Seventy-five years after Japan’s defeat in World War Two, Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine for war dead is a potent symbol of the controversy that persists over the conflict’s legacy in East Asia.
DYING FOR THE EMPEROR
Established in 1869 in a leafy urban enclave, the shrine is dedicated to 2.5 million Japanese who died in wars beginning in the 19th century and including World War Two.
Funded by the government until 1945, Yasukuni – its name formed by combining the Japanese words for “peace” and “country” – was central to the state religion of Shintoism that mobilised the wartime population to fight in the name of a divine emperor.
Since 1978, those honoured have also included 14 World War Two leaders convicted as “Class A” war criminals by an Allied tribunal in 1948, among them wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo.
Tojo and the others were secretly elevated to the status of gods at the shrine in a solemn ceremony that year, news of which sparked a domestic firestorm when it became public.
Many Japanese pay respects to relatives at Yasukuni and conservatives say leaders should be able to honour those who died in the war.
Chinese and Koreans, however, resent the honours accorded there to the war criminals.
Koreans still chafe over Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945, while China has bitter memories of Japan’s invasion and brutal occupation of parts of the country from 1931 to 1945. Critics in Japan see Yasukuni as as a symbol of a militarist past and say leaders’ visits violate the separation of religion and state mandated by the post-war constituion.
A museum on the grounds has been criticised as depicting the war as one that Japan fought to liberate Asia from Western imperialism, while ignoring atrocities by its troops.
The names of thousands of men from Taiwan and Korea killed while serving with Imperial forces are also recorded at Yasukuni. Some relatives want their names removed.
Emperor Hirohito, in whose name Japanese soldiers fought the war, visited Yasukuni eight times between the conflict’s end and 1975. Historians say he stopped due to displeasure over the enshrined convicted wartime leaders. His son, Akihito, who became emperor in 1989 and abdicated last year, never visited, nor has current Emperor Naruhito. The royals have attended a separate, secular ceremony.