This year, not a single member of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet visited Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 – the anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of the Pacific War – for the first time since he returned to power in 2012. Abe himself sent an aide with a ritual offering to the shrine, and the media reported that MPs, including disgraced former defense minister Tomomi Inada and popular “rising star” Shinjiro Koizumi indeed visited the shrine – but compared with recent years, this was a dramatically low-key and apolitical event.
There are two key things that might be read into this. The first is a measure of just how weak the position of Japan’s hardline nationalists really is; political leaders feel secure in throwing some red meat to the nationalists when they’re riding high in the polls, but they’re ultimately a small constituency that are quickly and easily abandoned when the government’s popularity slides. If playing to the nationalist audience was a vote-winner, Abe and his Cabinet would have made a grand show of turning up to Yasukuni on the 15th; but it’s not a vote-winner. Making a big deal of it actually annoys moderates (far more numerous than nationalists), and with questions over Abe’s involvement with the hardline nationalist Moritomo Gakuen still lingering around the Prime Minister, the far-right can expect little red meat in the near future.
The second thing we might read – an alternative explanation, though by no means mutually exclusive with the first – is that the new Abe cabinet’s experience and political nous is coming to the fore. Gone are inexperienced hotheads like Inada, replaced with elder statespeople who may not all be moderate in their views, but who all understand the value of being moderate in their actions. Abe himself has not visited Yasukuni since 2013; among the cabinet ministers choosing to avoid the shrine this year are people like returning Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who is a member of the “Diet Members Association for Visiting Yasukuni Shrine Together” (みんなで靖国神社に参拝する国会議員の会). The personal views of the ministers regarding the shrine have been superseded by considerations of national interest and political messaging – which is, of course, exactly how senior national politicians ought to act.
Describing it as a shrine which “houses the souls of war criminals” glosses over its complexity; the vast majority of visits to the shrine are personal, apolitical and beyond reproach
Despite the circumspection of the new cabinet, the issue of Yasukuni Shrine is not one that will easily fade from Japanese politics or from the country’s turbulent relationships with its neighbors. English-language media often refers to the shrine in a way that glosses over its complexity, describing it as a shrine which “houses the souls of war criminals.” This may indeed be the crux of the controversy around Yasukuni, but it omits the fact that alongside the 14 Class-A war criminals enshrined by chief priest Nagayoshi Matsudaira in a secret ceremony in 1978, Yasukuni also enshrines the souls of 2.5 million named Japanese soldiers who died during various wars. It also houses memorials to all those who have died in the service of Japan, including non-Japanese nationals (at the Honden building), and to all victims of the Second World War, regardless of affiliation or nationality (at the Chinreisha building). A huge number of Japanese people have a relative or ancestor whose name is enshrined at Yasukuni, and with August 15 falling during the Obon festival, when the souls of one’s ancestors are traditionally worshiped, the visits of the vast majority of those attending the shrine (including politicians attending in a private capacity) are apolitical, personal, and beyond reproach.
The above-mentioned Matsudaira, who retired in 1992 and died in 2005, is the root cause of most problems around Yasukuni. An ardent nationalist and revisionist who rejected the verdicts of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, he took it upon himself to enshrine the souls of executed Class-A criminals alongside those of the war dead. A controversial figure from the outset, his appointment provoked perhaps the most powerful political response available to the Emperor of Japan; the Showa Emperor, whose reign encompassed the Pacific War and whose grandfather founded Yasukuni, refused to ever visit the shrine again. His son, the present Emperor, has taken the same stance. No member of the Imperial household has visited the shrine, which lies just moments away from the Imperial Palace, since 1975.
Matsudaira’s legacy is as utterly ruinous as that of anyone entrusted with the care of such an important religious site can be. Along with driving a wedge between the shrine and its patrons – the Emperors – he also turned Yasukuni into a highly politicized site that often plays host not to respectful worshipers who come to remember and revere ancestors who died in the service of Japan, but to gleeful carnivals of the grotesque – loud, sometimes costumed and often flag-waving far-right groups who attend in a spirit not of quiet worship, but of noisy transgression, not to revere the war dead, but to thumb their noses at Korea, at China, and at any other perceived “enemy.” Matsudaira’s actions and those of his successors have welcomed these people to the shrine, caring not a jot for their disruption caused to ordinary worshipers; unsurprisingly, Matsudaira was also responsible for reopening the Yushukan, a war museum on the grounds of the shrine whose excellent and at times superbly curated and moving exhibits are undermined by a constant stream of half-truths and omissions in the revisionist account of the war that accompanies them.
For secular Chidorigafuchi to somehow “replace” Yasukuni, which honors 2.5 million named souls, would be unreasonable and likely impossible
The worst aspect of the damage done by Matsudaira is how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to undo. Even without the revisionist sympathies of some political leaders in Japan, the hard separation of state and religion in the Japanese constitution forbids the government from intervening to change how Yasukuni Shrine is run; it is a private religious organization and is protected from state interference. Just ignoring the shrine – which under the famous veneer of political controversy remains an important and much-revered religious site – is also not an option. Simple solutions suggested by Yasukuni’s critics often display a lack of understanding of this religious role. One common proposal is that the secular Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, a state-operated memorial, should replace Yasukuni as the nation’s primary war memorial – but Chidorigafuchi serves a very different religious role to Yasukuni. It is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, honoring the unidentified remains of around 350,000 soldiers. Certainly, its ceremonial role could be elevated, but for it to somehow “replace” Yasukuni, which honors 2.5 million named souls, most with family and descendants living today, is unreasonable and likely impossible.
Under the circumstances, the best hope is that this year marks a semi-permanent return to the uneasy compromise that has generally held since the 1970s – that Yasukuni remains a prominent part of Japan’s war memory and junior politicians are free to visit in a private capacity, but cabinet ministers (and especially the prime minister), mindful that their visits carry a different political significance, stay away. It’s by no means a perfect fix and tensions will continue to arise sporadically over the shrine – but for a problem this complex, this tied up in knots both legal and religious, it’s the best solution available.
Rob Fahey is an Assistant Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) in Tokyo, and a Visiting Professor at the University of Milan's School of Social and Political Sciences. He was formerly a Research Associate at the Waseda Institute for Political Economy (WINPEC). His research focuses on populism and polarisation, the impact of conspiracy theory beliefs on political behaviour, domestic Japanese politics, and the use of text mining and network analysis techniques for political and social analysis. He received his Masters and Ph.D from Waseda University, and his undergraduate degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.