Does Yasukuni deserve its notoriety?

A recent debate arose on these pages about whether Yasukuni is merely a shrine to Japan’s fallen soldiers or something more sinister. While I agree that the shrine’s negligent number of monstrous war criminals (in comparison to the graves of many common soldiers) shouldn’t make the shrine so radioactive. But after reading this article, which came up in the latest thread, I wonder how anyone can be surprised that Koizumi’s visits arouse such antipathy and outrage.

In fact, the museum appears to be regularizing an extremist narrative about Japan’s 20th-century military behavior and role in Asia. No mention is made of Japanese soldiers subjugating Asia and its populations. Rather, the new history portrays Japan as both the martyr and savior of Asia, the one country willing to drive “the foreign barbarians,” as one panel describes them, from the Orient.

The unapologetic nationalism, emperor worship, and military glorification offer graphic clues about why Asians remain concerned about “the lessons learned” by Japan after the war, to borrow the phrase used often in post-Nazi Germany.

This week, after Koizumi visited the shrine, thousands of Japanese paid $10 to visit Yushukan, with its 20 rooms, high-tech displays, and two theaters. They saw and heard that Japan occupied China and Korea in order to liberate and protect Asia from Russian Bolshevism and European colonialism. They were told the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was “forced” by “a plot” by President Roosevelt. Japanese-led massacres, Korean comfort women, Chinese sex slaves, or tortured POWs are not mentioned. There are only Japanese martyr heroes dying in defense of Japan.

“Ten years ago that museum contained some expressions of regret and remorse for the loss of life, both Japanese and foreign,” says Richard Bitzinger of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. “Back then there wasn’t an effort to tell a story about the war. Now, it is revisionist. A whitewash. Major battles where many thousands lost their lives on both sides are simply called Japanese ‘operations’ or ‘incidents.’ ”

In one, the “Nanjing incident,” thought to have been a slaughter of as many as 100,000 civilians in 1937, the museum text suggests that only those outside the city who refused to obey were harmed. Once the Japanese Army cleared up the problem, “residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”

“Nanjing is treated as something very minor, like just a few instances, sort of a spring-break party for the soldiers that got a little out of hand,” Mr. Bitzinger notes.

In one set of panels about the European war, Adolf Hitler was merely “trying to reclaim the territory lost in World War 1.” No mention is made of other contexts, such as the murder of 6 million Jews.

Even if he’s just going to honor and remember a dead cousin, Koizumi’s still the leader of Japan and his visit sends a strong message to his people and to those who suffered at Japan’s hands 60 years ago. I realize he’s going to keep going and nothing’s going to change. But if the true story of the shrine gains widespread international attention, it may become less and less comfortable for Koizumi, and the more realistic politicians will realize that any association it maintains with Yasukuni will strike a serious blow at Japan’s international image.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Here’s an article that covers it in a more balanced manner (click the link or just go here:

October 23, 2005 @ 4:30 am | Comment

It’s a good article, thanks Boo. But I don’t find it necessarily more balanced , as it deals more with the war criminals question than with the militarism of those running the shrine, the main theme of the ABC article. And remember where your article is coming from…

October 23, 2005 @ 4:43 am | Comment

It’s clear from the article that the views of the shrine management are not mainstream in Japan, and I personally think that the views of shrine management are not even mainstream among visitors to the shrine.

Koizumi realizes this, but has determined that on balance his visits still serve a purpose domestically and internationally. I’m sure if the situation changes, Koizumi will also change.

October 23, 2005 @ 5:10 am | Comment

It is good to see that western media has finally come to their senses.

The decision by US to let Japan Emperor off-hook for any war responsibility is a mockery of justice. For Japanese, it is a curse in disguise.

October 23, 2005 @ 10:21 am | Comment

I think one of (i stress “one of”) the objectives of the Korean/Chinese view is to make sure Yasukuni remains out of the mainstream.
The problem is that its endorsement by the PM is one of the events that may move it closer to the mainstream. That is troublesome enough.

It is the US’s responsibility to make sure that the extremists stay outside the mainstream. By showing a more balanced story (like ABC/CSM) to the world, this is more effective (and preferrable) than the demonstration in Seoul or Beijing. But one could ask, would they cover this without the over-reaction by Korea/China?

Now regarding what the mainstream thoughts are. I come across this random sampling in Yoyogi Park. (by Japan Today)
Judge for yourself what the people in Japan think. (bear in mind Japanese education, esp in Tokyo, means that these people knows a lot more about the world than rural American. i.e. their knowledge on world history and geography are probably comparable to college grads in NYC or LA)

October 23, 2005 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

well, sun bin, maybe “their knowledge on world history and geography are probably comparable to college grads in NYC or LA”, but when one of the people is pictured looking like a doctor with a stethascope tucked into his front pocket saying how the PM should visit for “Otherwise, the fallen soldiers would never be able to rest in peace,” I’m left questioning the American education system.
And that Leno segment about 10 years ago where he’d ask graduates such questions as “how many moons does the Earth have?” and people unable to answer. (I remember one saying “Well, I never look at the sky.”)

October 23, 2005 @ 6:01 pm | Comment

a physician, must be able to pinpoint a lot of countries and the capitals in this world. and read reasonably well of european history, and their version of asian history.

i am sure those other interviewees are reasonably well educated as well.

that was my point. these people are not ignorant or un-educated.

how to read these interviews — i leave that up to each of us.

October 23, 2005 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

I think the Chinese would do well to read recent western media reporting on the shrine. It’s a good lesson in how to persuade people to a point of view. More westerners are going to become hostile to the visits as a result, where normal Chinese reponses only create sympathy for the Japanese position.

