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Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s war responsibility

17 Comments
By Akiko Takenaka

Yasukuni Shrine, where all military-related dead of modern Japan are memorialized, remains one of the main focal points in the international debates on how Japan remembers its wartime past. It is also deeply intertwined with Japan’s domestic politics in the postwar decades as a result of the strong ties that the Liberal Democratic Party has forged with it.

Two issues are at the center of the debates. First is the relationship between the Japanese state and the shrine. Since Yasukuni Shrine has become a private religious institution in 1946, lawmakers’ interactions with the shrine — such as prime ministers’ visits and offerings — are often considered a violation of the Japanese Constitution that prohibits state and its organs from participating in religious activity.

The second issue fueling the debates is the presence of convicted war criminals among those enshrined at Yasukuni — particularly the class A war criminals indicted for crimes against peace, who were enshrined in 1978.

Because of these two issues, critics of the shrine argue that Yasukuni Shrine signifies Japan’s desire to return to the military-driven expansionist state that it was during the Asia-Pacific War. The debates have thus far produced some possible solutions including creation of a new national memorial to replace Yasukuni, and the removal of the war criminals from the shrine. Neither of these proposals has been realized.

More importantly, both proposals are highly problematic, as they merely obfuscate the core of the problem surrounding the shrine. The real source of the conflict is not the war criminals or the presence of the shrine itself, but rather, the inadequate response to legacies of the war by both the Japanese people and the government.

Debates on the fate of the shrine are not new. The first one took place during the occupation period when the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) seriously considered demolishing the shrine. But even if the SCAP had scrapped Yasukuni Shrine, we would still have been left with the same problem concerning Japan’s unresolved wartime past, only with a different name.

Here is why.

In the ongoing debates, Yasukuni Shrine has come to take on a singular presence—an institution that represents Japan’s unresolved war crimes. Internationally then, associations with the shrine indicates Japan’s interest in rearming the nation. Domestically, for the critics, the shrine also represents Japan’s wartime state’s victimization of its own people. It is not surprising, then, that pundits seek a way to get rid (or at least decrease the visibility) of the shrine.

One problem that stands out in most political analyses of Yasukuni is the allocation of Japan’s war responsibility. According to recent polls, a majority of Japanese acknowledges Japan’s war crimes during the fifteen-year war. But most, at the same time, place the blame on Japan’s wartime government and the emperor. In their view, Japanese people were the victims of their own government, and they suffered in the prolonged war due to their reckless leaders. In the absence of this wartime government today, Yasukuni Shrine—along with the class A war criminals enshrined therein—has come to take on the role of the entity that is responsible.

Yasukuni Shrine and the political attention upon it reinforce the narrative that Japanese people were the victims of their wartime government. The outcome of this trend, and the most important component of the issues surrounding Yasukuni Shrine is this: As long as Yasukuni Shrine remains the main culprit, the people do not need to bear responsibility for Japan’s war crimes.

But as historian Carol Gluck has argued, it takes “both states and societies—which is to say the individuals who comprise them—to make a total war.” War responsibility, then, does not fall on the class A war criminals alone. Similarly, war responsibility does not fall only on Yasukuni Shrine. Put another way, the presence of an institution that everyone can place the blame on, in the form of Yasukuni Shrine, allows people to dodge accountability for Japan’s war crimes.

Most of the individuals that comprised the state and society in wartime Japan are now deceased. But the idea of “postwar responsibility” offers a possible solution to the Yasukuni issue.

The concept of “postwar responsibility” is concerned not so much with accepting responsibility for the war and its associated crimes as it is with the postwar responses. The “responsibility” in this approach is therefore not for the acts committed during the war but for ending the international discord resulting from unresolved issues of the war, which can be achieved only through reconciliation.

On this seventieth anniversary year, the public has become highly critical of prime minister Abe and his cabinet. Following the recent passage of security bills through the Japanese House of Representatives, the approval rating of the Abe cabinet plummeted. According to a Mainichi Shimbun poll on 17–18 July 2015, it is as low as 35%. Groups are protesting in major cities throughout Japan hoping for a regime change.

As I have argued elsewhere, the current political situation presents an opportunity for reconciliation at the popular level. There already are some grassroots groups that work towards reconciliation between Japan and its former adversaries. Further steps towards reconciliation would require many more Japanese, and especially those born after the war, to acknowledge the wrongdoings committed in the past, and begin activities at the grassroots level for reconciliation.

In such scenario, Yasukuni Shrine can even become a useful educational tool.

Instead of a monument to be demolished or ignored because it imparted imperialistic messages during the Asia-Pacific War, Yasukuni Shrine can even serve as a reminder of the tumultuous history of modern Japan, facilitate debate on the ways in which the war is remembered over time, and, in particular, become a reminder of the ongoing need to examine the concept of postwar responsibility as it applies to past, present, and future generations.

Akiko Takenaka, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair of the Department of History at the University of Kentucky.

© Japan Today

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17 Comments
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the phrase hear no, see no, speak no evil sums up Japans responsibility.... its hard to accept the facts when you spend most of the time painting yourselves as the victim...

