Japan – “Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is a purely religious statement.” Critically discuss.

By Katri Nevalainen (2015)

Yasukuni Shrine is often seen as not only “the central custodian of national memory and mourning commemorating Japan’s war dead” (Harootunian, 1999: 144), but also as “the spiritual home of Japanese militarism” (Seaton, 2007: 38). The Shintō shrine was built in 1869 in central Tokyo to commemorate those who have who died in the Meiji rebellion, and currently it enshrines over 2.47 million war dead, including 14 class-A war criminals (Bailey, 1996: 158). Most of the academic debate focuses on high-ranking government officials’ visits to Yasukuni as a cause for various controversies on the domestic as well as on the international level (Tamaki, 2009; Nagy, 2014; Koga, 2015). Statement can be defined as “an expression of an attitude or belief that is made by means of action or appearance” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015). Therefore, this essay will analyse whether Japanese government officials are aiming at expression of exclusively religious beliefs by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. Domestically there is a complex ‘politico-religious dilemma’ regarding to the public status of the shrine, as the visits are argued to violate the legal separation between the religion and the state (Masa’aki, 2010: 50-51). Nevertheless, in a wider international context the significance of visiting Yasukuni Shrine is manifested in enshrinement of war criminals, and visits are seen as strongly political acts of Japan “whitewashing” its imperial past (Tamaki, 2010: 154).

This essay will focus intertwined political and religious dimensions of commemoration at the Yasukuni Shrine. A brief history of Yasukuni as a site of commemoration will be provided in order to offer a contextual background on how the shrine has been positioned in Japanese society during different times. Thereafter, the essay will move on to discuss the domestic narratives and the constitutional debate referring to Koizumi Junichiro’s[1] annual visits during his administration from 2001 until 2006. Finally, the paper will analyse how visiting Yasukuni is perceived in the international affairs, focusing on the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Yasukuni in December 2013. The essay will attempt to argue that despite the inherently religious character of commemoration at the Yasukuni Shrine, closer analysis shows how politicians have aimed at making strongly political statements in order to achieve their respective political agendas, both domestically and in international affairs.

Yasukuni as a site of commemoration

Yasukuni has a long-standing position as a site for commemoration of war dead in Japan. This essay defines commemoration as “an act through which the living engage with the dead” (Miyamoto, 2011: 38). Early after establishment, Yasukuni (literally Peaceful country) was recognised as a national shrine with a special status, according to which ordinary military troops would be enshrined at Yasukuni alongside the imperial lineage (Masa’aki, 2010: 42). Even though hero reverence through enshrinement is a central characteristic of Shintō as an adapted primal religion, historical significance of Yasukuni Shrine is rooted in its role as a representative of State Shintō, established during the Meiji period (1868-1912) (Pye, 2003: 49-50). Masa’aki (2010: 44) has defined State Shintō in the broad sense as “system of thought supported by the government”. In this system, the original tradition of Koshintō was modified to suit a nationalist ideology centred on divinity of the Emperor, and stripped from its past religious elements (Killmeier and Chiba, 2010: 336). Lai (2013: 117) has argued that State Shintō was “an invented tradition” to meet the political needs of a modern Japanese state. Therefore, commemoration of war dead at Yasukuni Shrine was made a “civil obligation” of every Japanese subject in 1883, notwithstanding his or her religion (Masa’aki, 2010: 46). Despite the fact that the government had also proclaimed a formal freedom of religion in the same year, religious beliefs were seen as primarily private matters, unrelated to the ethics promoted by the state (Scheid, 2012: 97).

The non-religious nature of State Shintō was emphasised until the end of Pacific War, and visiting Yasukuni Shrine was thus considered as “an act of patriotic loyalty” to the state, rather than an expression of a personal belief (Kraemer, 1960: 279). As military conflicts grew, even the emperor himself paid respects at Yasukuni (see Appendix 1). Japanese soldiers were motivated by a privilege of being enshrined in the shrine – so much so that the parting remark of Japanese soldiers going to war was often recalled as “see you in Yasukuni” (Will, 2006). It was argued that national worship was rooted in traditional Japanese rituals (saishi) that had nothing to do with religion in a Western sense. Therefore the government claimed that separation of religion and state was present even before the war (Nitta, 2000: 252). This view is problematic in the Japanese context because it is based on a view of religion as a belief system with a “clear cut body of doctrines” that Shintō does not have (Masa’aki, 2010: 49). In this way, it could be argued that the Japanese government created a “unique religious basis for nationalism” with Yasukuni as its key representative (Befu, 1992: 38). Acknowledging this early role of the Yasukuni Shrine is crucial, because it shows how “commemoration [in the Japanese context] is inherently political, and also intrinsically religious, even when the commemoration sites are under secular, governmental auspices” (Miyamoto, 2011).

