Every summer, Yasukuni Jinja holds a festival called “Mitama Matsuri”. This is one of the most important events in their annual calendar, and a popular summer event in Tokyo; it was reported on the front page of the July 25th issue of Jinja Shinpō. Paper lanterns are hung up throughout the precincts, and there are performances of various kinds — this year, they included a performance of a traditional form of kagura (sacred dance) from Iwatë Prefecture. In years without a pandemic, there are also food and entertainment stands, and many people attend for that bit of the matsuri.
This year was the 75th, because the Mitama Matsuri was first held in 1947. It was prompted by a spontaneous gathering in 1946 by people from Nagano Prefecture who held a Bon Odori (traditional summer village dance) and sang folk songs in the precincts of Yasukuni Jinja, in memory of their friends who were enshrined there. One of the priests thought that this was a good idea, and the Mitama Matsuri proper began in the following year. “Mitama” is a general term for “honourable spirits”, and not the specific term used for the war dead enshrined at Yasukuni (that is “eirei”), and this time of year is traditional for remembering the dead in Japan.
This makes it a very interesting matsuri, because it has no direct connection to the pre-war state management of Yasukuni Jinja, and it originates from a grassroots decision to remember the war dead. Indeed, the jinja has had concerns about just how popular it is; if I recall correctly, a few years back there was a move to ban the food and entertainment stands, but popular opposition meant that they came back the following year. (And then COVID-19 started.)
Discussions of Yasukuni Jinja (including mine, in my book) tend to focus on its role in Japanese militarism and imperialism, but it is important to remember that there is more to it than that, particularly today.