Shinzo Abe’s Visit to Yasukuni Jinja

Shinzo Abe’s Visit to Yasukuni Jinja

This post is not directly concerned with Kannagara, but it is concerned with a very important aspect of contemporary Shinto — its connection with the ultranationalism and militarism of Japan in the Second World War. This is an aspect that, as least to start with, I plan to avoid in the game, but it is something that anyone interested in Shinto needs to be aware of.

You may have gathered from the news that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Yasukuni Jinja on December 26th. (See the Guardian, the BBC, Foreign Policy, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Mirror.)

Yasukuni Jinja was founded in 1869 (as Tokyo Shokonsha) to enshrine the spirits of those who had died fighting on the side of the Meiji Emperor in the civil war that brought him to power. In many ways, it serves the same function as a war memorial in Britain; it is not a cemetery, and the war dead enshrined there generally have graves elsewhere. Although the war dead as venerated as Shinto kami, that does not mean that they are worshipped, nor that they are necessarily thought of as particularly virtuous. They are honoured because they laid down their lives for their country, just like soldiers at a war memorial.

However, as Japan became increasingly fascist and militarist in the 1930s, Yasukuni Jinja came to occupy a central place in the ideology. Unlike most jinja, which were under the control of the Home Ministry, Yasukuni Jinja was controlled by the Army and Navy Ministry. This history means that it was one of the very few shrines that the US occupying forces seriously considered closing, and also means that it was an important symbol for people who still believed the ideology they had been brought up with.

In 1978, the chief priest enshrined a group of convicted war criminals in the jinja. The Japanese emperor, who had frequently visited the jinja before that, did not visit afterwards. His son, the current emperor, has also not visited since then. This is the point that most often causes trouble overseas, as China and South Korea accuse the jinja of worshipping war criminals. Obviously, this is not true, as that is just not what Shinto jinja do, but the close connection of the jinja to militarist ideology and the inclusion of war criminals among the enshrined spirits means that it is a very charged symbol. The museum run by the jinja that is said to valorise Japan’s role in WWII does nothing to help. (I haven’t actually seen the museum, but I trust the sources that say it is distorted.)

On the other hand, Yasukuni Jinja has been the place Japan enshrines its war dead since 1869. It predates aggressive militarism by at least 30 years, and postdates it by about 70. Yasukuni Jinja is the place that, for most Japanese, memorialises the war dead. Some people venerate it for that, and others despise it, but it really isn’t possible to just substitute some other location. There is another place, Chidorigafuchi cemetery, but I don’t think many Japanese are even aware that that exists.

However, Yasukuni Jinja is not the only jinja in the precincts. There are also two subsidiary jinja. One of these is Chinreisha. Chinreisha was established in 1965, and enshrines everyone, of any nationality, who died in war, with the exception of those people enshrined in Yasukuni Jinja itself. In other words, Chinreisha enshrines the Japanese civilians who died in the air raids on Tokyo, and in the atomic bombings, and also enshrines the Chinese soldiers and civilians killed by the Japanese during the Rape of Nanking, and the prisoners of war who were worked to death on the Burma railroad. Chinreisha is not very well known in Japan. It was not even open to the public until 2006, and it is very small, hidden off to one side of the main shrine. It is quite possible to visit Yasukuni Jinja many times and not even be aware that Chinreisha exists. (I know someone who has done so.)

That is the necessary background to understand why I think that Abe’s visit has been very badly reported in the western media. At the press conference he held after his visit, Abe described what he had done. He had visited Yasukuni Jinja, and put his hands together to honour those who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Then he had visited Chinreisha, and put his hands together to swear that Japan would never wage war again, and would work to create a world in which there were no more wars. (He made sure to explain what Chinreisha was at the press conference, for the benefit of everyone in the audience who had never heard of it.) (Daily Yomiuri has his remarks at the press conference online.)

I have not seen any western media reports that even mention his visit to Chinreisha. As far as I am aware, it is completely unprecedented. I don’t think any previous prime ministers visited, nor do I think that any of the visits by parliamentarians have included Chinreisha. Given how reluctant Japanese people are to do unprecedented things in general, and how conservative Abe is generally reputed to be, this means that he must have made a deliberate decision to visit Chinreisha and make his vow. It was not an afterthought, or conventional. His visit to Yasukuni, on the other hand, was conventional; he used the standard phrase to describe the spirits enshrined there.

