What makes Yasukuni the Most Controversial Shrine of the World

Controversy relates to Spirits of 14 high ranking Japanese War Criminals kept at Yasukuni

What makes Yasukuni the Most Controversial Shrine of the World
Image Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yasukuni_Shrine_2012.JPG )
Beginning from its very inception, the Yasukuni shrine has remain mired in some controversy or the other. This Shinto shrine in the heart of Tokyo is home to 2.5 million spirits worshiped by Japanese people for their sacrifice to the cause of Japan. However, the presence of Second World War soldiers, some of whom accused as war criminals by other countries, has often created controversies that even threatened its diplomatic relations.

Yasukuni Shrine or Yasukuni Jinja is a Shinto shrine located in Chiyoda prefecture of Tokyo. It is one of the most revered places for the Japanese people, and yet ever since the time it was built, it has been mired in some controversy or the other, making it, by far the most controversial shrine in the world, one that is considered to have a potential of even disturbing the diplomatic ties of Japan with other Asian nations.

Built over a large area of 6.25 hectares, and another 4 hectares of causeway, many monuments and a rich museum, Yasukuni is also a major tourist attraction. Unless one is attached emotionally to any of its controversies, they provide to the occasional tourist, from within Japan or outside, another significant reason for visiting this ‘historically’ controversial shrine. For a student of history of Japanese culture and tradition, the controversies surrounding Yasukuni provide insights that may not be easily available otherwise.

History of Yasukuni begins with Meiji Restoration

Yasukuni literally means ‘Peaceful Nation Shrine’ or ‘Pacifying Nation Shrine’, but its origins are not related to peace. It was built in 1869 by the order of Emperor Meiji of Japan to house the ‘kami’ or the spirits of soldiers who died fighting for their Emperor in the Meiji Restoration.

Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan had kept itself largely isolated from the rest of the world for over two centuries. In the 1850s, it was forced to open up by external pressure bordering on threats, exerted by the United States and other Western countries.

This forced opening up was seen as a huge humiliation by people and led to a revolutionary uprising by forces that resented submission of Japan to foreign powers. As a consequence, an open Civil War called Meiji Restoration took place in which the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had been the real ruler of Japan for over 260 years till then, was replaced and the reins of power were handed over to the Emperor Meiji. Yasukuni was built in 1869, primarily to commemorate the victims of the Boshin War, one of the most fierce and destructive battles of Meiji Restoration.

The culture and tradition of worshipping the deceased is a part and parcel of the Shinto faith, widely followed in Japan along with Zen Buddhism. It is believed that spirits of those deceased remain eternally on earth and continue to guard their descendents. Known as Kami, these spirits are widely and regularly worshipped in all Shinto shrines of Japan. In modern age, it has become more of a tradition and ritual that denotes respect to ancestors and provides a way to people to express their gratitude to them. Such gratitude is often extended, in equal measure, to those who have made significant contributions or sacrifices for a common cause, like soldiers who died fighting for Japan.

Yasukuni, initially known as Tokyo Shokonsha was built to carry with this very tradition. It was given the name ‘Yasukuni’ in 1879. In 1874, when Emperor Meiji visited it for the first time, he composed a poem in the honour of the martyrs which read:

I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino”.

The Kamis enshrined in Yasukuni

Initially, only the martyrs of the Boshin War and other battles of Meiji Restoration, were ‘enshrined’ in Yasukuni. However, the Meiji Restoration led to a significant renaissance of Japan including economic and technical growth as well as military empowerment. Between the Meiji revolution and the Second World War, the Japanese forces were involved in many conflicts, some at home with the rebels and others abroad. These include Taiwan expedition of 1874, Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, Imo incident of 1882 that involved conflict with rebels, the first Sino-Japanese War over Korea in 1894, Boxer Uprising of 1901 that involved joint invasion of China by eight nations, War with Russia in 1904, First World War, Battle of Qingshanli with Korean Independence Army in 1920, Jinan incident in 1928 with China, Mukden incident in 1931 that led to occupation of Chinese province of Manchuria by Japan, Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and Japan’s occupation of large Asian territories during the Second World War.

If there is one thing that emerges very clearly from the long list of violent conflicts involving Japanese Army, it is the gradual tilt of Japan since the Meiji restoration, towards violent Nationalism, which continued till the end of Second World War. Each of these conflicts extracted a heavy price from the Japanese people, in the form of martyrs, who were subsequently enshrined in Yasukuni, making it a shrine dedicated to the war dead, and a memorial for commemoration of those who made the supreme sacrifice for their nation.

As of now, more than 2.46 million divinities or kamis of revered people are enshrined in Yasukuni. Regardless of their rank or position, these people are considered to be equal, and their spirits or kami, enshrined now in Yasukuni are worshipped by the five million Japanese, who visit Yasukuni shrine every year.  A large number of festivals are also held there, two of which are major ones, held in spring and autumn, which are highly popular even today.

Controversies Associated with Yasukuni

The number of different controversies associated with Yasukuni makes it a worthy candidate for the tag of ‘most controversial shrine of the world’.

First Controversy: Enshrinement of Rebel warriors

Since Yasukuni was built to commemorate those who fought from the side of the Emperor Meiji, the martyrs of the rebel Japanese forces are not enshrined in Yasukuni. Thus, the soldiers who fought on the side of the Tokugawa Shugunate against the Emperor are not enshrined in the main shrine of Yasukuni. Instead they are enshrined in another shrine at Chinreisha. These include ancestors of former Chief Priest during 2004 to 2009, Toshiaki Nanbu. Their exclusion from enshrinement is highly resented by their descendents, most of whom live in Aizu domain of Fukushima prefecture.

