Enshrining Evil – Class A War Criminals in Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine

The site for the Yasukuni Shrine, originally named Tōkyō Shōkonsha (東京招魂社 "shrine to summon the souls"), was chosen by order of the Meiji Emperor. The shrine was established in 1869. This photo is from 1873. Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tokyo_Shokonsha.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Tokyo_Shokonsha.JPG

The site for the Yasukuni Shrine, originally named Tōkyō Shōkonsha (東京招魂社 “shrine to summon the souls”), was chosen by order of the Meiji Emperor. The shrine was established in 1869. This photo is from 1873. Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tokyo_Shokonsha.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Tokyo_Shokonsha.JPG

It’s unusual in the modern day to think of temples as controversial.

How could a holy place possibly offend a huge number of people? How can a religious building split public opinion and cause international discord?

The infamous Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo does this.

How? By being a place of worship of the glorious war dead.

Many in Japan hold to traditions deifying those who have fallen in battle as kami (gods). This in itself is no huge problem; many cities have cenotaphs to the fallen soldiers of battles fought for their country. Yasukuni goes one step further; among the 2,466,532 kami worshipped in the shrine, 1,068 were convicted of war crimes, 14 of these are Class A war criminals.

Japan’s neighbours, as one might imagine, find this to be somewhat offensive, particularly China. China suffered terribly in “The War Of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression” and was one of the worst affected by the war crimes committed by the enshrined kami.

Korea also suffered, but what upsets them and the Taiwanese is another issue with the enshrined spirits. In the early 20th century, before Japan’s campaign of conquest before and during the Second World War, both Korea and Taiwan were part of the Japanese Empire. Soldiers were conscripted from both countries and the Yasukuni Shrine contains the spirits of 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans. This enshrinement was done without the permission of the families of the dead and directly contradicts the wishes of the surviving family members. There have been occasions where delegations have come to protest for the return of the spirits, only to be met with a strong response from the police and ejection from the shrine.

The story is compelling. After the parole of the last of Japan’s war criminals in 1958, the shrine priests began enshrining the Class B and C criminals and completed the task in 1967. This was done regardless of the wishes of the families of the dead.

The Health and Welfare Ministry finally forwarded the information of the 14 Class A war criminals to the shrine in 1966 and four years later, the priests passed a resolution to enshrine them. The head priest, Fujimaro Tsukuba, had delayed making a decision on this and died in 1978. Upon his death, his successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, immediately held a secret ceremony to enshrine the criminals as eirei (hero spirits). Matsudaira did not hold to the verdicts of the war crimes tribunal and his political views tended towards Japanese Nationalism.

A year later, the enshrinement became public knowledge, but it was not received with much controversy. Emperor Hirohito, who had not visited the shrine since 1975, refused to visit again when he learned of the enshrinement. His son, the current emperor, Akihito, has also not made any visit to the shrine.

Iwane Matsui on parade in Nanjing, 17 December 1937 [Wikimedia Commons]

Iwane Matsui on parade in Nanjing, 17 December 1937 [Wikimedia Commons]

The Imperial Household were exonerated after the war. Even though two of the Class A war criminals, Akira Mutō and Iwane Matsui, were tried and hanged due, among other things, to their roles in the Rape of Nanking, it was actually Prince Yasuhiko Asaka who led the troops during the six-week massacre of Chinese civilians. He was stripped of his imperial status by Hirohito after the war, but did not stand trial.

Prince Yasuhiko Asaka in 1940. As temporary commander of the final assault on Nanking between 2 and 6 December 1937, he allegedly issued the order to “kill all captives”. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)


This covering-over of the conduct of the Imperial Household during the war years and subsequent distancing from the events that took place is, perhaps, a factor in the decision to also stay away from the Yasukuni Shrine. Politicians, on the other hand, have visited the shrine, causing international diplomatic problems.

Junichiro Koizumi (then Prime Minister of Japan) making a public visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in 2006. Image from: http://asiangazette.blogspot.co.uk/2006/08/fulfilling-pledge-junichiro-koizumi.html


When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the shrine for the fifth time in 2005, China immediately cancelled the visit of Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura to Beijing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also recently visited the shrine, leading to a cooling of relations between Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo.

The problem cuts deeper than the contents of the shrine’s Book of Souls. The official stance of the temple and its museum in regard to the events that took place during the war period is the source of a great deal of anger. Narrative on display at the Yūshūkan war museum and its website materials convey a reactionary historical standpoint. The USA is criticised for having forced Japan to attack them in order to justify war. Displays in the museum show Japan suffering from the undermining of trade by Western powers. They also claim that Japan waged war to create the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. The documentary that is shown in the Yūshūkan shows Japan saving its neighbours from Western colonial aggression.

All of this is virtually identical to propaganda of the war era rather than an attempt to shine a modern light on the facts of the past.

On Nanking (Nanjing), the museum notes have the following to say:

“General Iwane Matsui issued orders to observe military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”

While Matsui was not in fact present in Nanking initially due to sickness, he was fully aware (albeit ashamedly so) of the brutal conduct of his soldiers there.

Support for this re-reading (un-reading?) of history is by no means unique to the museum and management of the shrine, but it has become a public focal point for argument with defiant neo-Nationalists. Thus, the shrine is both a source and symbol of modern-day currents of alienation of Tokyo.

1942 50 Sen banknote depicting the Yasukuni Shrine [Image: Wikimedia Commons]

The big question is why. Why would the shrine take such a strong and nationalistic line? The answer lies in the lay organization and main supporter of the shrine. Originally called the Izoku Kōsei Renmei (War-Dead-Family Welfare Union), the Izokukai is highly influential in the shrine’s administration.

The original stated mission of global peace, world prosperity and welfare of humanity was revised in 1953. The new purpose of the renamed Izokukai became to establish a peaceful Japan, cultivation of character and morality and to praise the eirei. The more nationally inclined focus laid the foundations for the enshrining of war criminals five years later. The Izokukai has strong ties to the Liberal Democratic Party, which has held the political majority in Japan since 1955, except for two recent brief periods. In 1962, the chairman of the Izokukai was LDP member and convicted Class A war criminal Okinori Kaya. The controversial LDP former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who visited Yasukuni most frequently, had open ties with the revisionist, war-crime-denying Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) lobby group.

Defiance around the shrine shines a light on a deeply unpleasant vein in Tokyo’s political elite, built on refusal to accept the horrors of what their predecessors did. In continuing to give credence to the Yasukuni Shrine, such politicians are maintaining their ties to what they consider to be their glory days before their military powers were neutered by the conquering Western powers. Somehow, their pride cannot allow them to fully accept the responsibilities of past errors and the shrine is a symbol of this reluctance.

Some leaders in wartime Tokyo wanted to fight to the bitter end in 1945 and it appears that this hard-line faction is still alive and fighting to this day.

Article by: Tom Billinge – Editor of The Temple Trail – Twitter: @TheTempleTrailThe Temple Trail Facebook Page

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