In the Kudan District of Chiyoda ward, Tokyo sitting on top of Kudan Hill is and old Japanese Shinto Shrine. Walking up to the Shrine, visitors see the characteristic torii gateway that serves as the entrance to all Shinto Shrines. Just beyond the entrance are a group of buildings that do not look much different from those in any other Shinto Shrine. But this is Yasukuni Jinja. This Shrine has been the topic of great controversy in Japan since the end of World War II. It is the home to the souls of more than 2.5 million Japanese war dead. Included among these 2.5 million souls are fourteen convicted Class A war criminals, including Tojo Hideki who was the Japanese War Minister during World War II. This page is dedicated to educating the public about this magnificent, yet controversial Shrine.
Yasukuni was established in 1869. The original name of the Shrine was Sho-kon-sha, meaning "the shrine for inviting the spirits." The name was changed to its present name of Yasukuni Jinja in 1879. The actual physical structure of the Shrine is much like that of any other Shinto shrine. It has a torii gateway followed by a few different buildings that serve different religious or ceremonial purposes at the Shrine. The one significant difference at Yasukuni is the presence of Japan's only public modern military musuem, which opened in 1872. The museum contains many types of war vehicles, tanks, and weaponry. Those who support the Shrine believe this museum is a symbol of Japan's glorious military past. Those who oppose the Shrine say it is indeed a symbol of Japan's past, but it is a brutal and oppressive past.
The religious staff at Yasukuni is made up of different types of Guji, or religious officials. They include two Gon Guji, or deputy chief preists; six negi, or priests; and ten gon negi, or deputy priests. In addition, there are a number of shuten and kujo, lower-ranking clerics. The entire staff comprises about one hundred and thirty people. There are two Shinto festivals that take place at the Shrine each year. The first is held on April 22nd, and the other is held on October 18th. Another day when people gather and pray at the Shrine is August 15th. Minister Miki Takeo added this traditional visiting day to Yasukuni in 1975. This is not a religious holiday; it is the anniversary of the Japanese surrender of World War II. The official name given to the August 15th celebration is "The day to commemorate the war dead and pray for peace." The people who gather at the Shrine are there to pray or to honor the souls of Japan's fallen soldiers.
When Yasukuni was originally created, all the men who died fighting the Shogunate from 1853 to 1869 were enshrined there. It is important to note that only those who died fighting for the Emperor are enshrined at Yasukuni; those who fought on the side of the Shogun were left out. The Shrine is also home to the souls of all the Japanese soldiers who died fighting in every major Japanese conflict since 1869. The Shrine also includes the souls of some non-military people. Among these people are Princes of the Imperial Family, and even some women. Most of the women that are enshrined at Yasukuni died in service to their nation during times of war. They may have been cooks, nurses, or even servants. Also among the women enshrined, are those that proved their loyalty to the State in times of hardship. One famous woman enshrined at Yasukuni is Nomura Moto, a loyalist poet.
There are also some civilians enshrined at Yasukuni. Besides the loyalists, the only other civilians at Yasukuni are the passenger and crew of the Awa maru, a hospital ship, and the schoolchildren that were killed when their ship, the Tsushima maru, was sunk. All together, Yasukuni is the home to more than 2.5 million souls of Japanese war dead whether they died in a civilian or a military capacity. The fourteen most famoust and most controversial souls in Yasukuni are those of the World War II convicted Class A war criminals. These men were secretly enshrined at Yasukuni on April 21, 1979. The public did not find out until the next day when the press broke the story after investigating allegations. The war criminals were given a special designation at Yasukuni as "Martyrs of the Show Era."
The spirits or souls at Yasukuni have a special significance. The Japanese believe that once a soldier has been enshrined at Yasukuni he becomes a kami, or national deity. The kami at Yasukuni are thought to look over the nation and protect it just as they did when they died fighting for it. This deification is one of the most important aspects of Yasukuni. During World War II, soldiers believed the highest honor they could recieve was death followed by enshrinement at Yasukuni. Soldiers had a saying "see you at Yasukuni", which meant they knew they were going to die, but they would meet again in death.
Belief in the honor of dying for the good of the country was instilled in children at a very young age in Japan. Children were taught how honorable it was to die in the service of the nation and be sent to Yasukuni. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a popular children's board game where landing on a certain square meant death, but also instant enshrinement at Yasukuni. This game is one example of the ways in which Japanese children were taught the virtues of nationalism. There was also a popular song in the World War II period; "You and I are cherry blossoms of the same year. Even if we're far apart when our petals fall, we'll bloom again in the treetops of the Capital's Yasukuni Shrine." This song expressed how soldiers literally felt. If they died in battle they believed that they would be reunited in death at Yasukuni. It was through songs and games like these that the State officials, acting in the name of the Emperor, were able to promote nationalism in Japan.
It is no coincidence that Yasukuni was used as a rallying point for Japanese nationalism in World War II. In fact, Yasukuni was originally established not just as a religious place to pay homage to the dead, but also as a symbol of the newly united nation. It was in 1879 that the Shrine was named Yasukuni, which means “the Shrine for establishing the peace in the empire.” The Satsuma rebellion had occurred just two years earlier and after victory the Emperor’s officials wanted some symbol to reunite the country. Yasukuni was that symbol. According to Tsubouchi Yuzo, author of Yasukuni, the Shrine was “a symbol of eradication of all local color under one national identity.” The Emperor and his officials used this Shrine not only as a symbol of the reunification, but also as a symbol of the Emperor’s legitimacy as ruler of the nation.
To establish a new sense of unity, all people in the nation were required to gather either at Yasukuni or one of its local branches and celebrate the Spring and Autumn festivals. At the celebration of these festivals the people would worship those who had died fighting for the Emperor. It is important to remember that only those who fought for the Emperor are enshrined at Yasukuni. Those who fought against the Emperor are not enshrined at there. So by worshiping the soldiers turned national deities at Yasukuni, the people were actually celebrating the legitimacy of the Emperor’s power. As time went on, the Shrine also became a rallying point for military action. After the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War the Shrine was the site of a celebration party.
Not only did common people visit the Shrine often, but the various Emperors also made frequent calls. Emperor Meiji visited the Shrine seven times, Emperor Taisho two times, and Emperor Hirohito twenty times. Hirohito visited the Shrine much more often than the other Emperors because at the time of his rule, Japan was involved in World War II. Hirohito, as those before him did, turned to Yasukuni as a symbol of his power as Emperor and a symbol of national unity. After the war ended and Japan surrendered, Yasukuni became the center of controversy over Japanese militarism and the separation of religion and the State.