If, then, we follow the normal rule that we should attach more significance to the things that people do outside convention than to the things they do within it, Abe’s visit to Chinreisha was more important than his visit to Yasukuni. His choice to swear to the victims of Japanese militarism, both Japanese and foreign, than Japan would never wage war again should, therefore, be taken seriously.

The date on which he chose to visit is also significant. December 26th was the first anniversary of his taking office as prime minister. One purpose of his visit was to report to the war dead on his leadership of the country. However, December 26th is not a significant date in the history of the war, nor was it a significant date when Yasukuni Jinja was a central part of State Shinto. Previous prime ministerial visits have generally been on the date marking the end of WWII, August 15th. Thus, once again Abe broke precedent, to visit on a day that was personally significant to him as prime minister, but which had no significance for the militarist regime responsible for the war. While news reports have mentioned the date (naturally), I have seen very little discussion of its significance.

Taking these factors together, Abe seems to have taken real steps to dissociate his visit to Yasukuni Jinja from militarism. Just to re-emphasise:

He swore to the victims of Japan’s war to renounce war.

Of course, it didn’t work. It is possible that he was counting on the media carefully and accurately reporting his visit, or at least picking up on the visit to Chinreisha after he repeatedly stressed it at the press conference. I find it a bit hard to believe that someone with so much experience in politics could be so naive about the media, though. Given that he must have expected it to make little impact, that leaves the option that he was actually sincere.

Even so, I don’t think he should have gone. The visit has annoyed the Chinese, true, but they were just looking for an excuse. It has also annoyed the South Koreans, who had just asked the Japanese Self Defence Forces for military aid (a supply of bullets) in the UN peace-keeping operation in South Sudan. There, I think it may have closed down a real chance for repairing damaged relations. This was completely predictable in advance. I think that Abe’s personal conviction that he ought to visit Yasukuni over-rode those concerns, and so he turned his attention to making the visit into as obvious a prayer for peace as he could manage. The failure of that strategy was also, I fear, obvious in advance.

I think, then, that Abe made a mistake in visiting Yasukuni Jinja, but I think that the evidence is that his claim that he visited it to swear to avoid war and work to make it unnecessary should be taken seriously. I think he was sincere.

4 thoughts on “Shinzo Abe’s Visit to Yasukuni Jinja

  1. First of all, thanks for this post and the post to the shintoML list. I visited Yasukuni in 2008 and enjoyed the insane museum, but I never saw any signs for Chinreisha and had not heard of it before now.

    It is my understanding that the usual day to visit Yasukuni is around August 15. The transcript reports that Abe has instead chosen the first anniversary of his inauguration. He seems determined to do things differently.

    I recently read a book that pointed out many discrepancies in the street view of Yasukuni visits. The author argued that there were no PM visits from 1945 to 1978, when Japan normalized relations with China, and none from 1985, when anti-Japan rhetoric heated up in America, to 2001 when China joined the WTO. The author had a sort of paranoid conspiracy theory about this, but perhaps there is more of an incentive to visit Yasukuni when Japan feels more pressured to kowtow politically to its biggest trading partner China. And it was certainly a high-pressure year between Japan and China.

  2. I have strongly mixed feelings about this.

    When someone does something loud and visible and at the same time something silent and less visible, he should not expect others to honor him for the silent and less visible thing he did.

    When someone highly intelligent does something seemingly stupid, then maybe its not stupid at all.

    Just my 50 cents.

    1. These are both true. However, the only reason that his visit to Chinreisha was silent and less visible was that the western media chose to ignore it. He spent as much time talking about that at the press conference as he spent talking about his visit to the main shrine.

      In addition, the hypothesis that his visit is supposed to stir up martial sentiment in Japan really doesn’t hold water. Publicly stating that you want peace might work for that if the population is already champing at the bit for war, but the Japanese population is largely pacifist. In that context, swearing to renounce war is not going to build support for military adventures.

      I don’t think his decision looks stupid. He is reported to have said that relations with South Korea and China were at rock bottom, so he couldn’t see it causing a problem. That wasn’t an unreasonable judgement. I think he was wrong, but being wrong is not the same as being stupid.

      In the end, I think the simple explanation is the best. Abe, personally, feels that he ought to visit Yasukuni. He did what he could to minimise the diplomatic fallout. However, there is no way to make the diplomatic fallout from a prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni small. He shouldn’t have gone, but it doesn’t indicate that he wants to invade China.

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