An Introduction to the Yasukuni Issue | Japan Series Part IV

I’ve been meaning to post this one for forever, but, you know, time can be such a weird thing right? It goes by too fast, and before you know it you’re milking you’re Japan trip on your blog like it’s an Olympic Sport. I’m sorry for that, if it bothers you. I just don’t quite know where to get my time from to keep all this interesting and document it correctly for my own future reference. Because that’s basically what this is… And I really didn’t enjoy making this one post actually. So uh, this might not be what you like to see here, but here it is, part one of my in depth thesis subject summary: the Yasukuni Issue.

My thesis is about difficult heritage, a.k.a. heritage that is most definitely heritage but has ‘conflicting’ or’ ‘controversial’ topics surrounding it. It is extremely interesting heritage which requires the ability to either look from more points of view than your own – or just your own point of view and be quite angry maybe. My thesis is about two different kind of difficult heritage – with the same topic: war in Japan. First up: the Yasukuni Issue. – I can by no means do this any justice by just one blogpost, so I’ll just put some things out here and if you’re interested I think I can answer quite some questions but there’s also a lot on this to be found on the big, grand Interwebs.

Also, I put little descriptions on the pictures, so if you hover over them you’ll know a bit more about what you’re seeing.

In the first week of my stay in Japan I visited Yasukuni and the accompanying museum Yushukan. If you’re ever in Tokyo and care for some history or, to put is more bluntly, some more “deep shit” go to Kudanshita! In the same neighborhood you will find one of my fave museums (Museum of Modern Art Tokyo – a.k.a. MoMAT), the famous Budokan and a very nice park to venture around or to just chill for a bit.

Iron Gate and Ōmura Masujirō
Yasukuni is a highly controversial shrine in Japan. If you haven’t heard of it, if well, you might actually have a life and not be all over Japanese Culture – or maybe the Biebs?) I’ll try to explain it and its main controversies in this small space. Yasukuni is the place where Japan remembers and honours its victims of war.  It was founded by Emperor Meiji and commemorates anyone who had died in service of the Empire of Japan, which existed from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 until the nation was renamed during the Allied occupation in 1947. Thousands and thousands of people died serving the Japanese Empire during the several wars Japan was in during the past couple of centuries. Controversially, those honoured include thousands of soldiers from World War II – and, as of 1978, 14 Class A war criminals. For many in China, Korea and other Asian nations, Yasukuni represents the worst of Japan’s imperial militarism. And yet, Japanese leaders have continued to visit it for years.

Hopes and dreams on little pieces of paper...

I’ll dig a little deeper for you guys. Japan has been involved in several wars from 1868 up until 1945 (Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, WWII etc.). The Japanese haven’t been too kind when serving the empire during these wars. Horrendous things like the massacre of Nanking, or the occurrence of the comfort women happened during wartime. Millions of lives have been destroyed, including Japanese, with Japan (or its emperor?) to blame.

Before dying for their country the people would say “I’ll see you at Yasukuni”, where every spring the cherry blossom blooms as never before. Yasukuni is a shrine to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, or “spirits/souls” loosely translated in English. The enshrinement is strictly a religious matter due to the religious separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government. The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur. It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible. So the 2,466,000, including the 14 Class A war criminals, are forever Enshrined at Yasukuni. The grounds of Yasukuni feature a diversity of statues and buildings, including a Noh Theatre and several tea houses, all for the kami of Yasukuni. But also the Yushukan.

