In Tokyo you can visit a shrine deifying Japanese war criminals.
It’s name is Yasukuni, and it commemorates 2,466,532 people who died serving Japan’s Emperor from 1869 to World War Two. Shinto religion says that the shrine is home to the actual souls of the dead. People, including the Prime Minister, pray here for those who sacrificed their lives. But 1,068 of those enshrined were convicted of war crimes. This is the Yasukuni Shrine controversy.
After World War Two, the Allies held trials that convicted Japanese military and government leaders of war crimes. They were accused of starting a conflict that caused the deaths of millions of people. Specific crimes included the massacre of prisoners and civilians, human experimentation, starvation and forced labour.
Fourteen people enshrined were convicted of Class A war crimes. This included Hideki Tōjō, the Prime Minister who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor. Another was Iwane Matsui, the commander of the army that committed the Rape of Nanking, China’s own holocaust. Both men were executed.
But it was only in 1978 that the war criminals were enshrined, and in secret. Emperor Hirohito refused to visit Yasukuni after this. Their enshrinement was defended by some who claimed that the trials were a form of “victor’s justice” and were unfair. The war criminals were not removed because Shinto religion says that their souls cannot be moved once they’ve been enshrined. This hasn’t stopped visits by Japan’s Prime Minister to Yasukuni from angering China and South Korea, two countries devastated in the war.
It’s a complicated subject, with arguments on both sides. If you aren’t aware of this backdrop, Yasukuni appears to be just another shrine. That’s until you visit Yūshūkan War Museum, the building next to Yasukuni Shrine.
At the museum’s entrance is a statue of a Japanese airman. This is a memorial to the kamikaze pilots who carried out suicide attacks on Allied ships by purposely crashing their planes. Inside the museum is other suicide weapons such as pilot-flown bombs and manned torpedoes, complete with periscopes. The text accompanying these weapons barely mentions that humans sat inside.
Strangely, it was the steam train in the museum lobby that made me the most uncomfortable. This was the first train to run on the Thai-Burma railway — also known as the Death Railway. This railway was built with the slave labour of prisoners of war and around 100,000 died during its construction. The train was recovered from the jungle by Japanese veterans and is proudly displayed in the museum. But no mention of these deaths accompanies the train.
And this is the museum’s general theme. It’s unapologetic and offers no remorse for Japan’s actions during the war. A single paragraph is devoted to the “Nanking Incident”, an event denied in Japan despite evidence showing that 200,000 civilians, including women and children, were massacred by the Japanese army. Pregnant women were killed, with their stomachs bayoneted after being raped. History’s a two-sided affair involving debate. But the Yūshūkan War Museum denies the historical record, especially by omitting the atrocities caused by Japan.
When the Japanese Prime Minister visited Yasukuni Shrine in 2005, it was likened to a German leader visiting a Nazi memorial. He responded by saying that he was just remembering those who lost their lives, not gratifying the war criminals. After all, the shrine is the only place where it’s possible to pay respect to Japan’s war-dead. But the irreconcilable message expressed by the Yūshūkan War Museum, right beside Yasukuni Shrine, left me with a very sinister feeling.
What do you think about the Yasukuni Shrine controversy? Have you visited? Leave a comment below