Comments on Yasukuni Shrine

"The firm conviction that Japan's present peace and prosperity are founded on the noble sacrifices made by those who lost their lives in the war."



Yasukuni Jinja 靖國神社 exists to honour the emperor of Japan. On this ideology of Yasukuni Shrine the 2004 article by John Breen1 and the Gardener's essay2 have clear discussions. The Shrine began with the name Shokonsha in 1869, the second year of the reign of Emperor Meiji 明治天皇. The Emperor renamed it Yasukuni Jinja in 1879, two years after the major samurai riots and civil war ended. Yasukuni 靖國 — a term taken from the important Chinese historical record Zuo zhuan 左傳 (春秋左氏傳) — means pacification of the nation, bringing national peace and tranquillity.

The feudal samurai rule — usually known as the Shogun period 幕府將軍時代 — that lasted 700 years before Meiji is regarded as a usurpation of the authority of the emperor. In order to confront the threat from the West in the mid-19th century, some samurai loyal to the emperor line thought that the emperor must be restored to full authority which had existed before the Shogun period, such that Japan could have a centralised government strong enough to fend off the Western barbarians. The slogan "Honour the Emperor, Expel the barbarians 尊王攘夷" — a slogan borrowed from China in its feudal era before the First Emperor of Qin 秦始皇帝3 — was hailed as a rallying cause to overthrow the Shogun rule.

In the real sense the Meiji Restoration is a revolution and the outcome of a civil war that started near Kyoto and extended northwards to Hokkaido. Yet, because the imperial line had existed before the Shogun period, the re-establishment of the supremacy of the emperor is regarded as a restoration. Hence the Meiji Restoration.

All who lost their lives in the service of the emperor immediately before and since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 were subsequently honoured and deified according to Shinto 神道 belief.4 This is why Shokonsha — later Yasukuni Jinja — was built in Tokyo as the shrine enshrining the loyal who perished for the sake of the emperor. There are now over 2.4 million deities in Yasukuni Shrine. Of these, about 15,000 are deities related to the two major civil wars of 1868-1869 and 1877. The rest are deities related exclusively to foreign wars, that is, wars of overseas aggession for the purpose of territorial expansion.

Is this territorial expansion necessary? Japan may respond that it just followed the examples of Western colonisers — Great Britain, France and the United States in the main. But perhaps nowhere else has deified the soldiers and officers who perished in foreign wars of aggression and further justified the deeds — mere killing of foreigners in foreign lands and thus got killed — of these fighting personnel and war planners as noble sacrifice of people who thus brought peace and prosperity to their own nation.

True, Japan has been offering numerous apologies to Asian countries, particularly to China which suffered the most during the fifty years — 1894-1945 — of Japanese aggression under the name of continental policy 大陸政策. Yet, this Janus-faced technique of saying sorry to the victims on the one hand and deifying and praising the culprits on the other is not logically and ethically palatable. The position only amounts to building one's happiness on others' agonies.

Ever since the end of WWII and the crumbling of imperialism and colonialism, the world has had a fundamental change of mentality. Our world today has a new Zeitgeist, or spirit of the times.5 Humanism, respect for ethnic and national sovereignty, fairness and justice have become the ethical standards in international affairs. They are ideals perhaps never attainable, but worthwhile for striving towards. Whitewashing past wrongs 文過飾非 may only make them stand out more.

1Breen, John. "The dead and the living in the land of peace: a sociology of the Yasukuni Shrine", Mortality, v. 9, no. 1 (February 2004), pp. 76-93.

2Chor, Louis 左永業."Nanhai shen she yu Jing guo shen she"「南海神社與靖國神社」[South Sea Shrine and Yasukuni Shrine], Japan Studies (Taipei) 『日本研究』 (台北), no. 388 (April 1997), pp. 48-51.

3Chinese feudalism ended in the 3rd century BC when the First Emperor of Qin abolished the system and replaced it with a centralised state that continued until the dynastic era was overthrown in October 1911.

4In the Shinto religion, deities or gods are not representated by physical forms of human likeness. The Yasukuni deities are now represented only by their names as entered in registry books preserved in the Shrine. Deification of the perished fighting personnel and war planners was a solemn ceremony performed in the middle of the night with lights extinguished.

5The German term Zeitgeist was used by Richard Dawkins in his book of 2006, The God Delusion. Incidentally, his views on religion may hold true for religions of East Asia including Shintoism, although Dawkins focuses only on the Abrahamic religions of the West and the Middle East. In this connection, it must be clearly understood that Confucian philosophy of China is no religion.

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From the Gardener, Canada, June 2006. Revised January 2015.