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Yasukuni Shrine: War Memorial, Political Flashpoint

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006.
Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images
Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Aug. 15, 2006.

If you were looking for a tranquil spot in the hustle and bustle of central Tokyo, you could do no better than this place: a beautiful wooden shrine; a small carp-filled pond with water cascading down a rock formation; a stooped gardener meticulously snipping the grass with scissors; benches on which to enjoy the shade of the willows, cherries and maples that surround the pond.

This remarkable place is called Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial that honors Japan's war dead from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to World War II.

As a Japan Society Media Fellow in the summer of 2005, I went to Tokyo to explore the roots of increased tensions between China and Japan, to try and understand why political and diplomatic relations had reached an all-time low. This quiet little nook in Tokyo represented the epicenter of that tension.

Today, a year later, an early-morning visit by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has once again raised the ire of China and South Korea, powers who suffered during Japan's military expansionism in the first half of the 20th century.

Some two and a half million spirits are enshrined at Yasukuni, including 14 Class-A war criminals found guilty in the Tokyo Trials after World War II. And it is the enshrinement of those 14 spirits (whose names were added to the shrine in the 1970s) that has roiled Japan's relations with its neighbors. For them, Yasukuni is the symbol of Japan's imperial past and a visit to the shrine by a Japanese leader is seen as a tacit endorsement of Japan's wartime behavior when millions of Chinese, Koreans and other Southeast Asians were killed and enslaved by the Japanese.

For many of the shrine's supporters, in fact, a revision of Japan's wartime past is long overdue. The Tokyo trials, they feel, were the victors' justice, the negative assessment of the war, an imposition of the American occupiers. To those who see the war as one of self-defense, the war criminals were, in fact, not guilty.

In visiting the shrine on Tuesday, Koizumi said: "I am not going there for the Class-A war criminals. I am going there to mourn the many who made sacrifices."

Koizumi has made the visit every year since becoming prime minister. But until this year he has always avoided coming on Aug. 15, the date that marks Japan's surrender, as if visiting on this day in particular would be more inappropriate than any other day.

Last summer, Koizumi stayed away from the shrine on this date, perhaps because he was just weeks away from a snap general election, which he won convincingly. But this year, he is a lame duck -- he steps down as prime minister in September.

When asked about his choice to visit today, Koizumi said he is criticized whenever he goes. "If that's the case, I thought today was appropriate," he said.

Chinese and Korean officials were quick to condemn the visit. In a televised statement, China accused Koizumi of wrecking ties between the two countries. South Korea also expressed its displeasure, and both countries summoned their Japanese ambassadors to lodge protests.

While the shrine itself may be peaceful, a tour through the newly minted museum adjacent to the shrine reveals a version of the Pacific War with a very different spin from other histories of the period.

I met with a museum official, Hiotsugu Iki, who said the goal of the museum was to "present the facts of the modern history of Japan.... Unfortunately since World War II, no deep history of modern Japan has been taught in schools. This exhibit explains the international situation that led to war."

Indeed the museum's exhibits and placards present a detailed argument that Japan was forced into the war, glossing over the staggering casualties inflicted upon China and Korea in particular, and making the case that Japan was forced into bombing Pearl Harbor.

As Iki, a Shinto priest himself, put it to me then, "Our museum is different from other museums. The nature of this museum is not to teach history, but to provide footprints of the people who died in the wars. We want to provide a visible shape to the invisible spirits."

In my wide-ranging discussions with politicians, businessmen, scholars and students, all recognized the potent symbolism of the prime minister's visits to the shrine. Business leaders, enjoying excellent economic relations with China, fear continued tension over the issue will impact the economic ties eventually. Academics see it as a domestic issue with international implications. For many young people I spoke with, there was a sense of resignation that a war that ended six decades ago can still have widespread ramifications on relations with Japan's largest and most important neighbor.

As a parting shot, Koizumi's politically charged visit, far from being the insignificant action of a lame duck, sets expectations domestically for whoever succeeds him, and also ensures that a mark of commemoration by one nation will continue to be seen as an international incident by others.

Madhulika Sikka is supervising senior producer for Morning Edition.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Madhulika Sikka is Executive Editor for NPR News, a role she joined in January 2013. As Executive Editor, Sikka oversees all desks and reporters, and helps set the agenda for the entire News division.