The legal status of Yasukuni Shrine changed following Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. Shintō directive of 1945 prohibited state funding of religious organizations, in order to prevent imperialism from gaining ground again (Okuyama, 2005: 99). Constitution of 1947 implied a legal separation of religion and the state (Killmeier and Chiba, 2010: 336). Consequently, Yasukuni Shrine was transformed into a private religious corporation in order to abolish the ties with the state (Masa’aki, 2010: 46-47). However, it has been argued that State Shintō remained as an unofficial guideline, because Yasukuni officials were free to continue the earlier rhetoric under the principle of freedom of religion (Kitagawa, 1990: 276-78). Domestic opposition of government officials visiting Yasukuni has so far mainly focused on this legal dimension concerning separation of religion and the state. Despite the change in formal status, many Japanese as well as foreign observers still consider the shrine as a “national monument” for commemoration (Deans, 2007: 271). Conservative politicians in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and various associations, such as the Association for Bereaved Families (Izokukai) became powerful forces campaigning to bring Yasukuni back under the government control (Masa’aki, 2010: 47). The situation was further complicated in 1978, as the chief priest of the shrine took a deliberate decision to enshrine 14 out of 28 convicted class-A war criminals, including General Tōjō Hideki (Inuzuka and Fuchs, 2014: 22). The enshrinement of war criminals constitutes the core problem with the shrine in the international context, as other East Asian countries claim that visits to Yasukuni embrace Japan’s imperialist history (Hasegawa and Togo, 2008: 197-98). Therefore, it is clear that Yasukuni Shrine continues to exist as a somewhat uneasy site for commemoration in Japan, and an important part of this uneasiness is caused by the way the shrine portrays the past (Deans, 2007: 280).

Domestic context: a legal problem?

In the domestic societal context, politicians’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine are mainly challenged as an issue of violating the constitutional divide between the state and religion, and therefore religious motives for the visits are emphasised (Okuyama, 2011: 179). The focus is centred on high-ranking officials, mainly prime ministers, and whether they conduct the visits in private or in a public capacity (Kingston, 2007: 304). Domestic interest to Yasukuni visits has grown since 1985, when Prime Minister Nakasone visited the shrine on August 15th, the memorial day of the end of Pacific War. He claimed to be visiting in official capacity (Jameson, 1985). Opposition against officials visiting Yasukuni Shrine has arisen most strongly amongst progressives, such as those representing Buddhists and Christians in Japan, who claim that commemoration by government officials indeed violates the Constitution (Koga, 2015: 11-12). The problem with Yasukuni in these narratives is rooted to the fact that in modern Japanese, the term sanpai is used to refer to visiting a shrine or temple of religious nature. It does not mean a mere attendance to a religious service, but it also “implies an affirmation of ideology involvement in enshrinement”, therefore visiting Yasukuni is associated with “an active performance of a religious rite” (Herzog, 1993: 108-109, my italics). However, the mere fact that the visits are perceived as religiously motivated does not mean that the politicians aim to make a purely religious statement. It could be argued that the domestic narratives focusing on the legal dimension of Yasukuni visits often overlook the underlying political incentives for the visits (Shibata, 2015: 78). In order to offer an example, the essay will now move on to discuss Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s position on visiting Yasukuni.

Prime Minister Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine annually during his administration between 2001 and 2006 (Killmeier and Chiba, 2007: 335). Koizumi insisted that his visits were “natural” for him to pay homage to the war dead, and said how “peace and prosperity of Japan is founded on [the war dead’s] priceless sacrifices” (Koizumi, 2002). While claiming that the visits were a private matter, in practise these arguments were rather vague as he still signed himself in the shrine guestbook as a prime minister and was accompanied by various government officials (Kingston, 2007: 308). An Osaka district high court case against Koizumi in 2005 consequently ruled the visits as “religious”, and thus unconstitutional, but offered no legal sanctions (The Japan Times, 2005). However, the underlying intentions of Koizumi’s visits should also be seen in the domestic political context. Before the prime ministerial elections, Koizumi had pledged to visit Yasukuni annually if he was to become a prime minister, thus securing the support of nationalist members of Liberal Democratic Party and revisionist associations (Killmeier and Chiba, 2010: 334-335). Previous years had seen prime ministers unable to stand for their promises, and in order to present himself as a strong leader Koizumi had to be able to endure the critique his visits to Yasukuni gained (Nagy, 2014: 9). In this way, visiting Yasukuni constitutes a “political litmus test” for revisionist groups (Kingston, 2007: 304). Arguably, by agreeing to the demands of nationalistic groups, Koizumi was able to present himself as a strong leader and gained more ground for his goals of neoliberal economic reform (Nagy, op.cit.: 8-9). It is also important to note that prior to becoming a prime minister, Koizumi had never visited Yasukuni, and since his retirement he has only done so once (ibid: 11). Koizumi thus employed nationalistic rhetoric “tactically rather than as an expression of a personal ideology” (ibid: 15). Therefore it could be argued that by repeatedly visiting Yasukuni Shrine, Prime Minister Koizumi did not aim to make a purely religious statement, but rather a strongly political one, in order to sustain the core domestic support during his administration in order to achieve goals of his wider political agenda.

