Government during most of the Second World War. These 14 class-A war criminals were enshrined in 1978 with temple officials submitting to the pressure exerted by different administration officials nostalgic of the pre-1945 world, despite emperor Hirohito’s opposition, which was been reported in Chamberlain Urabe’s diary.
Any visit by a Japanese official to the shrine to pay their respect to the dead are thus seen as an insult by Japan’s former enemies since such a visit also honours the souls of those responsible for many atrocities that were committed to their population.
Many issues are thus intertwined with this shrine, and the controversies associated with it enable us to see the gap in the Japanese society that exists between those who understand Japan’s role in the Second World War as a victim and those who understand it as the aggressor. One side of the debate is linked with far right politics while the other side, the far left; one is for remilitarisation while the other is pacifist. Japanese politicians therefore may use the shrine to bolster their political base, antagonise or smooth relations with Japan’s neighbours. In the same way, the shrine may be used by foreign politicians for personal and political gain. Jean-Marie Le Pen of the French far-right party the National Front has built a political career by expropriating the Second World War to make anti-semitic and racist comments, he also has long been suspected of having committed torture and crimes against humanity in the Algerian War. He visited the shrine in the 2000’s.
However all of this should be considered peripheral as the central issue is that no Japanese Emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, from former emperor Hirohito to current emperor Akihito, despite the fact that its role is for the Emperor to honour those who died in his name. Akihito has spoken against the current government’s path toward remilitarisation and hasn’t visited the shrine, despite attending the annual 15th of August commemorations for the end of the war.
Arriving at a solution is problematic; Shinto priests formally oppose the removal of the souls on religious grounds. However, a formal apology from the Japanese government to its former enemies in the Second World War and an educational program that fully accepts Japan’s responsibility in the Second World War, similar to the curriculum in Germany, should help its population bridge the gap created by this conflict. It would also go some way to mending relations with its neighbours. This is desperately needed as nothing good can come out the politicisation of history, religion and the dead.
Photo: Washington Post