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The Catholic Church and Yasukuni shrine

By William Grimm

It’s time for the annual Yasukuni Follies. Japanese politicians visit the shrine, make-believing they are more interested in honoring the country’s war dead than they are in holding onto right-wing financial support. In Act 2, Chinese politicians make-believe their people should be more upset over what happened three generations ago than over what’s going on today.

Most Catholics, like most Christians in Japan, tend to the left on the issue of Yasukuni, opposing visits by government officials and special status for the shrine that honors Japan’s military dead, including some who were executed as war criminals. However, there are also right-wingers in the church, and some of them go so far as saying that Catholics not only can, but should visit Yasukuni because of something a Vatican cardinal said in 1936.

In the 1930s, children in Japan went to Shinto shrines as a school activity. In response to a query from the archbishop of Tokyo, the Ministry of Education declared such visits a manifestation of loyalty, not a religious activity. Therefore, the Vatican said Catholics could visit shrines, since such visits were a matter of patriotism rather than religion.

After the war, shrines were denationalized and incorporated as religious entities. So, at the first postwar gathering of Japan’s bishops in 1946, Catholics were told they should no longer visit them. Apparently, though, some people felt that the earlier Vatican decision took precedence. They secured a declaration in 1951 from the same cardinal who had issued the 1936 statement, saying that the older policy remained in force. Perhaps the cardinal did not want to admit that he had earlier made a mistake. So, until their generation finishes dying off, there will be Catholics who go bow before Yasukuni’s enshrined war dead.

Curious about who might be there and what they might be doing, I decided to go to Yasukuni myself during Golden Week for a look-see.

I saw a varied, but small, group. There were some old men with canes and hearing aids who probably came to honor war buddies or brothers. One of them carried his cane like a sword rather than as a walking stick. They clapped, bowed and hobbled away. They surprised me with their nonchalance until I realized that they have probably been doing this for some 60 years.

There was a woman leaving in a wheelchair accompanied by people I assumed were her son or daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Was she visiting the enshrined spirit of her husband? She looked worn out; the family looked bored and the kids seemed in a hurry to leave.

About 40 make-believe militia in blue fatigues showed up. Apparently, the aging of Japan is hitting the rightists: most of the “troops” were in paunchy middle age, and a few women helped fill the ranks. They straggled from their black vans to a spot under some trees, formed a ragged line, sang “Kimigayo,” and feigned listening to an old man whose voice could not carry to his audience (or to me). Apparently, the one place in Japan where rightists do not use loudspeakers is Yasukuni. That may be the shrine’s chief benefit to society.

The largest number of people were tourists who seemed to be there to check off another “must-see” on their to-do list. They didn’t go through any ritual motions beyond the 21st century’s chief ritual, photography. The Japanese were mostly women in their 20s who used their cell phones to take photos of each other flashing the peace sign. The gaijin used cameras to take photos of each other without the peace sign. Others visitors seemed to be using the shrine as a shortcut.

Nobody seemed interested in Tojo or other stars of the Yasukuni Follies. That’s when I realized there is not one Yasukuni Shrine at Kudan, but thousands.

There are the poignant Yasukunis — one per memory — where people recall buddies, brothers, husbands and fathers. Those Yasukunis disappear one by one as those who treasure them join their buddies, brothers, husbands and fathers in death.

There is the Yasukuni of the politicians and their megaphone militarists — the same Yasukuni as that of the left’s protesters. That one, too, will soon fade away as the people for whom it is important disappear and it loses its political usefulness.

In 10 or 15 years, there will be only two Yasukuni Shrines left: the tourist stop and the shortcut.

Rather than being distracted by the Yasukuni Follies and the past, we should recognize that time is making the “problem” wear away, and instead work today toward a future where shrines for war dead will all be merely old tourist stops and shortcuts.

William Grimm is a Catholic priest in Tokyo and the editor of Japan’s Catholic Weekly. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

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*However, there are also right-wingers in the church, and some of them go so far as saying that Catholics not only can, but should visit Yasukuni because of something a Vatican cardinal said in 1936.


Therefore, the Vatican said Catholics could visit shrines, since such visits were a matter of patriotism rather than religion.*

Um, yes, this was in 1936. The reasons people have for not visiting the shrine are a bit more, uh, recent than that.

Before the flame war starts:

Honoring war dead: good. Honoring war criminals: bad.

