Time to Ponder Why Visit to Yasukuni Shrine Is Important
I make it a rule to visit a Shinto shrine whenever I have something important to reflect on. But when I have something really important to ponder over, I pray at Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of the nation’s war dead are enshrined.
In the tranquil compound of the 114 year old shrine, I meditate, putting aside the particular emotions or circumstances of the moment and trying to attain a state of selflessness of the mind. Offering prayers of gratitude to those who perished as they fought to protect and preserve the nation, I believe, best enables one to attain such a state of mind.
Visiting Yasukuni, one notices no small number of foreigners praying, including those with a soldier-like air about them. There are times when I wonder if those foreign visitors silently praying might not be surprised by the natural and simple appearance of the shrine.
What one finds at Yasukuni is a world of another dimension – a seemingly endless expanse of a transparent and tranquil space which makes it absolutely possible to sense – and genuinely believe – that the spirits of the war-dead are silently watching over us, silently and benevolently, always safeguarding the peace and order of the nation.
As we near August 15, the day World War II ended, I earnestly would like for as many people as possible – especially those who have turned their backs on Yasukuni – to come to grips with the history of this shrine.
It is natural for the people of any nation and the government representing them to show their heartfelt gratitude and deference to those who lost their lives as they fought for the nation and its people. However, this very natural act has been discontinued in Japan since the mid-80’s, some four decades after the war ended.
Visits to Yasukuni by Japanese political leaders have attracted stern criticism from abroad – especially from China and South Korea – on the grounds that “Class A war criminals are enshrined together with the war-dead.” However, when Japan regained independence on April 28, 1952 with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, a vigorous campaign sprang up across Japan demanding the release as well as pardon of war criminals. The movement was touched off by the issuance of “A Written Opinion Regarding Recommendations for the Release of War-Criminals” by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. It may perhaps be possible for those critical of the “joint enshrinement” to change their minds if they come to understand how earnestly the Japanese of those days put their hearts and souls into this campaign. In point of fact, the number of those who signed petitions reached nearly 40 million. In 1952, the total Japanese population stood at 85,850,000, of which those over 20 years of age numbered 47,390,000. This shows that virtually every adult in Japan signed the petition.
I believe we should imprint this important fact in our minds as reflecting the genuine sentiments of those people who lived through that traumatic period. The Japan Socialist Party – predecessor of the Social Democratic Party which stringently opposes Yasukuni visits today – supported the people’s sentiments for this campaign then. It was the very desire of the nation, and of virtually all of its political parties, to see all of the war criminals, beginning with the Class A criminals, pardoned at an early stage.
Every Post-War Japanese Prime Minister Visited Yasukuni
The pardons were eventually granted, but not due to the public opinion of the Japanese alone. Nations that fought each other work out solutions to all problems resulting from their war by signing a peace treaty once the fighting is over. In Japan’s case, however, Article 11 was added to the San Francisco Peace Treaty which took effect on April 28, 1952, stipulating that no war criminal be pardoned without a majority approval by the parliament of all the governments that had sent delegates to the International Tribunal for the Far East (held in Tokyo May 3, 1946-November 11, 1948). The Japanese government took pains in approaching the respective governments in order to win their consent to the coveted pardons.
With each government having given its consent to the request for pardons under a spirit of healing the wounds of the war and building a new peace, all of the Class A war criminals were pardoned by March 31, 1952, and jointly enshrined at Yasukuni in 1978. Class B and C war criminals were pardoned by May 30, 1958 and enshrined.
Because all of the Japanese war criminals, including Class A, were pardoned thanks to domestic and international consent, none of them was enshrined as a war criminal at Yasukuni. Isn’t it curious that we still talk about them as “war criminals”? They once were war criminals, but were pardoned and restored to the status of ordinary citizens.
In a recent TV show, I noted that Japan actually had no war criminals after all of them were pardoned under international law. The woman who hosted the show gave me a questioning look, but the truth stands that war criminals ceased to exist in Japan when they were finally pardoned.
