Why Is Japan's Yasukuni Shrine Controversial?

Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes millions of Japanese including several war criminals
Yasukuni, the controversial Shinto Shrine in Tokyo, Japan. MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr.com

Every few years, it seems, an important Japanese or world leader visits an unassuming Shinto shrine in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo. Inevitably, the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine sets off a firestorm of protest from neighboring countries - particularly China and South Korea.

So, what is the Yasukuni Shrine, and why does it spark such controversy?

Origins and Purpose

The Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to the spirits or kami of the men, women, and children who have died for the emperors of Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

It was founded by the Meiji Emperor himself and called Tokyo Shokonsha or "shrine to summon the souls," in order to honor the dead from the Boshin War who fought to restore the emperor to power.  The first contingent of souls enshrined there numbered almost 7,000 and included combatants from the Satsuma Rebellion as well as the Boshin War.

Originally, the Tokyo Shokonsha was the most important among an entire network of shrines maintained by various daimyo to honor the souls of those who died in their service.  However, not long after the restoration, the Emperor's government abolished the office of daimyo and dismantled  Japan's feudal system.  The Emperor renamed his shrine for war dead Yasukuni Jinja, or "pacifying the nation."  In English, it is generally just referred to as "Yasukuni Shrine."

Today, Yasukuni memorializes nearly 2.5 million war dead. Those enshrined at Yasukuni include not only soldiers, but also civilian war dead, miners and factory workers who produced war material, and even non-Japanese such as Koreans and Taiwanese laborers who died in the service of the emperors.

Among the millions honored at Yasukuni Shrine are kami from the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma Rebellion, the First Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and World War II in Asia. There are even memorials to the animals who served in combat, including horses, homing pigeons, and military dogs.

The Yasukuni Controversy

Where the controversy arises is with some of the spirits from World War II. Among them are included 1,054 Class-B and Class-C war criminals, and 14 Class-A war criminals. Class-A war criminals are those who conspired to wage war at the highest level, Class-B are those who committed wartime atrocities or crimes against humanity, and Class-C are those who ordered or authorized atrocities, or failed to issue orders to prevent them. The convicted Class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni are Hideki Tojo, Koki Hirota, Kenji Doihara, Osami Nagano, Iwane Matsui, Yosuke Matsuoka, Akira Muto, Shigenori Tougo, Kuniaki Koiso, Hiranuma Kiichiro, Heitaro Kimura, Seishiro Itagaki, Toshio Shiratori, and Yoshijiro Umezu.

When Japanese leaders go to Yasukuni to pay their respects to modern Japan's war dead, therefore, it touches a raw nerve in the neighboring countries where many of the war crimes took place. Among the issues that come to the forefront are the so-called "Comfort Women," who were kidnapped and used as sex slaves by the Japanese military; horrific incidents like the Rape of Nanking; forced labor especially of Koreans and Manchurians in Japan's mines; and even festering territorial disputes like that between China and Japan over the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands, or Japan and South Korea's Dokdo/Takeshima Island quarrel.

Interestingly, most ordinary Japanese citizens learn very little in school about their country's actions during World War II and are shocked by the vociferous Chinese and Korean objections whenever a Japanese prime minister or other high official visits Yasukuni. All of the East Asian powers accuse one another of producing distorted history textbooks: Chinese and Korean texts are "anti-Japanese," while Japanese textbooks "whitewash history." In this case, the charges may all be correct.