Even though religious reasons for commemoration at Yasukuni Shrine are emphasised in the domestic criticism, in reality many politicians have aimed at making political statements. Hence, it would be a mistake to argue that senior politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine are motivated by purely religious reasons. The analysis of Prime Minister Koizumi’s position showed that by visiting Yasukuni, he was able to appeal to the nationalist groups influential in Japanese politics, and thus also gain ground for his wider political goals of economic reform (Nagy, 2014: 8). The shrine, after all, is a “powerful symbol for various groups with nationalist aspirations and agendas” (Deans, 2007: 292). However, discussing the domestic controversy arising from Yasukuni is only a part of a much broader discourse surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine visits. The next section will analyse the more symbolic dimension in which the visits are seen in the international affairs.

International affairs and politics of memory

Significance of Yasukuni Shrine on the international level lies in the enshrinement of class-A war criminals (Hasegawa and Togo, 2008: 125-26). Various countries, particularly China and South Korea, have strongly criticised Japan over the senior politicians’ visits to the shrine. According to this critique, Japan has avoided confronting the history and “whitewashes” the past atrocities as long as government officials continue to visit the shrine (Koga, 2015: 19). Lately even their long-term alliance the United States has joined this criticism by voicing disappointment over actions of Japanese politicians (Embassy of the US in Japan, 2013). Visits to the shrine have ultimately led to “criticism, diplomatic retaliation and deteriorating economic relations” between Japan and its neighbours (Killmeier and Chiba, 2010: 335). Despite apologies from Japanese leaders, such as Murayama Tomiichi’s statement in 1995, neighbouring countries continue to view these apologies as superficial (Dudden, 2008: 33-34). Commemoration at Yasukuni is thus linked to wider politics of memory within the region, according to which every country holds their own narrative of wartime history, and therefore these narratives clash in diplomatic relations (Tamaki, 2009: 31). Popular revisionist interpretations of the past sustain the view that Japan was a victim of aggression, forgetting its responsibility for the suffering of other nations (Tsutsui, 2009: 1392-93). In this way, criticism from other countries only adds to the pressure to visit the shrine and makes diplomatic relations more ‘difficult’ within the region (Tamaki, op.cit: 35). Visiting Yasukuni in the international context is therefore seen as a highly political issue, with little religious connotations. Wakamiya has argued that diplomatic relations with Japan’s neighbours follow the “law of next year”, which suggests that after “every significant act of reconciliation, Japan follows with an act that belies the message sent by the act of reconciliation” (in: Sturgeon, 2006: 77). In this way, visiting Yasukuni reinforces negative imaginary of the other side in all countries involved, and can be used as a diplomatic leverage (Lawson and Tannaka, 2010: 418). The next section will analyse the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s reasons for visiting Yasukuni in December 2013.

Even though Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on December 26th 2013 was not his first as prime minister, it is the most significant for international affairs. The visit broke a seven-year freeze of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni (Soble et al., 2013). Abe said how he regretted not having visited during his first term in office, and acknowledged that Yasukuni visits “have become a political and diplomatic issue” (Abe, 2013). The geopolitical situation had certainly changed since the Koizumi’s administration, not least because China had become the second largest economy surpassing Japan in 2010 (Schirokauer et al., 2013: 630). Prior to the visit, regional relations had hit a low point and it was argued that the visit took place at a rather awkward time (The Economist, 2013a). What was most contradictory about Abe’s speech was how he argued, “Japan must never wage a war again”, despite before actively advocating for a political agenda centred on rearmament of Japan (Abe, 2013; Nagy, 2014: 11). As some have argued, the visit may have accorded “with his own desire to free Japan from what he sees as humiliating, pacifist post war constitution” (The Economist, 2014). This suggests that Abe wanted to make a statement that showed a desire for a more assertive role of Japan in regional relations (Yi and Qinghai, 2014: 75-76). It was however not out of character for Abe, who is a grand son of a former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and known for his strongly revisionist views on war history (The Economist, 2013b). The visit caused a strong reaction abroad; Beijing’s spokesman Qin Gang argued that the visit poses “a major political obstacle in the improvement of bilateral relations” and summoned Japan’s ambassador (BBC, 2013). Similarly, South Korea argued that the act was “anachronistic” and hurts the stability of the region (McCurry, 2013). Widespread protests occurred in the biggest cities of both China and South Korea (see Appendix 2 and Appendix 3). The fact that Abe did not even refer to the visit as a private affair and clearly addressed his speech to the international community, suggests that Abe made a political statement reflecting a desire for more assertive role of Japan within the Asia-Pacific region. The speech went hand in hand with his more personal beliefs about revisionist view of war history.