That is the issue. It is not xenophobic, arrogant, soplistic, or otherwise anti-Japanese to think that keeping convicted war criminals in a place of honor is wrong.

That said, the point that this will fade away is, I think, valid:

About 40 make-believe militia in blue fatigues showed up. Apparently, the aging of Japan is hitting the rightists: most of the “troops” were in paunchy middle age

Translation: the only people who care are the kind of aging cranks that every country has.

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I'm not arguing with you here, just want to know what you mean by, "...that keeping convicted war criminals in a place of honor is wrong."

There are no graves, burial grounds, or anything like that at Yasukuni... Just, ahem, "spirits"... Whose names are written in a book.

Not being one to disrespect anyone's else's religion, but I wonder, and have wondered for a very long time, three things about Yasukuni:

1) How are US soldiers, Navy, & airmen - some who did commit war crimes -whose remains are actually buried at Arlington to be treated if we are using the same logical and rationale that we use to criticize Yasukuni?

2) How does a place where remains are buried (Arlington), contrast to a place that has none of the things (as recognized by a Judeo-Christian tradition)including headstones, burial grounds, cemetary, etc.?

3) If Yasukuni holds "spirits" how is that accomplished? And, if one is not Shinto, how can one consider these rituals any different from, say, another exotic religion, or Indian rites, etc.,?

Yasukuni was built in the 1800's to honor all war dead, humans, animals, people from othe countries, whose to say that some old folks whose families died in some wrong-headed war (Can you spell, "IRAQ") should not have the respect given to them by the government?

The logical solution is a true separation of church and state... Start with eliminating the State and then we can get rid of the wars, and won't have to deal with this sort of nonsense anymore.

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I heard that unlike Protestant churches the Vatican used to recognize the war between Japan and China was more of a war against Bolshevism. That's why the Vatican approved Catholics' visit to the shrine during the wartime and also why after the war Fr. Bruno Bitter, the representative of the Roman Curia and president of Sophia University opposed and prevented GHQ's plan to burn down the Yasukuni shrine and build a dog race ground on the site.

Reading what the Catholic priest wrote in this commentary, I somehow can see why Christianity does not take root in this country being any more than some tourist spot, though I myself feel indefinable nostalgia for Nikolai-do or Tokyo Resurrection Cathedral at Kanda rather than around Kudan. If nobody seemed interested in Tojo and other stars of the Yasukuni Follies, as he wrote, would nobody really take notice of the monument of Judge Radha Binod Pal in the precinct or Tokyo Trial Follies either?

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Agreed, the point discussed by the Cardinal was whether a Catholic was engaging in idolatry by praying at the shrine - given that the war criminals were only enshrined in 1969, what the Cardinal said in 1951 is pretty irrelevant to that! It's worth noting the Emperor Hirohito stopped going to Yasukuni because of their enshrinement, so it seemed to have been an issue with him - I'd like to see the ultra-nationalists who dress up in paramilitary gear at the shrine try and square that with their vaunted loyalty to the emperor. I don't think the issue is really going to fade away - the Shrine also has a "events beyond our control happened in Nanking" war museum attached to it - this will always be a painful issue for the people of the occupied nations of Asia, just as it would be for the families of people who died in the Holocaust if the Chancellor of German one day decided to go visit a monument to Hitler.

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If some one wants to honour the dead at Yasukuni it is their business, not that of some interfearing priest from a religion that has committed more atrocities in the name of God throughout the world than any other. He certainly needs to remove the mote from his eyes and realise people in grass houses should not throw stones.

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Bravo very well said!

