This shrine was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869. Located very near the Imperial Palace, its main intended function was to commemorate the spirits of those who had died fighting for the Japan’s Empire (the period from 1868 to the end of the Pacific War).
When the ‘black ships’ of Admiral Perry forced isolationist Japan to open up to trade (more on this in a later section of this site) it had the unintended effect of triggering a revolt by southern clans, which overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Though the young samurai from Kyushu who overthrew the Shogunate were initially motivated to ‘expel the barbarian’, they quickly realised that, in order to protect the country from colonisation, they needed Western knowledge and technology. And so it came to be that Japan studied abroad, brought in Western experts, and industrialised with great speed. Early into the Meiji Restoration, Edo was renamed Tokyo (meaning East Capital).
Before this time, the emperor had, for many centuries, been a powerless figurehead, maintained in Kyoto, far from the real centre of power in Edo. Post-Tokugawa, though sovereignty resided in the Emperor, in reality the real power rested with a group of authoritarian oligarchs (this theme of hidden power behind a nominal figurehead is very common in Japan).
In time, the Emperor was elevated to the status of a God, head of an unbroken line stretching back to the mythical Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the grandmother of the first Emperor Jimmu Tenno. This then led to what is known as State Shinto which, over time and via propaganda, led to the belief that the Emperor had the divine right to rule not only Japan, but also the rest of the world. This doctrine also led to the Japanese regarding themselves as superior to other Asian races.
By the 1930s, the military element of the Japanese government became so powerful that it could evade civilian control. Following the earlier colonisation of Korea and parts of Manchuria, the military colonised all of Manchuria, the beginning of a disastrous 15 year war that ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japans unconditional surrender.
That’s a very brief potted history of a 90 year period (for more about the Pacific War and Japans relations with its nearest neighbours, please visit the Fukushima and the Coming Tokyo Earthquake site, via the link on the first page, and sign up for free downloads of sections from my earlier book Bubble to Quake).
There are many in Japan who argue that the country should be allowed to honour its 2,466,532 war dead, and are antipathetic to protests about Yasukuni. Yet this is no ordinary shrine; it was the focal point of pre-war State Shinto. The reason why it is still controversial is that the ‘souls’ of a few hanged war criminals are enshrined there. It certainly is a war shrine, but the complaint by the Korean and Chinese governments that it ‘honours’ known war criminals is inaccurate. In fact, the names of the 17 men were only inserted surreptitiously in the 1960s – in secret because many Japanese were opposed to this enrolment.
The vast majority of older Japanese who visit Yasukuni do so to remember the souls of family members who died in service to for their country. Yasukuni is also a focal point for rightwing groups, who can be seen in abundance on August 15 each year. As Japan has never fully atoned for its cruel atrocity-laden occupation of much of East Asia, any visit by a government official brings howls of protest from Japan’s neighbours.
Between 1935 and the end of the war, swords that decapitated tens of thousands were manufactured and blessed at a forge located behind this shrine (it was quietly dismantled before occupation forces reached Japan). The war exhibits in the museum basically celebrate Japan’s military past. Among them is the first train that ran along the infamous Thai-Burma ‘death railway’ (see below). I’d have thought shame an appropriate reaction to this locomotive, yet here it is, well preserved under a coat of black paint, in a shrine dedicated to the Japanese war dead. Other objects on display commemorate militarised Japan: bloodstained battleflags, a model of a shell from the battleship Yamato, images of a tokko suicide attack, and a fully refurbished Zero fighter. It is certainly not your typical Japanese shrine!
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