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

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