August 15th marked Japan’s surrender during World War II. One place that was conspicuously unvisited by Shinzo Abe and his cabinet was Yasukuni Shrine. If you haven’t heard of Yasukuni Shrine, here’s a brief run-down: This is where Japan commemorates all of those who died in service to the Japanese empire. While Yasukuni did not garner much attention prior to World War II, post-WWII, a stir was caused. Some of those enshrined in Yasukuni (a smidge over 1,000) are considered war criminals, with 14 being classified as Class A (the highest) war criminals. Thus, whenever a Japanese politician, particularly the Prime Minister, goes to the shrine, controversy follows.
Deities of Yasukuni Jinja Shrine
In this Shinto Shrine, there are over 2 million “deities” enshrined. Some would more accurately translate this “deities” word into “saints.” These are, according to the signs around the shrine, all of those who died for Japan during any war since the beginning of the Meiji Restoration (1853), “regardless of their rank or social standing, and are considered to be equal and worshipped as venerable deities who sacrificed themselves for their mother country” (Yasukuni, 2017). The shrine was originally built on June 29, 1869 and dedicated as Tokyo Shokonsha but was later renamed to Yasukuni Jinja in 1879. It was renamed to reflect a wish of peace for all of Japan.
It also has a small hall that was built to enshrine all of those who died in World War II, regardless of their nationality, the Chinreisha. This was built in 1965 and is easy to miss (I know I did my first visit): It’s a small wooden structure south of the main pavilion.
Visiting the shrine, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I know that a lot of Japanese nationalists hold the shrine in great esteem and visit the shrine often, but I didn’t see anyone too radical out that day. I did notice that the people who did pay their respects and pray did so with such a fervor and gusto I haven’t really seen at any of the other Shinto shrines I’ve visited. No one seemed to pay us much heed, which is usually the case, so we wandered around and checked out some flower arrangements and the shrine’s shop. Everywhere we went, the imperial flower seemed to be looming over us, reminding us of Japan’s war-time past.
Yasukuni was meant to symbolize peace and to honor soldiers who died fighting their country, which it did for many years, but after World War II, it became this symbol of atrocity and empire for so many around Asia that its original intent was overshadowed and it took on a new meaning. While I wasn’t there to pay my respects, it was a little unsettling to know that war criminals were being worshipped here. I’m sure every country has its war criminals (known or unknown) that get worshipped, don’t get me wrong. It just feels different when you’re on the outside looking in, you know?
It will be interesting spending more time viewing history, especially World War II, from the Japanese lens while I’m here, especially after visiting the USA’s World War II museum earlier this year.
If you do visit, remember the rules: This is an active religious site, and they don’t take kindly to close photographs of the worship areas. Stay behind the large gates and take your photos at a respectable distance. The security guards here are on high alert, so make sure you make their jobs easier and follow the rules.