Second Controversy: State Religion, Secular or Private

Shinto was State religion in the Meiji era during the last century, and the Yasukuni shrine was part of the State driven Shinto practices which resulted in around a dozen war memorial shrines throughout Japan. After the end of Second World War, Japan was occupied by Allied forces, who imposed the ‘Shinto Directive’ that ordered the separation of State from its religion. Yasukuni was an important part of this enforcement too, as Occupation Authorities gave it a choice to either become a secular government institute or opt to be a privately funded religious organization. Japanese people opted for the latter option, as a result of which Yasukuni is a privately funded and operated shrine today.

Third Controversy: Enshrinement of Korean and Taiwanese people

Those enshrined in Yasukuni include not only the Japanese soldiers, but also workers who supported them or worked endlessly to sustain the war efforts of Japan. These include 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans, who have been enshrined there, mostly without the approval of their families. In fact, families of several such people enshrined in Yasukuni and enlisted in Yasukuni's ‘Symbolic Registry of Divinities’, have requested that their ancestors or family members may be delisted from it. At times, an argument has been raised that enshrining someone against their beliefs in life constitutes an infringement of the Japanese Constitution. The Yasukuni priesthood has however taken the position that once a kami is enshrined, it has been merged with other kamis, all of whom occupy the same seat and therefore cannot be separated.

Fourth Controversy: Enshrinement of War Criminals

By far, the worst of all controversies associated with Yasukuni, is the result of enshrinement therein of many of those, who have been convicted for War Crimes. These include 1068 Japanese persons executed as Class-B or C war criminals by Allied Forces Military Trials, as well as 14 Japanese persons who were executed or died in prison having been sentenced by the ‘International Military Tribunal for the Far East’ (IMTFE). Enshrinement of war criminals in Yasukuni is seen by many as the glorification of the militarised past of Japan, and is often resented by many, both within Japan and outside. There have often been calls for removal of the war criminals from Yasukuni, but the priesthood has always taken the stand that once enshrined, a kami merges with others occupying that seat and hence it is not possible to remove them now.

Fifth Controversy: Different approaches taken by Japanese leaders on Yasukuni

Regarding Yasukuni, there are two major schools of thoughts currently prevailing in Japan. One emphasizes loyalty to one’s ancestors and martyrs in the age old tradition of Japan and its Shinto beliefs that dictate reverence to all of them, including those convicted as war criminals after the Second World War. This school also draws strength from the religious faith that all negative acts committed are absolved once the enshrinement takes place. Many Japanese would like to pay homage to their martyrs just like people in any other countries and societies do. After all, in a conflict, every soldier on one side becomes a violator of human rights of the other side.

However, the other school, which also has its own supporters, believes that such actions amount to glorification of Japan’s past, particularly its militarised nationalism, which finally led to widespread tragedies including the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and hence must be avoided. This division is equally apparent in Japanese political leadership. While the erstwhile Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used to visit Yasukuni shrine every year, another erstwhile Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda has vowed never to visit the shrine personally. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni in 2013 also created a big stir in China and the two Koreas as it seemed to reverse his earlier disinclination towards a personal visit of the shrine.

Sixth Controversy: Yasukuni and the Japanese Emperor

The Yasukuni shrine was built on the orders of the Japanese Emperor Meiji, to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives for him. Yasukuni was also a part of the State promoted Shinto faith till after the Second World War. Thus, it has a very close relationship with the Japanese Emperor and the imperial family, which continued even after the Second World War. In 1972, Emperor Hirohito extended to it a private donation with which the ‘Reijibo Hōanden’, the building that houses the ‘Symbolic Registry of Divinities’ was constructed. However, the Emperor never visited Yasukuni again, in spite of the fact that many popular festivals held there are held on his behalf. Some official papers reportedly released in 2006 suggest that the reason for this was the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in 1978.

Seventh controversy: The Diplomatic Showdowns related to Yasukuni shrine

Yasukuni has also been at the centre of diplomatic scuffles and anti-Japan sentiments in some of the Asian countries adversely affected by Japanese military aggression in the past. Publicized visits of senior Japanese leaders or foreign dignitaries to the Yasukuni shrine has often evoked protests, by the public as well as diplomatically, in such countries. China, with its rising status in recent years, has been at the forefront of such protests. Such protests are equally resonated in the two Koreas. Former Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni in 2001 and 2002 lead to severe protests that almost threatened the diplomatic relations between Japan and China. Similar protests have also been expressed when other foreign leaders visit Yasukuni shrine. The 2013 visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also led to huge protests from these countries.

Eighth controversy: Yushukan, the war memorial museum of Japan

Yasukuni shrine houses and runs one of the few war museums of Japan, the Yushukan. It displays Japanese wars and conflicts beginning from Meiji Restoration, but most of it is centered on Second World War. It portrays the Japanese soldiers as national heroes and martyrs, in particular, the Kamikaze pilots. The museum has often been criticised as projecting a revisionist history of Japan that is not apologetic about its past military nationalism. In fact, the Museum goes to the extent of occasionally portraying Japan as the liberator of Asia, which was provoked into war by United States and Europe by preventing the inflow of resources to it. Once, Prime Minister Koizumi had to officially state in the Parliament that the version of history projected in Yushukan is different from that followed by the Japanese Government, to ward off criticism.


Without going into the merits of any of these controversies, each of which has equally strong arguments on both sides, one can safely conclude that these controversies make Yasukuni Shrine the most controversial shrine of the world.

This also makes Yasukuni Shrine that much more worth a visit, when you travel to Tokyo!

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