Founded in 1869 by the will of Emperor Mutsuhito (better known as Meiji), the Yasukuni Shrine, which literally means Shrine of National Peace, is today the most important Shinto Shrine in the entire country, as well as the main place of worship of those who have sacrificed their lives for the country. Five million people visit the Sanctuary each year.
In October 2004, the Shrine’s Book of Souls contained a list of 2,466,532 men and women, including 27,863 Taiwanese aborigines and 21,181 Koreans who served under the Nippon Army during the Second World War.
The Yasukuni shrine commemorates the souls of those who died in arms from 1867 to 1951. What do these 2 dates mean? The year 1867 was the beginning of the Boshin War (1867-1868) which marked the restoration of imperial power in Japan, power that was torn from the hands of the last of the Shogun Tokugawa, thus ending the almost unbroken domination of Japan by of the Samurai caste that lasted since 1192 (Minamoto shogunate). The 1951 represents the end of the Japanese militarist era, with the defeat in the Second World War and the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco which imposed enormous restrictions on the Japanese freedom of action, in all areas, not just in the military one.
Here a brief summary of the main wars with the relative number of fallen commemorated in the Yasukuni Shrine:
Excellent absences and unexpected presences in the Yasukuni Shrine
In the Yasukuni Shrine the souls of those who, in the Boshin War and the Satsuma Revolt, fought against the imperial army were not venerated, consequently great Japanese heroes like Saigo Takamori (the charismatic “Katsumoto” of the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise), not find place here, even if they died in the firm conviction of giving their life for the future of Japan. This situation is still a cause of deep resentment in the prefectures of Aizu and Satsuma (today Kagoshima), the 2 main areas of resistance against the imperial advance.
As I said, in general, only those who died serving Japan are commemorated in Yasukuni, so civilians who die because of war aren’t included except for a few rare exceptions:
* Civilians who took part in the fighting under the leadership of the army and died in action or for injuries or illnesses (including the inhabitants of Okinawa)
* Civilians dead or presumably dead in Soviet labor camps after World War II
* Civilians mobilized officially or voluntarily (workers, mobilized students, Japanese Red Cross nurses and anti-aircraft defense volunteers) killed in service
* Merchant Navy crews sunk with their wartime ships
* Okinawa school children died in sinking the ship Tsushima Maru who was evacuating them.
What the Yasukuni Shrine represents
During these tumultuous years the Yasukuni shrine was like a beacon to be followed by all the Japanese, military and not. It was common for soldiers sent in suicide missions, at the end of World War II, to say that they would “meet again in Yasukuni” after their death. The souls consecrated there are a symbol and example of what was the dedication and total faith in the cause of Japan and in the figure of the Emperor, whichis considered a divinity by the Japanese and Shinto, as a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Goddess of the sun and creator of Japan. The people consecrated here, regardless of their rank or social position, are considered completely equal and venerated as the gods of Yasukuni (after death, the spirits of the great warriors in Japan can rise to the level of Kami, translatable with God-Spirit).
In Japanese culture is tradition to express respect for the dead by behaving with them as if they were still alive, so in the cemeteries, and so even at the foot of the statues of the Yasukuni shrine is normal to see a multitude of objects offered by the people to the dead, food and drinks like tea or sake in full bottles opened. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, during the traditional Japanese festivities, offers donated by the Emperor are brought to the Yasukuni shrine in the presence of members of the imperial family.
After the end of the Second World War, the US-led occupation authorities (known as GHQ) believed that State Shinto was extremely dangerous, as well as a major cause of Japanese fanaticism and ordered the immediate separation of church and state. Since then the Yasukuni Shrine has been privately funded and managed. The GHQ, not satisfied with the abolition of State Shinto and the declaration of non-deity imposed on Emperor Hiroito, had planned to burn the Yasukuni Shrine and build a stadium for dog racing. However, Father Bruno Bitter of the Roman Curia and Father Patrick Byrne of Maryknoll have insisted with the authorities that honoring the fallen in war is the right and duty of every citizen, succeeding and avoiding the destruction of the Yasukuni Shrine.
The war criminals tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East were initially excluded from the consecration in the Yasukuni Shrine. After the Treaty of San Francisco, however, the Japanese government began to work on the inclusion of those considered “Class B and Class C war criminals” (those not involved in the planning, preparation and conduct of the war). These individuals were gradually registered between 1959 and 1967. During a secret ceremony, held in 1978, 14 class A war criminals, including ministers and generals of the army during the Secon World War, were included in the Book of Souls of the Yasukuni Shrine. Among these, undoubtedly stands out the name of the Prime Minister and Chief of the Japanese army during the Second World War, Hideki Tojo. Emperor Hirohito, who visited the Sanctuary for the last time in 1975, later refused to visit the sanctuary. No Emperor of Japan has visited Yasukuni since 1975. Chief priest Junna Nakata asked Pope Paul VI to celebrate a function for the rest of the souls of the 1,618 fallen war criminals of class A, B and C. In 1980, Pope John Paul II celebrated that function in St. Peter’s Basilica. Since these war criminals have been placed among the Kami of the Yasukuni shrine, every occasion of official visit to the temple by Japanese politicians, a media storm is unleashed by the Asian nations that have suffered the Japanese occupation and among which still doesn’t flow good blood towards Japan, above all, China. For this reason recently official visits was reduced.
To better explain how strong the sense of tradition and homeland and how important the Yasukuni Shrine is, let’s take as example this fact:
In 2009, on August 17th, an exponent of the Japanese extreme right wing attempted suicide by seppuku (Samurai ritual suicide) in front of the Parliament, in the central district of Nagatachō in Tokyo. The man was wearing two messages addressed respectively to the members of the House and Senate. According to rumors reported by a private TV he would has made the gesture to encourage Japanese parliamentarians to visit the Shinto Shrine of Yasukuni.
Regardless of your personal thoughts about history, the Yasukuni Shrine is surrounded by a kind of spiritual aura that is not difficult to perceive, if you visit it, be aware of its meaning and let yourself be moved by its history.
Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine
Next to the buildings of the Sanctuary there is the Yushukan, a large museum that commemorates the Japanese wars from a perspective defined by some Japanese conservatives with some explanatory panels in English. The museum and website of the Yasukuni Shrine have made statements claiming that the US has forced the Empire of Japan to launch the attack on them, in order to then justify the entry into the American war, as well as supporting that Japan went to war with the intention of creating a “Sphere of Co-Prosperity” for all Asians, thus freeing them from the Western yoke.
Among the goodies of this well-stocked museum there are a ZERO fighter jet of the Imperial Navy, a bomber and human-guided missiles for submarine kamikaze attacks. One of the things that is worth visiting this museum is, in my opinion, the presence of many last letters (translated in English) written by Kamikaze pilots before the fatal mission, as well as photographs of all 5.843 Kamikaze pilots, for most boys aged 16-18. These findings are very touching and open a unique window on the Japanese mentality until less than 80 years ago; really recommended.
Around the shrine there are hundreds of cherry trees, including the representative cherry tree from Tokyo, which is used by the meteorological agency to pronounce the official start of flowering in the city, making it one of Tokyo’s favorite places to witness the blossoming of cherry trees, also due to its proximity to the Parco del Palazzo Imperiale and Chidorigafuchi.
During the Mitama Matsuri, the Lantern Festival that takes place around mid-July, 30,000 lanterns illuminate the Yasukuni Shrine to commemorate the dead during the celebrations of Obon, the ritual of commemoration of the Japanese tradition.