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I think everybody needs to look at who is doing what & why. The Yasukuni shrine is not one thing to all people, yes, in the sense that it a shrine to the dead from war, but how we as indeviduals see that depends very much where we come from. An American, Australian, British will have a view that since “war criminals” are enshrined there it must ba a bad place, but there are tens of thousnads of simple soldiers enshrined there too, people who were conscripted into their country’s army. Maybe they agreed maybe they didn’t, we will never know, but they died fighting for THEIR country the same as the Americans, Australians & British did. Remember the little guy tends to have very little say in what is happening but does also tend to be the one that gets dead first. How many people of any nationallity would go to their grandfather’s grave to pay respects to the man but would also, if asked, say that they think the war he fought & died in was wrong? It happens, we are not our country, we are not our country’s foreign policy, be that todays foreign policy or one from any point in our country’s past. War is a dirty nasty business, it’s all about killing people, we take that as said & one would hope try to avoid it, but it happens. But in a simple one country against one country war there are at the very least two opinions about who is right & who is wrong. No, it is never that simple. Country A wins the war against country B, & convicts those that it sees as being war criminals. I am not saying if they are or not, that isn’t the issue. There is no reason here why the people of country B should agree that these people were war criminals, they could just as easily point the finger at country A & say you have war criminals too but they have not been convicted. Only the victor says who goes to court & who doesn’t. The people of country B still have a right & for some to some degree a duty to respect their dead, even if they have been convicted as war criminal & a member of country A has no right to say that they shouldn’t, not if they wish to keep the right to respect their own war dead. I am trying very hard here not to use any examples because to do so is to invite an “history lesson” from of the many “experts” we have around here. Which in a way is part of the point I am trying to make, there are many opinions to any subject, & they can all be right depending on where you happen to be standing. In the case of the Yasukuni shrine anybody, including the Japanese government, has a right to go there & pay their respects to their dead, it makes no differnce if the war was a “right” war or a “wrong” war, the dead at this shrine died for their country. They do not have to go believing that it was a “right” war, they could & on some cases perhaps do go believing to was “wrong”. The shrine is there for people who died for their country, right & wrong doesn’t come into it. Think of a topical story from todays press, let’s say the Chinese man in Canada that killed another man on a bus. If he was a member of your family would you today disown him? You might not be at all happy about what he did & maybe even pretend to outsiders you don’t know him, but at home he is still family & if he kills himself tomorrow you would still go to his funeral, he’s your family. When we come to the gist of this article we are looking the opinon of some catholic priest & how he sees this shrine, a man with religious blinkers on. The vatican judgments on this shrine? Well when did the vatican have any real inpact on the world? Not for a long, long time & they have always been standing on thin ice whenever they have made judgments, they have a history as bloody as any country & a doctrin as backward as most religions, only a catholic would give credence to anything they might say (or have said). Your judgement on the Yasukuni shrine is the right one, for you, as mine is for me, & no I haven’t been & have no plans on going, I am not Japanese, I have no direct family there, I have no reason to go (except as an escourt). But if my wife were to go (she hasn’t) I would respect her right to do so, what ever her reasons & not another person (outside of her direct family, perhaps) anywhere in the world has a right to say she would be wrong to go.

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Mr Grimm,

Good thoughtful article!

But please tell us who this "Vatican cardinal" was, and his whereabouts after that period ; was he influential in Rome's church ?

Another point of interest for the readers would be a reminder about who was pope in the late '30, and how grimly he illustrated himself. Actually, the pope was Pius XII, formerly known as cardinal Pacelli, and he is the one who closed his eyes about the nazi atrocities and particularly the jewish tragedy. So, if the unnamed cardinal was in tune with the pope's stance, no wonder he was so tolerant of the Yasukuni Follies.

A Catholic.

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How are US soldiers, Navy, & airmen - some who did commit war crimes

Whoa, whoa, hold up. That's a big-time accusation. Do you have proof of any of these supposed war crimes committed by someone interred at Arlington?

We'd like to see it.

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Every country has a right to honour its war dead.Because japan was defeated by western powers the VICTOR wrote the history. If axis powers have won then everyone will be praising Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese kings. Japanese soldiers just obeyed orders as also German soldiers. Himmler is not considered war criminal while Hitler was. Let the ghosts lie and let the relatives of Japanese soldiers pay their respect in SILENCE.

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Spot on, Freespeech.

This article seems to be based on hearsay. I still fail to see the connection between the article and Catholics in Japan as a group, what is exactly their relation (if there's any at all) to Shinto, Yasukuni and what's the relevance of their participation (if there's any participation at all). How many Catholics as a formal group visit Yasukuni? Do they bring the Vatican flag or any formal representation? Some historic and verifiable background would add credibility and perhaps some point to this article.

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However, there are also right-wingers in the church, and some of them go so far as saying that Catholics not only can, but should visit Yasukuni because of something a Vatican cardinal said in 1936.