October 24, 2005 @ 2:09 am | Comment

“Otherwise, the fallen soldiers would never be able to rest in peace”… I don’t have a problem with this line of thought, even if I don’t agree with it.

October 24, 2005 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Every country has the right to honour their war dead. However, the people you allow to administer the tomb of the unknown soldier (or your country’s equivalent) does have meaning. If the shrine was apolitical, I’d be solidly on the Japanese side. But it’s not, so I’m not.

By the way, there ARE grounds for the Japanese position that the Americans pushed them into the war … but only the war in the Pacific. American threats at an oil embargo led to a meeting of the Japanese cabinet which determined that Japan had 3 choices: abandon their conquest of China, continue trying to fight without oil, or invade SE Asia and seize oil resources for themselves. They chose option C. The museum tries to portray this as nasty old USA picking on Japan … but let’s face it. US sanctions were threatened because of Japanese encroachment on Vietnam and China which had already been going on for a long time for purely imperialist reasons. Personally, I think this reflects extremely well on USA, and extrememly badly on Japan … but nevertheless, from a certian point of view, you could say that USA forced them into it … kind of.

October 24, 2005 @ 3:01 am | Comment

Going by accounts I’ve read from the early 90s, Yasakuni actually seems to have been taking a much more right-wing position recently – I wonder if there was a change in management, so to speak?


October 24, 2005 @ 6:24 am | Comment

The shrine is funded entirely, 100%, by private donations; this is a situation created by the American occupation. They can do what they want.

Koizumi sounds positively sarcastic these days, by the way. Something to the effect of he understands how the Chinese are afraid of Japan because there was a war 60 years ago.
Let’s face it, it’s really clear they’re just playing the Japan card to deal with other issues.

October 24, 2005 @ 9:02 am | Comment

Alright, based on the new information given about the shrine’s management, I’d say then that Koizumi’s visit is less justified. There’s no neat division between “private citizen” and state leader, so as a state leader he should know this is not the best kind of diplomacy to exercise, given Yasukuni’s more than mixed image.

October 24, 2005 @ 11:14 am | Comment

The problem I have with these interviews are, mainly, that they viewed the visit as a diplomatic dispute. That more or less tells us how the japanese media is portraying it (also MSM in western world).

how difficult is it for koizumi to say, “I visit this in private, to honor one of the relative and those who are innocently dead. i do NOT endorse the class A criminals but I cannot interfere with their management”

The fact that he chose not to day this is also telling something, either his own inner thinking, or that of those who support his election.

October 24, 2005 @ 11:39 am | Comment

this part of the oringinal report is also worth reading”

What is not familiar is the story line. In a version that most historians would refute, Mr. Roosevelt drew Japan into a conflict hoping, in part, this would end the Great Depression: “The only option open to Roosevelt … was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war…. The US economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered.”

When Secretary Hull asked Japan to remove its troops from China in the spring of 1941 and to stop the planned invasion of Southeast Asia, this “showed the US was hostile to Japan.” As old diplomatic images scroll, a voiceover says: “We had huge interests in China and many fellow countrymen…. We could absolutely not abandon these interests.”

US requests during that summer to negotiate were “a pretext for the Americans to initiate hostilities toward Japan.”

The timeline speeds up: On July 25, Japanese “advances” into French Indochina give the US “the excuse it needs to adopt hard-line policies against Japan.” On Aug. 1, “The US resolves to go to war against Japan.” The Aug. 10-14 mid-Atlantic meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill results in a secret agreement to carry out the attack on Japan. On Nov. 7, “The US plan to force Japan in to war is set in motion.” Nov. 20: Japanese ambassadors in Washington attempt a final compromise. But by Nov. 25, Roosevelt is “exploring ways of getting Japan to attack.”

October 24, 2005 @ 11:43 am | Comment

“The problem I have with these interviews are, mainly, that they viewed the visit as a diplomatic dispute. That more or less tells us how the japanese media is portraying it (also MSM in western world)”

When I lived in Japan, I got used to people talking not in terms of ‘principles’ but in terms of whether something is ‘socially acceptable’ (situational ethics?). The tone they adopt in the interviews doesn’t surprise me.

October 24, 2005 @ 7:00 pm | Comment

Here’s something I came across at

about the Yasukuni shrine and what it really represents to the Japanese

“Yasukuni is the creation of the Japanese state in the late 19th century for overseas expansion and imperialist war efforts. It was the designated institution for state Shinto indoctrination and the propaganda and mobilization centre of Japanese militarism; the sole purpose of its existence was to convince Japanese that, if they killed and died for the Emperor, their souls would be enshrined there. The Yasukuni culture is one of blind obedience to a totalitarian state, and the Yasukuni tradition is one of colonialism and imperialism through war and aggression.

Mr. Koizumi insists that he goes to Yasukuni only to show respect to those who sacrificed themselves for the country’s prosperity today and to pray for peace. Yet, if one takes a tour of the state-of-the-art war museum attached to the shrine, it is clear that the shrine demands all those who pray there to live the way those enshrined there lived. And you find there a history in which Japan has done no wrong: All sacrifices were for Japan’s defence, and for liberating Asians from white imperialism. The Yasukuni narrative of history is not the elimination of twisted nationalism but the revival of it. The Yasukuni notion of peace is to glorify war criminals as peace lovers. And the Yasukuni interpretation of sacrifice is the total rejection of the international war tribunal’s verdict on Japan’s war criminals. ”

October 27, 2005 @ 11:09 pm | Comment

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