“I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino.”
In 1869, after the Boshin Civil War, Emperor Meiji established the Yasukuni Shrine, meaning “Peaceful Nation,” as a way to honor and remember those who died in service to the (emperor’s) country.
In this sense, specifically with how this shrine began and who was enshrined at the premises, some Japanese feel Yasukuni holds the same standing as the US’ Arlington Cemetery, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s estate, which was confiscated by the North to bury Union Soldiers who fell in battle.
Walking through the torii (gates) toward the shrine, you will feel the somberness.
At the Chumon Torii just before the main prayer hall, there is a display containing that month’s “last letter,” written by someone who has died in a war.
These letters are generally filled with regret and apologies for failing to live up to their familial duties — not to declare victory over a fallen foe.
However, this is not how the media portray Yasukuni, describing it as honoring (14 Class A) war criminals.
In the US, this would be on a par with the hypothetical headline: “An official visit was made this week to Arlington Cemetery, a burial ground that honors 30,000 traitors (Confederates) who rebelled against the US to keep African-Americans as slaves.”
Yasukuni Shrine does not honor the actions of Class A War Criminals.
People who pray or provide offerings at the shrine do not worship the actions of the war criminals.
Notwithstanding the enshrinement process, where the Shinto priests claim that it cleanses the spirit of all wrong deeds (similar to being “forgiven by Jesus/God/priests” in the Christian belief system), people go to the shrine to pray for the well-being of their departed family members or compatriots, or to thank those who died in their service.
Again, they do not go there to worship the heinous acts of previous wars.
Whether Japanese politicians should or should not pay homage at the shrine is a personal choice, and it should be.
Japan, like many other free, democratic countries prescribes to the right of “Freedom of Religion.”
No one is forced to worship at the shrine, so why should people (or countries) try to forbid or criticize those who exercise their right to pray at the shrine?
Should the Turkish people, believers in Islam, or any other groups who suffered as victims during the Christian crusades, then be allowed to demand that people stay away from the Vatican?
The answer is no, because modern-day people do not praise the actions of these horrible crimes that occurred in the past. However, people may still pray to someone that had a major role in the unfortunate crusades, like St Louis, who was canonized in 1297.
I will concede there may be reason for controversy surrounding the Yushukan, the Military and War Museum located on and ran by the Yasukuni Shrine.
Having visited this museum twice, watched the movies and perused the exhibits, as well as studying northeast Asian history and visiting the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, I can understand why some people might disagree with the historical accuracy of the information and the presentation of the material.
However, that is the curator’s choice. Just as it is the choice of millions of Americans, when they sit down this Thanksgiving and give “thanks” aimed at the compassion of strangers, a fruitful harvest and/or a wonderful year, while displaying cornucopias and re-enacting the gesture of Native Americans offering food to the European settlers.
However, other groups may choose not to celebrate this holiday, because it represents the beginning of an invasion, full of mass genocide, led by brutal conquerors from foreign lands.
Everyone is taught history differently, and no one wants to remember the bad stuff.
If someone has the desire, an accurate summation of the truth — not just the truths assumed by the victors — can easily be found.
History always depends on who writes it, who reads it and who has lived it.
The Japanese, like other cultures, are honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
In a multicultural, multinational world, we need to embrace these differences — and accept there are multiple sides to every story.
“Accept the differences” — remember that the next time you hear the phrase: “Remember the Alamo,” and ask a Mexican for their view.
Christopher Kuchma is a major in the US Air Force, a military professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, a northeast Asia-Japan foreign area officer and a Japan Area specialist-special agent with the US Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations. The views expressed in this article are his alone.