In 1936 it was not Papa Pius XII but Pius XI who reigned as Pope (May 31, 1857 to February 10, 1939). He even vehemently protested against both Communism and National Socialism as demeaning to human dignity and a violation of basic human rights, but found no echo or support in the democracies of the West, which he labeled a Conspiracy of Silence. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XI

Perhaps incorrigible beam in our eye was prevalent then and perhaps still is. Enshrining of so called war criminals was conducted with the general consensus of the nation after Japan concluded San Francisco Peace Treaty on April 28, 1952. Two days later new laws were approved to provide pension and condolence money to the families of the war dead and then next year the law was revised so that even the families of the war criminals who were executed or died in prison could enjoy the same measures as other war dead. During that time Emperor Showa and prime ministers continued visiting the shrine without any problem or protest from any countries.

I'm not sure exactly what Yasukuni Follies mean, but if it alludes to the enshrinement of class A criminals, I have to say I believe the judgment of war crimes as some universal crime should have been applicable to both sides of victor and loser equally. That's what Ben Bruce Blakeney and Radha Binod Pal argued.

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Thanks to Seiharinokaze for correcting my mistake about pre-war popes.

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Whats about non mainstream comments in times of freespeach?

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I am Catholic and my son (half western/half japanese) is catholic, meanwhile my wife is still keeping her traditional religion, when i talked to her abour our son's religion she was afraid about he could not visit shrines, i said "of course he can visit because is a part of her cultural heirness, but visit only as an historic or cultural building, but not like a religious place to pray or honor god, just like i do when i go there", she didnt found it as a problem, until she asked "ok, but what will happen when we are dead, we could not be buried together in a shrine, and could he pray for us there, could not?". At this point i didnt found a right answer, because at first i never thought about die and be buried in Japan, neither be buried in a shrine. Now i am thinking seriously about introduce my wife into catholicism, having in mind she is interested in how we celebrate Holy Week and Christmas.

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Solarbuster, before saying that Catholicism "has committed more atrocities in the name of God throughout the world than any other [religion]" you should at least inform yourself... You are right about the fact that if someone wants to honour the dead at Yasukuni it is their business, though.

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Almost every country has a shine for the war dead. If they are tourist stops or shortcuts is irrelevant. Memorials pay respect to the dead for whom they were built and Yasukuni is no different from others. I dispise the label "war criminal" because if the losers were the winners then they would be heros and the heros would be criminals.

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I'm afraid you have things wrong. Asian nations are still thanking Japan for driving out the Western colonial powers. Your username implies a misunderstanding of history here. Japan brought infrastructure, roads, the rule of law, literacy and education for women into nations that had been severely repressed by European colonialists for centuries. Look at all the trees donated to Japanese shrines by Asian nations who are still grateful of Japan's efforts and scornful that Japan had to be bombed with nukes in order for the humanitarian efforts to have been forcibly stopped by the west.

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Kimingo; Has someone slipped some angel dust into your Japanese green tea?

I don not nthink many Asian countries are very happy about being invaded by Japan last century.

Religions should not have places to pray for onvicted criminals, as Japan does.

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Nelsiton sorry if this has touched on a sore point but try reading history with an open mind and you will see that this is the truth. That is why I used grass house instead of glass house, people in glass houses can see out those that live in grass houses can not.

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ReaganLegend; Good post. How can a shrine call itself a place of worship and prayer when it has mconvicted mass murderers there?

The catholic church always behaves in what it believes it its own best interest. It only cares about increasing its members and revenue.

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Thank you to Mr. Grimm for a thoughtful article! I think a third Yasukuni will remain for quite a while: the loyalty test. Japan has had those throughout its history, it seems a deeply important part of their culture. Loyalty tests, however, can take many different forms, so Yasukuni's relevance may fade in this area over time. A fourth Yasukuni will remain, though. It is a part of Japan's indigenous religion, and though the wartime government defined Shinto as a cultural/educational institution and a few people within Shinto still do, there are many others who find real inspiration in it as a nature-oriented beautiful religion. In fact, people outside Japan are discovering Shinto. There is a Texas Shinto Study Group, for just one example. They honor Yasukuni as part of Shinto, while recognizing the reasons for controversy. I think that no religion, country or culture should be judged by what its soldiers did in a war. We would all be throwing rocks at each other. The world, unfortunately, has an endless supply of warmongers who will utilize any means at hand for organizing and motivating armies. "I am with God! Blah blah blah."

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Patto; I believe in the bible i believe what god says.