Priests at Yasukuni shooting a fake deer (probably for the Kami) Priests at Yasukuni shooting a fake deer (probably for the Kami)

Yushukan: the conflict of perspective? Or maybe something else…

In my opinion the Yushukan is an incredibly interesting museum. It has really interesting objects like a full on Zero fighter plane, a kaiten torpedo (a.k.a. human torpedo, a.k.a. kamikaze torpedo) and a train that rode the Thai-Burma railway. The museum tells everything, in a very simple and to the point manner, about the several wars Japan has been in that are related to Yushukan. Or at least, you think it does. For example learned about the Japanese Bride Dolls* too, which I never heard about before. In a sense, everything is told in chronological order. Every war, every ‘incident’, all accompanied by heart-wrenching letters that soldiers have written to their mothers or wives. Until you come across a small little detail on a large wall piece that says “the Nanking Incident” – and think “wait, what?!?!?”.

And ode to mothers and Tokyo Tribunal judge Rabinod Pal

(For those of you who need a little refresher I got this from Wikipedia: “The Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, was an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Japanese troops against the residents of Nanking (current official spelling: Nanjing) during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The massacre occurred during a six-week period starting from December 13, 1937, the day that the Japanese captured Nanking, which was then the Chinese capital (see Republic of China). During this period, between 40,000 to over 300,000 (estimates vary) Chinese civilians and disarmed combatants were murdered by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army”)

In Yushukan this horrible occurrence is mere a 100 word description of something that happened somewhere in China (literally from the museum: “The Nanking Incident. After the Japanese surrounded Nanking in December 1937, Gen. Matsui Iwane distributed maps to his men with foreign settlements and the Safety Zone marked in red ink. Matsui told them that they were to maintain strict military disciplines and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished. The defeated Chinese rushed to Xiaguan, and they were completely destroyed. The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted”). So, uh, nothing really about mass murder or mass rape is mentioned. Then after this you stop and think “where do they actually mention the comfort women?”. And that’s interesting too, because I didn’t find anything on this topic in Yushukan – though I might have missed it if it was as small as this bit.

The new entrance of Yushukan museum

So it’s not like they aren’t telling the truth, on the contrary: they are mentioning everything that has happened, but they’re excluding some facts or minimise some of the occurrences. And this is what makes the museum so interesting to me.

*Japanese Bride Dolls: mothers of young soldiers, who died in battle before having the opportunity to get married, dedicated these dolls to their sons. They wanted to offer the most beautiful bride to their young sons, probably around the age of 20, who gave their lives for the sake of their country.

tldr; nope, not doing this. Sorry, not sorry.


After spending the day at Yasukuni and Yushukan and getting all my research done I enjoyed a cup of matcha milk. And later that evening we went for some hearty Chinese food with family – much needed after lots of horrors and research! And up next are my last days in Tokyo before heading to Kyoto and Hiroshima! Much more easy and fun reads ahead!! ;)

Also, if you’ve been reading all this way: today I’ve been feature on Erin’s blog (clear the way) for a one word inspiration blog! Click to see how inspirational I can be, har har!

This post is part of my blogseries from my trip to Japan in October 2014.
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI
Part VII | | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII

  • That was really informative! I didnt know about the shrine and the controversy. And yes I really did read it all; I love learning new things from other people’s blogs, things that I would never have thought to research about myself.

  • This was really informative Louise, thanks! It was interesting to hear more in depth about what your thesis has been on. I did have some basic knowledge about what you’ve written – mostly from when the controversy with PM Abe’s shrine visits made the news and also from my parents (it’s still a sore spot with a lot of Chinese people, as you know). I do wish we learned more about it in our basic history curriculum here in Australia – I can tell you lots about wars in Europe but not much about what’s happened in the Asia-Pacific region (where Australia actually is)! It must have been a really interesting experience to see a place like this when you’ve been researching it in so much depth as well.

    • Yes! I might have totally neglected that part in my blog, but then again I can only imagine the grudge there (might be?) is.

