Yasukuni Shrine – History 1869 – 2015

Yasukuni Shrine 1869-2015 by Mike Malaghan


When in 1906, Picture Bride heroine, Haru gazed in rapture at her emperor’s horseback entrance into Yasukuni Shrine, the war memorial had already evolved into a symbol of his divinity. By design, the Shrine tapped into the spirit of bushido driving Japan’s military supremacy over its Asian neighbors. Of course, no one then had an inkling that this hallowed ground would engender so much vitriol from its neighbors a century later. How did that happen?

2000_513_sThe young Meiji emperor established Yasukuni Shrine in 1869 to honor the 7,751 soldiers who died in Boshin War that overthrew the decaying Tokugawa shogunate the previous year. Another 6,959 soldiers were enshrined eight years later after Meiji forces prevailed again in the Satsuma rebellion led by Saigo Takamori who attempted to restore the rule of the samurai. Thus ended the first of four stages of Japanese militarism.

attachmentA few years later, the Meiji restoration’s dominant intellectual (and the face of today’s ten thousand yen note) Yukichi Fukuzawa coined the phrase fukoky kyohei – “rich country-strong army” that encapsulated stage two. Japan must build its military prowess and modernize its institutions or fall to the Western Powers like China who refused to change its feudal ways.

In 1882, the Tenno Heika consecrated Yasukuni’s Military Exhibition Hall sanctifying the glory of dying on his behalf. The same year, his military begin reciting the “Imperial Precepts to Soldiers and Sailor” that pledged “selfless loyalty to the emperor is the supreme duty of the fighting man” and declared, “Duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather.”

Japan’s military modernization soon secured it shores from foreign incursion. What next? Continued fortress Japan or Asia’s defender against further Western encroachment?

Neither. On March 16, 1885 Fukuzawa published his “Datsu-A Ron” or “Shedding Asia” manifesto calling on Japan to abandon the medieval governments of China and Korea and join the ranks of Western Nations bringing enlightenment to backward neighbors. Fancy words to announce the third stage of the march to militarism. Rather than trying to stop western colonization of Asia, Japan would join in the hunt.

Japan, seeking acceptance into the club of world powers, noted that all western nations had constitutions. So, in 1889, announced as a gift to his nation, the Meiji Emperor promulgated a Constitution. While a parliament (Diet) was established, sovereignty still resided in the Emperor on the basis of his divine ancestry. Article 3 affirmed, “The emperor is sacred and inviolable.” The emperor was given “supreme Control” over the army and navy.

Stage three in practice commenced with the 1895 China war that acquired Taiwan at the cost of 17,000 lives whose souls were enshrined in Yasukuni. Ten years later, the emperor honored another 78,000 souls to Yasukuni’s rolls as his navy sank the Russian fleet and his army crushed the tsar’s soldiers. The Manchuria railroad concession and half of Sakhalin were added to the empire. Japan now had a free hand in Korea which it annexed in 1910.


The fourth and final stage of Japan’s militarism begin in 1931. Ignoring civilian orders, the army contrived an incident and invaded Manchuria. A few years later, all pretense of civilian oversight ended when General Tojo became Prime Minister destined to be the most famous of the 14 class A war criminals and whose eventual presence in Yasukuni would remind Japan’s neighbors of some very bad days.

At the end of WWII, MacArthur’s staff decided to burn Yasukuni shrine. However Father Bruno Bitter of the Roman Curia convinced them to keep it because “honoring their war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere.”

Shortly after I arrived in Japan in the fall of 1978, my home in Kojimachi was but a few blocks from Yasukuni Shrine. I still remember the first time I walked under its massive red Torii gate soaring high over my head. Taking my cue from other visitors, I bowed, and clapped my hands in respect to men who died defending their country. I thought of Arlington.


I knew little of Yasukuni’s history then nor was I aware that Emperor Hirohito, who had continued to visit the shrine after the war, would never do so again. Why he stopped is the source of the Yasukuni controversy today.

Each year, following the war, an annual ceremony honored new souls. The discovery of remains in remote outposts and POW’s dying in Soviet post war work camps kept the numbers up in the late 1940’s. The chief priest was prohibited from enshrining convicted war criminals until the last Class B & C prisoner (Those not directing the war) was released in 1958. Then, the deceased of these two categories were added to Yasukuni’s rolls.

The policy to exclude the 14 Class A prisoners, like war time Prime Minister Tojo and his leading generals, seemed set in stone. However, the year I arrived in Japan, former navel officer Nagayoshi, who had never accepted the war crime verdicts, was appointed Chief Priest. He secretly conducted a Gōshisai to enshrine the infamous 14. The act was not made public until the following year. Even then, polemics were muted.

attachmentPrime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s August 15, 1985 official visit outraged China. How could the head of government honor a memorial that enshrined the war’s criminal leadership who had triggered and guided so much death and destruction!

When in 2005, some Diet members proposed transferring the 14 Class A war criminals to another site, the Shinto priests stonewalled. They cited the Japanese Constitution guarantying freedom of religion.

attachmentPrime Minister Koizumi, who owed his election to the LTP’s right wing that have never accepted Japan’s war guilt, promised to visit the shrine every year if elected. To the consternation of China, Korea, and the US State Department, he kept his promise from 2002 through 2007. The current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine in December 13, 2013 that set off riots in Korea and China that resulted in destruction of Japanese property and boycott of it goods.

Three years ago, I returned to Yasukuni Shrine to walk the grounds to prepare writing Haru’s emperor gazing scene. Once again, I strolled up the shrine’s steps, pulled the cord to ring the bell, bowed, and clapped my hands in the correct protocol.

Afterwards, I visited the Kamikaze museum on Yasukuni’s grounds. I read the pilots’ last letters (mostly to their moms) translated into English framed underneath the pictures of young men in leather helmets. Their commitment to sacrifice their lives to Hirohito, in a cause that had only had months to run, might have been misplaced, but their nobility of sentiment and their sincerity could not be denied. I knew bowing in their memory a few minutes earlier was the right thing for me to do even I as I have argued it is a horrible thing for a sitting Japanese prime minister to do.

As I left the museum and took a backward look at the Torii gates, I thought of the last words of many of the Kamikaze pilots as they saluted each other astride their planes on the runway of no return, “Until we meet again at Yasukuni.”


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