Perhaps the most controversial place in Japan is Yasukuni Shrine, located in the heart of Tokyo. It certainly didn’t start out that way – after the end of the Boshin War, a civil war between forces loyal to the shogunate and the emperor in 1868-69, the emperor called for shrine to built to memorialize the war dead – to those who gave their lives in service to the country. Over the years it continued to enshrine others who had died in military conflicts, to date, over 14 of them. In a sense, it was a very egalitarian shrine – it accepted everyone – men, women, children, and those not of Japanese descent – who had died as a result of military service (in some way). It does not include people who died solely as victims of war. Over 2,466,532 people are enshrined here, and of those, just over 1000 are convicted war criminals.

After WWII, particularly after 1958, when the last war criminals were paroled, the shrine began to enshrine B- and C- class war criminals over the years, and in 1978 14 Class A war criminals were added in a secret ceremony (after the emperor found out, no member of the imperial family has visited since). Now, class A war criminals sound worse than B and C right? Not necessarily. Class A criminals were those who committed “crimes against peace”. So, if someone was involved in planning, plotting, or executing a war, they would be considered a Class A war criminal – thus many government leaders were so indicted. Class B war criminals were those who committed usual war crimes, such as shooting prisoners, and Class C war criminals were those involved in genocide (like the Nanking massacre). Many were indicted on more than one class of crime. I find it interesting that people get upset about the Class A criminals, where as in my mind I feel it is the Class C criminals that are more problematic.

In any event, in 1946 the shrine became a private enterprise, and has no government involvement whatsoever. That said, it continues to invite controversy as government officials, very often the Prime Minister of Japan, will make a yearly visit to the shrine. This of course is problematic to many of Japan’s neighbours, in particular China, South Korea and North Korea, who see this as a way of reconfirming Japan’s nationalist past. The problem with enshrinement (which is decided upon by the shrine’s head priest) is that it absolves the spirit of any earthly (mis)deeds.

The revision of Japan’s past is particularly wrapped up in the controversy of this shrine. Inside the museum it only presents the need of Japan’s self-defense against European Imperialism from the Allies, and makes no mention of Japan’s aggression in the lead-up and into the war. (This is something I’ve seen in other places as well – Japan is always the victim, never the aggressor). Since this revisionist history is mostly in the museum, most government officials avoid going there, to make their visits more legitimate as “private” religious visits, rather than official government ones (which is problematic due to the separation of state and religion, although that is something the current government is very supportive of).

For years I never had any interest in going here as I did not want to support a place that worshipped war criminals. However, more recently I felt that it was time to go, just to see it for myself. The shrine itself is on a narrow strip of land running parallel to a major road just north of the Imperial Palace. There are various monuments and statues scattered throughout the grounds leading up the shrine buildings. It’s actually a pleasant place to walk around, and I think quite a few locals use it for just that.

At the opposite end of the entrance lies the main shrine building, or haiden, which is a hall of worship (the featured image of this post). It has a copper roof and either has white (normal) or purple (ceremonial) screens that hang in the front. They were purple the day I visited, but I’m not sure what the occasion was. There are other halls adjacent to this building that are closed to visitors, but not to worshippers. There are three torii gates on the grounds, but they are all of a very simple design.

Next to the shrine is the Yushukan, the museum that I mentioned above. You can visit the ground floor for free (which is what I did), which has a plane, train, and cannons that were used during the last war. The upstairs portion is what really features the revisionist history of Japan, and on this day I wasn’t particularly interested in paying money to go see it. I may try again, just to see, in the future.


Site: Imperial Shrine of Yasukuni

Established: 1869

Notable Internments: Many Class A, B, and C war criminals

Location: 3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda, Tokyo, near Toei Ichigaya and Kudanshita Stations

Hours: 06:00-18:00 (to 17:00 Nov-Feb)