Japanese today have a responsibility to ponder deeply the meaning of the pardon of those war criminals which materialized with virtually every Japanese adult living in that era signing the petition after having lived through the war days and been made painfully aware of the fallacies of the Far Eastern Military Tribunal. It is our responsibility to relate the sentiments of our predecessors to the present generation and further on down to posterity.
Another reason for domestic opposition to Yasukuni visits is objections from nations like China. And yet even this issue can be resolved by looking sincerely back on the post-war history.
During the seven-year American occupation of Japan (1945-1952), Japanese prime ministers, cabinet members, and government employees were banned from visiting Yasukuni under the Shinto Directive of December 15, 1945 separating state and religion. On October 18, 1951, about a month after the signing of the Peace Treaty, then Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida visited Yasukuni, thereafter continuing to attend the shrine’s spring and autumn semi-annual observances.
Successive prime ministers followed suit – Nobusuke Kishi, Hayato Ikeda, Eisaku Sato, Kakuei Tanaka, Takeo Miki, Takeo Fukuda, Zenko Suzuki, and Yasuhiro Nakasone. Ony Ichiro Hatoyama and Tanzan Ishibashi, who were prone to illness, did not make any visits to the shrine.
It was during the time of the cabinet of Masayoshi Ohira that the joint enshrinement of Class A war criminals, which nations like China subsequently found upsetting, was made public.
China’s Request for the Strengthening of Japanese Military Power
Scooping its competition, the mass circulation daily Mainichi Shimbun ran an article on April 19, 1979, shortly before that year’s spring observances, revealing that the government had enshrined former Class A war criminals jointly with the war-dead during the fall observances the year before. Attending the 1979 fall observances at Yasukuni, Ohira found himself tightly surrounded by reporters out to verify the Mainichi report. The Christian prime minister replied magnificently: “How others view my visit is their business. I pray at Yasukuni because that is what my heart tells me to do. How others may criticize my visit doesn’t really concern me.”
Having thus made his visits to Yasukuni, Ohira was summoned again to a session of the Upper House Cabinet Committee on June 5, 1979, remarking: “I believe history will be our judge (on the decision to enshrine the former Class A war criminals).”
Ohira attended the fall observances at Yasukuni that year, then visited China in December.
China gave Ohira a big welcome – this prime minister who had visited Yasukuni several times. Although difficult to believe in the context of the recent friction between the two countries, the Chinese government at the time even called on Japan to double its defense budget. China made the request contending that raising the defense outlay up to 2% of Japan’s Gross National Product (GNP) would not significantly impair Japan’s economy.
The Chinese request was believed to have reflected its increasingly hostile relations with the Soviet Union. The important point, however, is that the call for Japan’s increased defense build-up was made after the enshrinement of the former Class A war criminals had been brought to light. In other words, there was no indication whatsoever at the time that China would regard visits to Yasukuni by Japanese political leaders as problematical. That Japan and China maintained passionately friendly relations for the next six and a half years after the enshrinement was made public is proof enough.
It was during the Nakasone administration that the Chinese posture towards Yasukuni changed suddenly. On August 15, 1985, Nakasone visited the shrine for the tenth time as prime minister. A little more than a month later, on September 20, the Chinese government began taking issue with the Yasukuni visits out of the blue, charging that “the official visits by members of the Japanese cabinet to Yasukuni, which enshrines the spirits of Class A war criminals” has “grossly hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Clearly, there was a political movitation behind the change in attitude.
The “Yasukuni problem” can hardly be resolved as long as Japan continues to bow to pressure from China and South Korea which regrettably are unable to extend the internationally recognized courtesy of respecting the different values and religious outlooks of other countries. It is best that the Japanese firmly understand the background and readily pay visits to Yasukuni at every opportunity. After all, it is the people’s hearts that support the government as well as the nation.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 570 in the August 15-22 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)