Yasukuni shrine, symbol of jingoism?

By Gautaman Bhaskaran, The Hindu, Sunday 11 August 2002

Chennai Aug. 10. Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine seems like any other. There are hundreds of such religious edifices in Japan, and Yasukuni's placid appearance belies the fire and fury it is capable of provoking. In fact, every August 15, the day when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, the shrine evokes a sense of anger and resentment even as it does fill many with nostalgic, sometimes even frenzied, patriotism.

Yasukuni in the heart of Tokyo is dedicated to the spirits of about 2.4 million Japanese who died in the many wars that the archipelago nation has fought since 1853. But Yasukuni pays special homage to—and is better known for—the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the last war.

Nobody minds this. What many do resent is the fact that the shrine also honours 14 men convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal, set up soon after 1945.

Obviously. In a country like Japan—which has successfully separated religion from statecraft, a union that was held largely responsible for the wartime atrocities which Tokyo perpetrated on its neighbours and others—any trace of politico-religious affinity is abhorred.

It was precisely for this reason that the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni on August 13 last year evoked protests both within the nation and outside. China and South Korea, where Japan's cruelty has been well documented, made the loudest of noises. Scheduled to visit the shrine on August 15, Mr. Koizumi advanced the date by a couple of days, hoping to ease some of the symbolism associated with the trip. That did not quite happen.

Understandably so. For, Yasukuni exalts the Japanese equivalents of Germany's Goring and Himmler, and the brutal form of imperialism they championed. The most famous figure revered at the shrine is Hideki Tojo, a general, who, as Prime Minister, presided over Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, its lightning conquest of south-east Asia and its ongoing war against China. A dozen others executed by the allies after Japan's surrender as Class A war criminals also find a spiritual home at Yasukuni.

Indeed, the shrine is wrapped in the unsavoury side of Japan's history. After its opening in 1869, it became the most important symbol of State Shinto, a late 19th century fusion of an ancient religion with modern absolute government power. State Shinto, which was abolished by the Americans after the war, has been blamed, both within Japan and outside, for the rise of brutal militarism. But Yasukuni continues to sport dark patches: fringe nationalists and extreme rightwing elements still run the shrine, and an adjacent museum glorifies Kamikaze suicide bombers by displaying military memorabilia. In short, Yasukuni remains the focal point for all those who still believe that Japan need not be ashamed of its imperialist past.

What worried most Japanese last year was the feeling that Mr. Koizumi visited the shrine because he thought that this would go well with the chauvinist voter to whom Yasukuni appeals. The Japan Association of War-Bereaved Families, a powerful though aging group with strong links to the shrine, had the power to rustle up votes for Mr. Koizumi's Liberal Democratic Party. He courted precisely this during his bid for leadership in April 2001, and he even promised to make an official visit to Yasukuni if he won.

Of course, this year, Mr. Koizumi is wiser. He will not pay his respects at Yasukuni.

A onetime Japanese soldier told this writer last year that men of his ilk were brainwashed into thinking that their spirits would rest at Yasukuni after they had laid down their lives for the Emperor. He remembered how mothers at the shrine would weep in joy and with pride after imaginary meetings with the souls of their dead sons, killed in battlefields.