A recent visitor to Japan told me that she had an uneasy feeling visiting Yasukuni shrine as a foreigner. She reported that there were very few Japanese people there, especially considering it was a public holiday, a time when most shrines and temples in Japan are overflowing with temple tourists. “Not only that, it was kind of eerie and sad,” she said.
Yasukuni shrine is a controversial site in Japan. Former prime minister Yoichi Koizumi was constantly criticized for praying at the shrine and prime ministers have been judged according to whether they visit this shrine or not. The shrine itself was built in 1869, under orders of the Meiji Emperor, but it did not become controversial until the mid 1980’s.
What’s so controversial?
Over 2.4 million soldiers are honored at Yasukuni and their names appear in a special book housed at the shrine. Of those soldiers, 1,068 have been convicted of war crimes, 14 of whom were Class A war criminals.
You can look at a visit to Yasukuni in two ways. 1: That if you visit Yasukuni shrine, you are basically showing your respect for war criminals and the Japanese Imperial Army of that time. At the same time, you are showing disrespect to the countries who were victims of the war crimes. Or 2: That Yasukuni is a shrine that was built as a national shrine to commemorate all people (including aid workers and foreigners) who lost their lives during military service to Japan.
While Yasukuni was at one time under the control of the state, it is now a privately funded operation which also runs a war history museum on the same grounds. For tourists, there are many festivals and rituals year-round, including a daily “Kagura” event.
Despite its apparent right-wing connections, Yasukuni is an important part of Japan’s history, politics and culture. A trip to Yasukuni should bring more awareness to war, its inevitable crimes against humanity, and should be used as another plea for world peace.
Yasukuni Shrine Homepage (includes schedule of events and museum hours)
Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com