Originally Published 2013-12-31 12:38:01 Published on Dec 31, 2013
While the visits by political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine potentially exacerbate regional tensions, it is the right of every country to honour those who have sacrificed their lives for their country. All countries have war memorials where they honour such sacrifices. The Yasukuni Shrine should not be seen as an exception.
Why such a hue and cry over Yasukuni Shrine visits?
" On December 26, on his first anniversary in office, Japanese Prime Minister Shinozo Abe visited the Japanese war memorial, Yasukini Shrine. In the regional context, the visit by the Japanese political leaders is seen as an indication of Japan's denial of any wrongdoing during the World War II. South Korea and China have been particularly critical of Japan in this regard.

The question is should the visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to one of their own shrines receive such negative publicity and reactions. The question is also why Japanese leaders continue to visit the Yasukuni shrine despite such reactions and whether they owe an explanation to quell the anger.

The shrine, built by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to remember those who died during the Meiji restoration, has been controversial in the neighbourhood. Among those honoured in the shrine are 14 convicted Class A war criminals, including Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo who was executed for war crimes in 1948.

The shrine has also raised controversy within Japan, with some of the left-wing politicians indentifying Yasukuni Shrine as a symbol of Japanese imperialism and militarism, and the right-wing politicians identifying it as a sign of patriotism.

A few historical facts may be in order to develop a correct and complete perspective on the Yasukuni Shrine. Going against the popular perception, the Yasukuni Shrine was originally built in the wake of the 1867 Boshin War to commemorate the dead from that war and not just for honouring the dead from the Second World War. It is a fact that the shrine has come to be the central and popular shrine to honour the dead since the Boshin War and up to World War II. It should also be noted that the Indian Judge on the International War Criminal Tribunal, Radha Binod Pal was all alone in giving a dissenting voice and in not labelling the Japanese leaders as war criminals, while the other 10 of the Tribunal pronounced the former Prime Minister of Japan, Hideki Tojo, and 24 others, as war criminals and sentenced them to death. It was not that Justice Pal did not recognise the war atrocities committed by Japan, including the Nanjing massacre of 1931, but he made a distinction and covered them under class B and class C trials and not in the International War Criminal trial termed as Class A.

It is also a fact that several previous prime ministers have visited the Yasukuni shrine and they did not gain such regional or international prominence as has been the case in the last decade or so. It was not until Prime Minister Nakasone's visit on August 15, 1985 that the visit became controversial. Prior Prime Ministers who visited the shrine included Takeo Miki (August 15, 1975), Ohira Masayoshi (1978-1980), Suzuki Zenkô (1980-82), and Nakasone Yasuhiro (1982-87). These are little known facts about the famous shrine visits. These visits had not raised any regional objections.

Even as the economic relations were booming between Japan and China, Prime Minister Nakasone's visit to Yasakuni Shrine in 1985 became a hot topic. It became such a huge controversy that future leaders stopped visiting the shrine until 1996 when Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto made a visit fulfilling a commitment he had made to a childhood mentor. Later, Junichiro Koizumi, who contested in the elections against Hashimoto in 2001, made a campaign pledge that he would make annual visits to the shrine irrespective of the regional criticism. This won Koizumi huge support, particularly among nationalists.

Japanese officials had maintained that Koizumi's visits are a private matter undertaken on individual capacity to respect and honour those who laid their lives for their nation. In October 2005, for instance, the Japanese government had come out with an official statement clarifying and reassuring its neighbours that the visits did not mean a return to militarism. The statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to a statement by Koizumi (at the Asian-African Summit in April 2005) wherein he regretted the acts committed by Japan by saying that Japan "through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations.... "these facts of history in a spirit of humility, and with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind" Japan's "resolve to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world, prizing the relationship of trust it enjoys with the nations of the world."2

Despite such statements of clarifications, Koizumi's annual visits brought Chinese wrath and provided way for strong anti-Japanese sentiments within Beijing. 3 Given the strong economic engagements between Tokyo and Beijing, there emerged clear factions of pro- and anti-Japanese factions within the Communist Party of China. However, the overall negative sentiments prevailed which contributed to a slowdown of the Japan-China relations.