      I think it’s totally crazy how you guys are taught “western” history so much more than the history of your own region. But then again, I must say I think it’s crazy how even I as a European student more or less only learn about the western part of things (even though it’s still a lot) instead of getting the whole picture.
      A lot of this goes together with the limited time, the curriculum of the student and the textbooks. But it seems you only get to know more if someone has motivation to learn more about the topic or has family who tells the story. – It’s like it isn’t seen as important as the situation in the west. And I might be on a bit of a ramble now, (or maybe a lot) but I think that’s totally terrible. Because truth is, we’re all human, and we made a lot of mistakes in the past. History constantly is repeating itself and we should educate ourselves and our generation and future generations to not make the same mistakes…

      But I might just be totally off topic now. ;)

  • That’s lovely, I totally recommend visiting. It’s super interesting to see in real life. And thanks!

  • I am not versed at all but just from people I know there is still so much tension when it comes to history between Korea and Japan. While mainstream pop culture there seems to be not that much tension as a lot of singers and dramas and movies are watched interchangeably and celebrities admired in both countries the history between the two is just so strained. I have been involved with Comfort Women issues here in the US – just to get the US government to pass a resolution calling on the Japanese government to formally apologize. I think they said they paid them retribution but former Korean Comfort Women, who now live in a place called House of Sharing in Korea, are slowly dying and soon there will be no living voice to continue to pressure and ask for a formal apology and acknowledge what they did was wrong. Comfort Women is just one .. and while I do agree with us what gets me though is that Japan isn’t the only country that has done atrocious things. I know Korean soldiers have done horrible things during the war in Vietnam and … I guess for me… if we’re calling out others of their wrongdoings, perhaps it’s a more honorable thing to first apologize for our own wrongdoings first. I know it’s more complicated than that and I am probably sounding a little green in the ears but just a thought. Sorry for rambling!

    • I think I can only praise you for this comment. And even though I really enjoy talking and learning more about this subject, I think I can only agree with what you’re saying. There are so many things wrong in this world, and one of them is actually that we’re calling out others of their wrongdoings. But it goes both ways though, one that it definitely is more honourable to first apologize for our own wrongdoings – but if that doesn’t happen, there should be some light shining on the things that aren’t said or talked about (like comfort women) – or known in newer generations. The question then is “does it matter?” (to know about the past?) And then I wholeheartedly say yes, because history is constantly repeating itself and it’s most sensible to learn from those mistakes. That’s why not only I think it’s really good that there is this museum, but I would really like that museums like this advocate the whole (!!!) truth.

  • Eliza

    This is so interesting. I never heard of this, but I appreciate you talking about this. Would make for such an interesting thesis! Good luck finishing!!

  • Wat een interesante essay doe je of ben je al klaar? :P
    Een ‘goed’ excuse om naar Japan te reizen.
    Wars has shamefulness attached so it’s obvious that
    people try to minimize the controversy.
    According to my dad, Japan did not really said sorry
    to China with the WWII, and one of the reason my dad
    doesn’t really like Japan much.
    I actually would love to visit the museum!

    • Het is mijn afstudeerscriptie. Ik studeer cultureel erfgoed / museologie dus de voor mijn scriptie onderzoek ik de manier waarop onder andere deze historie wordt neergezet in het museum, en hoe ethisch verantwoord dit is – en wat de waarde van deze internationale ethische code dan ook eigenlijk inhoudt.

      Maar inderdaad, het is (ook al is het mn scriptie en wil ik het eigenlijk nu asap afsluiten) een ontzettend interessant onderwerp. En inderdaad, Japan heeft ooit soort van excuses gemaakt voor zijn acties maar en zijn zoveel dingen gebeurd in de tussentijd dat deze excuses eigenlijk geen waarde te lijken hebben. Ik kan ontzettend goed begrijpen waarom je vader Japan niet zo ok vind.

      Maar wat je zegt is wel heel interessant, “Wars has shamefulness attached so it’s obvious that people try to minimize the controversy.” – dit is heel logisch, maar het is juist de bedoeling dat musea zich houden aan een bepaalde ethische code omdat juist zij een bepaalde bron van waarheid zouden hebben.

      Dankjewel voor je comment! :)