Politicians’ Yasukuni visits have become a particularly sensitive and potentially destabilising issue for regional diplomatic relations in the recent years. On the international level, the problem with Yasukuni Shrine concerns the historical narrative that the shrine promotes, namely the revisionist view of Japan as a victim rather than aggressor (Hasegawa and Togo, 2008: 112). As seen in the case of Abe’s December 2013 visit, religion plays only a secondary role in his personal political agenda, which resembles to that popular within the government in the pre-war period. Perhaps ironically, a more assertive role of Japan is supported by the United States who also voiced opposition to Abe’s visit (Oshima, 2013). In the context of the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, it is fair to argue that politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine do not make a purely religious statement, even though the visit takes place at an inherently religious site. Political significance of Yasukuni Shrine visits should not be overlooked, because the issue constitutes a clear obstacle for reconciliation between Japan and its neighbouring countries.


In conclusion, it would be a too simplistic judgement of a complex issue to argue that visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is a purely religious statement. Rather, this essay has analysed evidence that suggests how senior politicians’ visits to the shrine can constitute strongly political statements, motivated by aims of different political agendas domestically as well as in international affairs. It is important to understand that despite developments such as State Shintō, politics and religion have been intertwined in Japan for centuries (Pye, 2003: 198). The first section discussed background of commemoration at Yasukuni Shrine, and argued that the shrine holds rather ambiguous position between religious and political ideals. In one hand, commemoration is intrinsically religious as dead people are commemorated, but on the other also inherently political because it is the war dead enshrined in Yasukuni. Two core problems related to the shrine visits were identified: the domestic controversy over legal separation of religion and the state, as well as the symbolic importance related to enshrinement of class-A war criminals within international affairs.

Delving into two specific case studies both within domestic context and in international affairs, this essay demonstrated that visiting Yasukuni could be also seen as a strongly political statement in order to achieve different goals. Domestically, narratives tend to focus on the constitutional issues. An analysis of Koizumi Junichiro’s visits showed how even though the domestic public and the law perceived the visits as mainly ‘religious’ statements, considerable evidence points out that Koizumi visited in order to sustain domestic support amongst influential nationalistic groups and gain ground for radical economic reforms. In international affairs, visiting Yasukuni reflects politics of memory. A discussion about Abe Shinzo’s December 2013 visit demonstrated that he aimed to present Japan as a more assertive political and military actor in the region. The visits also reflected Abe’s more personal beliefs about revisionist history. In both case studies, Japanese leaders were clearly politically motivated and planned their visits in order to reach their respective political agendas. In this way, it is clear that in all cases studied visiting Yasukuni was not a purely religious statement, despite taking place in an inherently religious institution.

In order to overcome politics of memory with China and South Korea, should state and religion be more strictly separated than they currently are in Japanese society? The essay recognized the difficulties related to discussing religion in a Western sense in the Japanese context. This issue remains debated, but a conclusion can be drawn: reconciliation requires diplomatic efforts from all sides (Funabashi, 2003: 12). By visiting Yasukuni, one makes a deliberate expression of an attitude or belief – a statement. As political statements, the visits maintain a revisionist narrative of Japan’s past, which clearly suggests that there is no real desire from the part of Japanese politicians for reconciliation over history in the near future.


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[1] Japanese names will be presented in Japanese style throughout the essay, i.e. surname first, given name last.

One thought on “Japan – “Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine is a purely religious statement.” Critically discuss.

  1. Excellent analysis. The essay is very well researched, very well written, very well referenced, and demonstrates remarkable understanding of the case study and excellent critical thinking.

    In terms of what to improve, the argument can at times be rather repetitive, and some paragraphs are really quite long, so perhaps the structuring could be polished somewhat. Moreover, it might have been interesting to consider at some point the notion of ‘civil religion’ as a further way to approach the question.

    Nonetheless, this remains a very good, thoroughly researched and well argued essay which answers the question well.


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