God does not approve of praying for war criminals. The Vatican cardinal who says the shrine is ok did it to boost the popularity of the catholic church in Japan.

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The Japanese are not praying for war criminals, at a Shinto shrine they seek to honour ancesters and family it is their responsibility to do this. Under the Japanese concept of death once a person is dead the spirit nolonger retains the evilness or faults that is in the living. In dying war criminals remove the shame inflicted by their actions on the whole nation and are honoured as ancestors. They have accepted responsibility by giving up their lives and removed the shame inflicted upon the nation, They are not honoured for their evil deeds. This does not say that the Japanese nation condones what the war criminal did it is a resposibility under Shinto teaching. This concept is complexed and very different to Buddhist thinking. Japanese politicians themselves cause more confusion because like the average Japanese they may appear to be Shinto on Monday, Christian on Tuesday and Buddhist on Wednesday. However, at the Shinto shrine they are Shinto and honouring Shinto concepts not war criminals. If a few not so bright ultra rights think otherwise there is nothing any one can do about it, every country has its idiots they should not be seen as representing Japan and the Japanese should have the balls to see that these people do not represent them.

Moderator: Stay on topic please.

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Captain Johann and others...the IDEA of the Yasukuni shrine is the main problem. If there were say a memorial to WWII dead and not to the war criminals interred in Yasukuni along with honorable dead then we wouldn't be having this conversation. But with Togo and his ultra nationalist thugs being interred with "real" war heroes it becomes a farce. And Captain Johann, Himmler was a war criminal but he opted for suicide rather than face the gallows in Nuremburg. Blind obedience did not stop the Japanese from the Rape of Nanjing nor did it stop them from crucifying the pilots of the Doolittle raids over Tokyo right after Pearl Harbor. I will concede that had the west lost the war their would have been plenty of war criminals on our side as well...however, we weren't the aggressor in WWII.

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Oh my God!!!! Are you actually defending the Asia for Asians excuse that the Japanese used in there conquests in Manchuria, China and the Korean peninsula!!! You enslaved nations and raped women and killed children ad nauseum. Give me a break.

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Not to mention that Aso Taro, who is projected to be the next Prime Minister, is a Catholic. Could be very interesting for Japanese politics.

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Yasukuni Shrine has, and always will be, a shrine of hate. To me it is a place where war criminals are honoured by people who hate foreigners and who are sad that Japan got whipped during World War II, and who also believe that Japan`s rape and pillage of Asia was justified. These sad people dont give a toss about the war atrocities, like the Rape of nanking, carried out by their "heroes" enshrined in Yasukuni.

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kimigano You are joking,arent you? Japan and the Japanese are still hated by many millions of people in other Asian countries because of Japanese military brutality committed during the war. Japans troops raped and pillaged their way through Asia, looting their treasures, which became known as "Yamashitas Gold" and that is how modern day Japan came to be the wealthy nation it now is. But for the pillage illegally brought back to Japan, this country would be no more than a forgotten backwater on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. many of the stolen treasures of Asia are still held in a massive vault below the Imperial palace in Marunouchi. Did you ever study history at all, or did you just believe the lies taught in Japanese schools?

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I wonder which has killed more - the war criminals at the Yasukuni Jinja, or William Grimm and his religion of fear that tells people they are going to hell if they don't protect their health with contraception?

Probably the Catholic Church, I suspect.

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Correction - I meant "if they protect their health with contraception".

I have no respect for people who think a former Hitler Youth based in Rome has a hotline to God - if you invented that concept today people would, quite rightly, treat you as if you are nuts

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kimigano You are joking,arent you?

No, I'm not. The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bhutan, Tibet, Cambodia, Saipan, Laos, India, Siam and Myanmar have all sent official thanks to Japan for her help in ridding Asia of Western colonial powers.

Their gifts of gratitude are located in various shrines and temples across Japan, from Kamakura to Hiroshima, from Sapporo to Naha.

Let me know when you have some kind of proof that the rest of Asia enjoyed living under the boot of European colonial rule. Only China and South Korea have not yet thanked Japan, despite their having gained significantly in terms of infrastructure thanks to the graciousness of the Japanese who helped lift them from abject poverty.

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Just to mention that when the Japanese entered many parts of S.E. Asia they were greeted as liberators -- much to dimay of the Dutch and French that has such a fine track record of developing lands in Africa and Asia under their stewardship...

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