Strolling through the leafy grounds of the Yasukuni shrine, the memorial to Japan's war dead, it is hard to realize that this oasis of calm is caught up in a bitter controversy that courses through this nation and out to its neighbors in China and Korea.
On the surface within Japan, the quarrel looks like a political dispute between the conservatives and the left-wing. Outside, the issue is key to power-plays by the Chinese, South Korean, and North Korean governments seeking an upper hand over Japan on diplomatic and security issues. Underneath, the struggle over Yasukuni and its role in the life of Japan is part of the shedding of the passive and pacifist cocoon in which the Japanese wrapped themselves after the devastating defeat of World War II. Perhaps most telling, the conflict has stimulated a new interest in the shrine. This new attention to Yasukuni, a shrine of Shinto, Japan's ancient religion, is emblematic of a revival in Japanese national identity and pride.
"Yasukuni," says a Japanese conservative, "tells us what it means to be Japanese and it reminds us of our values."
About 6 million Japanese a year come to Yasukuni, the central sanctuary of which is an austere wooden hall, to honor, remember, and pray for the repose of the spirits of the 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen who have died serving their nation since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that ended Japan's isolation. By far the largest number, 2.1 million, died in World War II.
Yasukuni, which means "Nation at Peace," also seeks to comfort the families of those killed in war. Even though World War II has been over for six decades, families still take pains to remember their dead. Often overlooked in this controversy are two critical facets. The shrine is not a cemetery; ashes of the war dead were returned to their families to inter in local cemeteries. Nor is the shrine a place of worship; Yasukuni does not have a god, such as Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of Shinto, or Kannon, the god of mercy and healing in Buddhism.
The immediate conflict revolves around the spirits of 14 men convicted as war criminals, including the wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, who are registered in the shrine, and visits to the shrine by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to honor the war dead.
The Chinese and both Korean governments have asserted, in the most vigorous terms, that such homage means that Japan has failed to atone for its aggression during World War II and is returning to those militaristic days.
That has produced a strong reaction even though Japanese seem split over what to do about the 14 convicted men. Says a retired executive: "We Japanese will never back down to that kind of Chinese and Korean pressure."
Some Japanese argue that the 14 should not have been registered in Yasukuni. "They didn't die in battle," says a publisher, "they were executed." Another says the spirits of the 14 should be moved to a separate shrine.
Still others say that Emperor Akihito, rather than the prime minister, should attend the shrine to honor the war dead. They point out that the emperor is the chief priest of Shinto and the symbol of national unity and thus should be the leader to offer prayers. The prime minister, said a retired military officer, "is merely a politician."
Many Japanese assert, however, that the emperor should not visit Yasukuni while the issue is so politicized because, as a constitutional monarch, he is required to stay out of politics.