Yasukuni: Japan’s controversial war shrine

TOKYO: The controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which pays homage to some of Japan’s most notorious war criminals, was in the spotlight again Thursday after the visit of a senior cabinet minister.

Here are some key questions and answers about the sanctuary in the heart of the Japanese capital.

– What is it? –

Yasukuni was founded by then-emperor Meiji in 1869 as a Shinto shrine to commemorate individuals who died in the civil strife that brought him back to the political apex of Japan. Its role was subsequently expanded and Shinto adherents believe the souls of 2.5 million people who died in Japanese conflicts from the Meiji Restoration to World War II are enshrined there.

Although it was stripped of its state sponsorship by allied occupiers in 1945, it retains a powerful pull — wartime emperor Hirohito visited eight times until 1975. Many ordinary people also go to pay their respects to relatives and friends who died in combat.

– What’s so controversial about it? –

Japanese nationalists, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like to argue that Yasukuni is akin to the US National Cemetery at Arlington. But unlike Arlington, Yasukuni promotes a view of history that many find unpalatable. The attached museum portrays Japan largely as a victim of US aggression in WWII and makes scant reference to the extreme brutality of invading Imperial troops when they stormed through Asia — especially China and Korea.

Significantly, 14 World War II leaders — including army general and prime minister Hideki Tojo — who were indicted or convicted as war criminals by an international military tribunal, were secretly added to the Yasukuni honour list in 1978.

– Why do Japan’s leaders keep going? –

Not all do. Only 15 premiers since WWII — about half — have paid respects there and the present emperor has never been (his father stopped going before the 14 were enshrined). Six prime ministers have gone since they were added to the list. Abe has visited just once as prime minister, although he regularly sends offerings that are conspicuously marked with his name and job title.

Hawkish defence minister Tomomi Inada went to the shrine on Thursday morning. Senior politicians who visit insist they are doing what their counterparts in most other countries do when honouring fallen soldiers. A small but vocal section of the political right believes Japan is unfairly criticised for its wartime behaviour, saying Tokyo’s empire-building was no different from that of European powers.

They believe Japan has more than made amends for the past — they point to payments made to Seoul as reparations in the 1960s, and to numerous apologies.

– Why did Inada go on Thursday? –

Although she has made no explicit link, the Inada’s visit came the day after she accompanied Abe on a visit to Pearl Harbor — the scene of Japan’s opening salvo against the United States in 1941. Standing next to President Barack Obama, Abe paid homage to the 2,400 Americans killed when Japanese fighter pilots rained bombs down on the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.

The visit was seen as having some sort of moral equivalence to Obama’s sojourn to Hiroshima — the site of the world’s first nuclear attack — earlier this year. Neither leader offered an apology, but both visits were seen as acts of conciliation, strengthening a decades-old security alliance.

But for some on the fringes of Japan’s right wing, the merest hint of an apology for Pearl Harbor is anathema, and Inada’s visit to Yasukuni may be an attempt to take away some of the sting that people in this group might have felt. –AFP