The Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s Path to Peace

Japan PMLast year Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies Japan’s past wars as “holy wars” and enshrines Class A war criminals. The visit provoked anger and condemnation in China and South Korea as expected. The United States expressed disappointment “that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.” Bishop Michael Goro Matsuura, president of the Catholic Council for Justice and Peace of Japan, immediately issued a statement against the Prime Minister’s visit.

Why is the visit of the Prime Minister controversial and what exactly is the Yasukuni Shrine? It is necessary to know the role played by the Emperor of Japan in the modern history of Japan.  After 300 years of feudalism, the Meiji Restoration took place towards the end of the 19th century. The new political leaders needed the “Tenno” to justify, legitimize and even spiritualize the power. Though “Tenno” (天皇) is generally translated as Emperor, it literally means “the heavenly lord” who has a mission to govern time and space.  The military and colonial expansion of Japan was culturally backed and supported by the presence of “Tenno” as the sublime Cause. The highest ideal of a Japanese male was to give his life to the Cause – Tenno to be enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine (then the National shrine) where Tenno would come to pay homage to the “war heroes”. 

With Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, a radical transformation of the country’s political structure was introduced with a Peace constitution. Shintoism was no longer the national religion while the Yasukuni Shrine was no longer the national shrine dedicated to the war heroes. The Tenno system, however, survived with its “new” appearance.  Looking at the post-war history of Japan, one could easily read that any move toward militarization always finds the lever in Tenno culture. When a country wages a war, it needs a cause. Tenno culture continues to be the spirituality of Japan’s belligerent imperialism.

Bishop Goro says in the statement: “The Yasukuni Shrine was a spiritual pillar that sustained Imperial militarism before and during the war. The official visit of the Prime Minister means that the state beautifies and affirms the war, ignoring over 20 million people who lost their lives in the Asia Pacific Region, trampling the suffering of many more who are the victims of violence.” The visit of the Prime Minister accelerates the already tense situation that exists in East Asia. While any conflict among nations is to be solved through diplomacy, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is openly threatening our neighbors by his willingness to opt for military means. His attitude betrays our efforts to create and consolidate the relationship based on trust and friendship with our Asian neighboring countries.

Sister Filo Hirota,

Pax Christi International Board Member

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