Yasukuni-jinja

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

If you’ve kept up with international headlines, you might recall several news stories about citizens of China, Korea and other Asian nations taking to the streets when Japanese politicians (such as former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi) visited Yasukuni-jinja. Literally ‘For the Peace of the Country Shrine’, Yasukuni is the memorial shrine to Japan’s war dead, around 2.5 million souls who died in combat. However, although the conservative right wing in Japan stands by its patriotic duty to honour its war dead, the complete story is just a little more controversial (to say the least). To put things in perspective, it’s important to fully understand the history of Yasukuni-jinja. Although the shrine only dates back to 1869, in the years leading up to and during WWII, it was chosen as Tokyo’s chief Shintō shrine. During this time, Yasukuni-jinja became the physical representation of the Japanese government’s jingoistic policy. Of course, that’s really only half the story told. Despite a postwar constitutional commitment to the separation of religion and politics, as well as a renunciation of militarism, in 1979 14 class-A war criminals (as determined by the US-led International Military Tribunal for the Far East), including Hideki Tojo (the WWII general), were enshrined here amid massive worldwide protests. Leading Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians have also made a habit of visiting the shrine on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in WWII (15 August). Regardless of your political leanings, Yasukuni is one of the most beautiful shrines in Tokyo. Its enormous torii (gate) at the entrance is, unusually, made of steel, while the second set is made of bronze. The beautiful inner shrine is laid out in the style of Japan’s most important Shintō edifice, Ise Shrine (100km southeast of Kyoto), and there are often seasonal displays of ikebana in the inner courtyard. The grounds are charmingly home to a flock of doves, which balances out all the war hawks. Beyond the inner shrine, visitors may come away with mixed feelings about the shrine’s museum, the Yūshūkan , Japan’s oldest museum (1882). It starts, fittingly enough for a war memorial, with stately cases depicting Japan’s military heritage and traditions, punctuated by displays of swords and samurai armour, and art and poetry extolling the brave, daring and indomitable spirit of the Japanese people; and telling Japanese history through the Meiji Restoration. However, as you progress through Japan’s late-19th- and early-20th-century overseas military conflicts (tussles with Russia, the occupation of Korea, and others) the exhibits become more controversial. The source of the most controversy is the section of the museum covering the ‘Greater East Asian War’, which you probably know as WWII. While the text of these galleries has been toned down from the statements of previous years, it’s hard to imagine, for example, Chinese nationals being satisfied with the portrayal of the Nanjing Massacre (here called the ‘Nanking Incident’) of December 1937; no mentioned is made of those killed, estimated between 100,000 (from some Japanese sources) and 300,000 (from Chinese sources). Other exhibits are fascinating and also harrowing. Note the kaiten (human torpedo), essentially a submarine version of the kamikaze aeroplane. You can listen to the final message of a kaiten pilot to his family – it’s in Japanese but it’s easy to hear how young he sounds. There’s also the ‘miracle coconut’ inscribed and set afloat by a Japanese soldier in the Philippines shortly before his death in 1944. The coconut floated in the Pacific for 31 years before washing up very near his widow’s home town – you can still make out the Japanese characters. The walls of the last few galleries of the Yūshūkan are covered with seemingly endless photos of the dead, enough to leave a lump in many throats and make one wonder about the value of any war. As such, the feelings engendered by visiting a place of such solemnity can be mixed – the attached gift shop, selling gaily decorated biscuits, chocolates and curry, doesn’t do much to dispel.