Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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The politics of Yasukuni

At the first glance, Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine looks like any of the tens of other Shinto places of worship. Yasukuni is a picture of peace. But the walls and pillars of this beautiful edifice have stories to tell us. At least, one grim story that has the power to anger most people in Japan and many others in China, South Korea and elsewhere. The annoyance rises to a crescendo on August 15, the day when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. But Yasukuni also evokes nostalgia and sometimes frenzied patriotism.

The Yasukuni Shrine 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 the shrine pays special homage to—and is better known for—the hundreds of thousands who were killed in the last war.

Nobody minds this. What, however, most resent is the fact that the shrine also honours 14 men convicted of Class A war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal, set up soon after 1945.

In 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.

Koizumi prays at Yasukuni
This is why Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual pilgrimage to Yasukuni around August 15 has led to strained relations between Tokyo and Beijing as well as Seoul. Both South Korea and China have well researched documents to prove the brutality Japan inflicted on their peoples.

Even within Japan, Koizumi’s trips to the shrine have not been entirely welcomed. A onetime Japanese soldier told me during my six-month stay in Japan in 2001-2 that Yasukuni applauded the Japanese equivalents of Germany’s Goring and Himmler and the terrifying form of imperialism they stood for.

The most revered personality 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. About a dozen others executed by the Allies after Japan's surrender as Class A war criminals also find a spiritual home at Yasukuni.

Indeed, Yasukuni’s darker side appears disturbing. After the shrine opened in 1869, it became an important symbol of State Shinto, a fusion of an ancient religion and modern absolute government power. State Shinto, abolished by the Americans after the War, has been blamed for much of Japan’s wartime excesses.

Despite this, Yasukuni continues to be used by “fringe nationalists”. Extreme Rightwing elements run the shrine even today, and also a museum adjacent to Yasukuni that glorifies Japan’s Kamikaze suicide bombers. Facing one of the bombers is a monument of an Indian judge, Radha Binod Pal, who was the only dissenting voice in the Tribunal. He, like some others, believed that Japan need not be ashamed of its Imperialist past. To these men, Yasukuni continues to be the focal point.

But, Koizumi, who will step down this September, has one last chance to prove that he is not part of the group that worships Yasukuni and the country’s black past. He should not visit the shrine, the one final time this year.

It would be prudent on his part to build a new memorial for Japan’s war victims. Or, why not remove the war criminals from the shrine’s rolls?

This will end at least one irritant from Japan’s ties with China and South Korea. Till this day, China cites the Nanjing massacre to fuel anti-Japanese sentiment at home. In March, Chinese President Hu Jintao, said he would meet Koizumi only if did not visit Yasukuni.

In March 2005, when Koizumi visited Seoul, he and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly argued about historical disputes for most of the time they were together.

Japan’s strongest ally, U.S., is also not happy with Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni, which also claims that Emperor Hirohito wanted peace but was forced into war by an unyielding American President, Roosevelt. The Pearl Harbour is shown as a “necessity”. In fact, Henry Hyde, Chairman of America’s House International Relations Committee, sought an assurance from Koizumi before his June visit to Washington that he would not pay respects at Yasukuni soon after the American trip.

At home, Koizumi rode to his 2001 victory by promising his Rightwing supporters that he would make an annual pilgrimage to the shrine on August 15. Though he has never gone there on August 15, choosing instead a date just before the day, it is time he altogether did away with this practice this year. He could serve as an example for Japan’s next Prime Minister.

Indeed, for all that is being touted as nationalist, recently discovered Palace diaries reveal that Emperor Hirohito stopped praying at Yasukuni after Class A war criminals were added to its rolls in 1978. His successor, Emperor Akihito, has never been to Yasukuni after he ascended the throne. Japan’s main opposition party is dead against Yasukuni visits. So is the nation’s business community. A recent Asahi Shimbun poll found that 60 percent of Japanese respondents thought their next Prime Minister should not visit Yasukuni, against 20 percent who supported more visits.

Japan is certainly better off without Yasukuni’s dead weight. Or, maybe a new policy on the shrine is urgently called for.

(Posted on this website on August 7 2006)