9 ( +13 / -4 )

"The concept of “postwar responsibility” is concerned not so much with accepting responsibility for the war and its associated crimes as it is with the postwar responses." - Akiko Takenaka

And the idea then, is to have a court of some kind, judge postwar responses, prescribe further atonement and penalize transgression? Good luck with all that!

It would seem the issue with the war criminals is one of religion, — as it is assumed that; "Since Yasukuni Shrine has become a private religious institution in 1946, lawmakers’ interactions with the shrine — such as prime ministers’ visits and offerings — are often considered a violation of the Japanese Constitution that prohibits state and its organs from participating in religious activity." — but we discover a Constitutional prohibition as well.

What then is the purpose of the visits? And why should they continue?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Now THIS is a woman who should run for PM!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The debates have thus far produced some possible solutions including creation of a new national memorial to replace Yasukuni, and the removal of the war criminals from the shrine. Neither of these proposals has been realized.

There is already Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery with the remains of unknown soldiers which could easily fulfil that role. Of course Japanese people will blame the wartime leaders as it absolves them of responsibility. But Yasukuni represents more than just a lightning rod for responsibility or guilt. It is for many a symbol of the nationalistic pride that propelled the war (even the cherry blossom has not really emerged until it has in Yasukuni, even now!). And there's the rub. In that respect it is no different now to the institution it was when created in the Meiji period, with all its smaller versions around the country that nowadays attract almost no attention.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Now THIS is a woman who should run for PM!

Agreed -- great article by an obviously very intelligent person who can see past the obvious. And, IMO, this is most apparent in this paragraph:

The concept of “postwar responsibility” is concerned not so much with accepting responsibility for the war and its associated crimes as it is with the postwar responses. The “responsibility” in this approach is therefore not for the acts committed during the war but for ending the international discord resulting from unresolved issues of the war, which can be achieved only through reconciliation.

No one is asking the current generations of Japanese to accept "responsibility' for the generations that brought on the hatred. But, they should take responsibility for making sure the truth is taught objectively, so the lessons are learned, and Asian countries can deal with each other from a place of mutual respect and understanding.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

Yes, that is great advice from someone from Kentucky, a shining example of how to resolve unresolved troubled histories like their shocking contribution to slavery in the US and how there has never been racism or ethnic troubles in Kentucky again!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

A group of right-wing activists enters Yasukuni Shrine on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two in Tokyo August 15.

These people shouldn't even be allowed to exist

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

I think taking some responsibility is the price you pay for pride in your country, even if this is for events before you were born. You have the choice to renounce that pride if you don't like that. We cannot therefore hold people responsible if they have no pride. Indeed, the nationalist is the very person who desires the pride but eschews the responsibility. And this, I feel, is what Yasukuni represents.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Exactly

0 ( +3 / -3 )

@jerseryboy

"they should take responsibility for making sure the truth is taught OBJECTIVELY, so the lessons are learned, "

This is where things get really really complicated. There is no question that the "official" story (sanctioned by the allied nations) leaves out quite a many facts that do in-fact partly justify Japan's victim identity.

Both sides in this debate claim objectivity but are simply pushing their respective subjective (very selective) stories to be accepted as the official one.

There's no question Japan apologists need to swallow some things they really don't want to, but the same goes for their opposition as well. Only then can "OBJECTIVITY" really be achieved. By no means was the war as simple as "the war against fascism fought by defenders of freedom".

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

We should be holding a big parade near Yasukuni with bands and speeches and all.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

A well written article. Unfortunately though the right wingers here will threaten her to keep her quiet and tell her she doesn't know what she is talking about.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The article is okay, but it fails to mention the existence of The Yūshūkan museum.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Akiko Takenaka was trained as an achitect but is now a history professor at the University of Kentucky with a Ph.D. from Yale University and wrote 'Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory and Japan’s Unending Postwar'.

I've not read any of her work but it looks serious and thoughtful enough. Is she American or Japanese?

http://uky.academia.edu/AkikoTakenaka

But let's just reiterate for the likes of sandhonour et al, to think and to question the residual war time and prevailing anti-Japan propaganda wars does not make one "right wing".

Please be serious and show a little respect.

Generally I find Japan Focus a little blinkered or biased but there's a very detailed article of her's on the subject, here,

http://japanfocus.org/-akiko-takenaka/2443/article.html

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I notice that the photo accompanying the article features a large 18-petaled chrysanthemum, the Emperor's insignia. It would go a long way toward calming things down and cutting the feet out from under the extreme right if the Emperor demanded that Yasukuni remove anything relating to the Emperor or the Imperial Family. The constitution demands that the Emperor have no part in politics, and Yasukuni's masters have made it an overtly political institution.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

" It would go a long way toward calming things down and cutting the feet out from under the extreme right if the Emperor demanded that Yasukuni remove anything relating to the Emperor or the Imperial Family. The constitution demands that the Emperor have no part in politics, and Yasukuni's masters have made it an overtly political institution." - comments

Well said.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The constitution demands that the Emperor have no part in politics, and Yasukuni's masters have made it an overtly political institution.

Well said. Given the right political tensions and characters involved, Yasukuni can always be instigated by high ranking japanese politicians.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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