For several years since then, no Japanese leaders visited the shrine although the Japan-China ties have not been at its best. Despite close economic partnership, there has been any number of issues, including sovereignty and territorial issues such as over the Senkaku Islands, that have been affecting the ties adversely.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit after several years has created a regional storm yet again. The Chinese official statement termed the visit as "an effort to glorify the Japanese militaristic history of external invasion and colonial rule... and to challenge the outcome of World War II."4 South Korea also criticised the visit, saying it is an "an anachronistic act" that hurts the ties between the two countries as well as something that affects the regional peace and stability. The US mission in Tokyo too reacted, saying that "the United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbours will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past."5

Prime Minister Abe, in his defence, issued a statement on December 27, saying, "Today, I paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine and expressed my sincere condolences, paid my respects and prayed for the souls of all those who had fought for the country and made ultimate sacrifices. I also visited Chinreisha, a remembrance memorial to pray for the souls of all the people regardless of nationalities who lost their lives in the war, but not enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine.... Japan must never wage a war again. This is my conviction based on the severe remorse for the past. I have renewed my determination before the souls of the war dead to firmly uphold the pledge never to wage a war again. I have also made a pledge that we must build an age which is free from the sufferings by the devastation of war; Japan must be a country which joins hands with friends in Asia and friends around the world to realize peace of the entire world."

The argument about Japan questioning the outcome of the Second World War or not acknowledging the wrongdoing in the 1930s is a bit farce. Once the diplomatic relations between Japan and China were established in February 1973, negotiations toward a peace and friendship treaty began in 1974 although the talks stalled over "anti-hegemony" clause insisted by China. The talks were resumed in 1978 and the two sides were able to conclude the Treaty of Peace and Friendship by 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Fukuda Takeo. The treaty came into effect on October 23, 1978. Starting from 1979, China also started receiving the Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA), a sign of things reaching normal between the two countries.

With the conclusion of the Peace and Friendship Treaty, the issues around the war or the Japanese atrocities should have been put to rest unless of course the Japanese had demonstrated any tendencies of militarism or went back on the issue of "comfort women." In the absence of any such evidence, the regional reactions are unwarranted.

While the visits by political leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine potentially exacerbate regional tensions, it is the right of every country to honour those who have sacrificed their lives for their country. Also, the visits by politicians do not mean that the Japanese do not repent their actions of the 1930s. All countries have war memorials where they honour such sacrifices. The Yasukuni Shrine should not be seen as an exception.

  1.    The day is significant as it the anniversary of the Japanese surrender. Prime Minister Miki who also visited the shrine on August 15 a decade earlier, had made it very clear that he was visiting on his personal capacity and thus avoided using his official vehicle or used his title as prime minister.

  2.    Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Japan, "Basic Position of the Government of Japan Regarding Prime Minister Koizumi's Visits to Yasukuni Shrine," October 2005, http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/postwar/yasukuni/position.html.

  3.    Karol Zakowski, "Reaction to Popular Pressure or a Political Tool? Different Interpretations of China's Policy Regarding Koizumi's Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine," Journal of Contemporary Eastern Asia, Volume 11, No.2, September/ October 2012, p. 50.

  4.    Ken Moritsugu, "Japanese Prime Minister Visits Yasukuni War Shrine," AFP, December 26, 2013, http://www.chinapost.com.tw/asia/regional-news/2013/12/26/396845/Japanese-prime.htm.

  5.    Ken Moritsugu, "Japanese Prime Minister Visits Yasukuni War Shrine," AFP, December 26, 2013, http://www.chinapost.com.tw/asia/regional-news/2013/12/26/396845/Japanese-prime.htm

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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