Quotidian Wonders

Yasukuni Shrine: Pilgrimage to War Criminals

Japanese Nationalists at Yasukuni

Japanese Nationalists Marching at Yasukuni Shrine

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō does not budge. The prime-minister has not done it yet, but four of his ministers already went to pay their respects to the controversial Shintō shrine Yasukuni, where soldiers fallen in battle for the emperor and the fatherland between 1867 and 1951 are enshrined. Among the very last career officers to have been enshrined at Yasukuni, there are fourteen Class A World War II criminals, sentenced to death or life in prison by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948).

Prime-minister Abe returned to the leadership of the Japanese government last year in December, after a first stint at the job that lasted less than a year, between 2006 and 2007. Abe is now the president of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and proud member of a political dynasty. His party dominated the political stage of the Archipelago from the end of the 50s till the beginning of the 90s and formed (with minor exceptions) the government. LDP has re-invented itself in the second half of the 90s and today represents the majority in the Diet. Abe has always been described as a nationalist and it is well-known that one of his primary objectives of this second mandate as prime-minister is the abrogation of Article 9 of the Constitution.

Article 9 is definitely one of the most controversial topics debated in the past 20 years by the Japanese civil society. The Japanese Constitution, as it was adopted in 1947, was written by the American occupation authorities. The text legalized, among other things, the transformed position of the emperor as constitutional (not divine) head of state, which, in fact, completely exonerated Emperor Hirohito from all War World II responsibility and allowed him to remain on the throne until his death in 1989. It also validated Japan’s new status as non-combative nation, allowing the Japanese to reinvent themselves as pacifist, and, in a twisted way, to also avoid dealing with national war responsibility. Here is the content of Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution.

The Japanese people, animated by the sincere aspiration for peace in the world based on justice and order, hereby renounces its nation’s sovereign right to war, and to the threat of force in solving international conflicts. (2) In order to properly apply the previous paragraph, no land, sea, or air military forces will be maintained. Japanese state’s right to belligerency hereby ceases to be recognized.

Without going into much historical detail, suffices to mention that Article 9 was meant to put an end to the prewar dispute over the number of naval ships that Japan was allowed to maintain in the Pacific (the famous 5:5:3 ratio), a dispute that was ultimately used by the Japanese to justify the necessity of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The very strict terms of the article are probably meant to prove beyond doubt the absolute victory of the United States over Japan and they may have constituted a request from the American authorities in exchange for the exoneration of Emperor Hirohito of all war crimes and for allowing him to remain on the throne as a national symbol.

In exchange for the emperor, the Pacific War prime-minister, General Tōjō Hideki, was tried as the main war criminal by the Tokyo Tribunal. Although all the decisions during the war had also been approved by the emperor, Tōjō’s responsibility was exacerbated by the prosecutors in order to make him Adolf Hitler’s counterpart in Japan. Tōjō was found guilty of all accusations brought against him and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was executed in December 1948. In 1978, Tōjō was enshrined at Yasukuni together with thirteen other Class A war criminals. The group was identified as the Shōwa Era Martyrs (Shōwa junnansha).

Abe Shinzō’s nationalist government declared to be in favor of a referendum that would give the Japanese the opportunity to decide on the proposed changes of the 1947 Constitution and the abolition of Article 9. The latter would, in turn, give Japan green light to form a national army for the first time since 1946. Nevertheless, the elimination of Article 9 would, in fact, be more of a symbolic act, given that the United States allowed Japan to form a national army in 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War. Most US forces stationed in Japan at the time had to be relocated to the Korean front. That army is called today rather euphemistically the Self-Defense Forces (Jieitai). Not only is this army intensively preparing to become Japan’s national armed forces, by campaigning vigorously for new recruits, but it already functions as a national army.

On the other hand, the Abe Cabinet ministers’ queuing up at the Yasukuni Shrine, a queue headed by no other than the deputy prime-minister Aso Tarō only confirms the dismissive and derisive attitude of the current Japanese government and, by extension, of the LDP, toward all promises and engagements previous Japanese governments made to China, Taiwan, and South Korea, the main victims of Japan’s aggression during World War II. PM Abe did not go to Yasukuni yet, but he did send an offering of a cypress branch, used during Shintō religious ceremonies.

Following the overt visits to the controversial Shintō shrine, China and South Korea publicly protested and asked Japan, yet again, to revisit its attitude toward its war responsibility. It is well-known that Japan refuses even today to acknowledge any responsibility for war crimes committed during War World II and continues to use history textbooks for secondary and high school that gloss over taboo subjects such as the comfort women, or the Nanking massacre. Combined with the intensification of nationalism and racism in Japan and with the territorial disputes with China, the recent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine can only add to the tensions in the region.

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