For Japan’s neighbors the leafy Yasukuni Shrine is a brutal reminder of Tokyo’s imperialist past and wartime aggression, but for many ordinary Japanese it is merely a place to worship ancestors who died fighting for their country.
The controversial war memorial is a flashpoint in a bitter dispute between Japan and its neighbors, particularly China and South Korea.
The long-simmering issue made international headlines this week when nearly 170 Japanese lawmakers made a pilgrimage there to mark a spring festival, angering Beijing and Seoul and sparking diplomatic protests.
Critics of the shrine point to the inclusion of the names of 14 convicted war criminals among the 2.5 million honored at the wooden temple, while the nationalistic museum on the site also draws fire.
However, for many walking down Yasukuni’s stone paths lined with cherry trees and past imposing gates dedicated to Shinto — an animist religion with elements of Japanese history — is part of a ritual far removed from politics.
Hideo Chikuni choked back tears as he explained that he had traveled more than 200km to honor his brother, a Japanese soldier who died during World War II.
“If you have lost family members, you would understand,” the 65-year-old said as a light rain fell.
“Japanese politicians visiting the shrine seem to cause all this controversy … but I don’t think other countries have any business in this. People who are enshrined here suffered and died for the nation. They fought to protect Japan. It is thanks to them that we live in a prosperous time today. We cannot forget that,” he added.
Yasukuni was originally built in 1869 to honor those who gave their lives for Japan and contains the names of soldiers who have fallen in conflicts, including World War II.
However, it also honors 14 men convicted of war crimes by a US-led tribunal after Japan’s 1945 surrender, including General Hideki Tojo, the former Japanese prime minister who authorized the attack on Pearl Harbor.
For foreign critics, the shrine is a stark reminder of Tokyo’s brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula and imperialist expansion leading up to World War II.
Even at home there is significant opposition to Yasukuni, including among some relatives of those honored there, who say it glorifies war and the darker chapters in Japan’s history.
The site is presided over by Shinto priests and a ritual prayer, that sees visitors clap and bow as they call on the spirits of ancestors, adds a religious element, further complicating the site’s reputation.
Conservative Japanese lawmakers still routinely visit to pay their respects and underscore their ideological views, while liberal politicians tend to stay away.