by Lilia Yamakawa
Some people criticize nationalism because it is connected with racism and a sense of “us & them.” Benedict Anderson, however, believes we should remember that nations also inspire love and self-sacrifice. I want to explore how Yasukuni Shrine is seen by some as a symbol of love and self-sacrifice.
When thinking about Yasukuni Shrine, it is very easy to see the negative side of nationalism and patriotism. Twelve class A war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni. (In fact, the government pressured the shrine to include the war criminals in 1978.) The museum at the shrine, the Yushukan, fails to portray the atrocities that the Japanese army brought on its neighbors in Asia, controlling the way history is remembered. The shrine symbolizes the beliefs of ultra-nationalist right-wing groups today. Japanese government officials insult Asian neighbors when they insist on visiting the shrine. Finally, while there is supposed to be a separation of religion and state, Yasukuni Shrine seems like a very political place, which does indeed portray a nationalism based in “us vs. them.”
How do some people see Yasukuni as a symbol of love and self-sacrifice? Anderson points out that a love of nation is often expressed in its literature. Emperor Hirohito paid a visit to the shrine and wrote a poem that said, “I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino.” Because of this, soldiers who went to war would say, “Let’s meet at Yasukuni.” These words signified loyalty to the emperor, to the nation, and to the Shinto religion. In this way, it was and remains a symbol of love and self-sacrifice.
People who believe it is the right or duty of Japanese, even government officials, to pray at Yasukuni argue that it is a spiritual place. To worship at Yasukuni is an act of love and gratitude to those who fought and died for Japan. Kevin Doak expresses this view: …
To die for the protection of one’s family, friends, or fellow countrymen is the most sacred of acts…The paying of respect is an act of mourning their death and praying for their souls. Can the Chinese leaders and those who argue that Class A war criminals should be removed from Yasukuni really be so arrogant as to believe that they themselves are perfect human beings? Will they themselves not need our prayers some day? (p. 55-56)
Many Japanese also believe it is the right of the people of a nation to worship whoever and however they chose to worship.
Clearly, Yasukuni Shrine is a symbol of patriotic love and self-sacrifice. It depends on your political beliefs as to whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing. I believe the people were used and sent to war by the Meiji oligarchs in their official nationalism, and they need to be prayed for. I believe, however, that we should pray for them in a place that is not so political and insensitive to the Koreans, Chinese, and others.
Breen, John, ed. 2007. Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Japan PM Abe’s brother goes to controversial Yasukuni war shrine (straitstimes.com)
- Japan’s minister again visits controversial Yasukuni shrine (wantchinatimes.com)
- Abe skirts Yasukuni snare (japantimes.co.jp)
- Yasukuni Shrine – A Perpectual Reminder of Imperialistic Crimes (tnrajaachieve2020.wordpress.com)
- Abe Offering at Yasukuni War Shrine Same as Visiting, China Says – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- State Minister Furuya visits Yasukuni Shrine (english.kyodonews.jp)
- Two cabinet ministers considering visit Yasukuni Shrine (japandailypress.com)
- Japan faces dead end at Yasukuni Shrine (nzweek.com)