A visit to Yasukuni.

Author:Stevenson, Garth

In September 2016 I visited the Yasukuni Shrine, located in a pleasant Tokyo neighbourhood. Had I been a Japanese politician, this would have caused a commotion in some parts of the world.

The shrine was established in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration that is usually considered the foundation of the modern Japanese state. It is surrounded by a park where vendors of military memorabilia and various antiques often display their wares. Other people stroll through the park, walk their dogs or enjoy various kinds of exercise, as they do in most parks throughout the world.

Shinto, the traditional--although no longer the official--religion of Japan, is largely based on reverence for ancestors. Shinto shrines are found throughout the country, and Yasukuni is by no means the oldest of them, but it is probably the most famous. It would not be stretching a point very much to say that Yasukuni is to Japan what Westminster Abbey is to England, a place of worship but also a place to remember the honoured dead who served their country. The Yasukuni Shrine contains the ashes, and is dedicated to the memory, of almost two and a half million Japanese who died and were killed in military service between 1868 and 1945. They include not only human warriors but some of the dogs and horses employed by the Imperial Japanese Army, an idea that I find rather touching.

The reason why visits to Yasukuni bother some people (although more outside of Japan than within it) is that the two and half million (more or less) include 16 individuals who were condemned as major war criminals and hanged by the victorious Americans after the Pacific war. General Hideki Tojo, the most famous of these, was depicted by American wartime propaganda as a dictator comparable to Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini.

Obviously he was not one, since his forced resignation in 1944, unlike Mussolini's the previous year, had little or no impact on his country's conduct of the war. The Americans magnified his role because they needed someone to be a target of popular hatred and anger, like "Goldstein the enemy of the people" in George Orwell's 1984. Hitler served that purpose very well in the European war, which is probably why the allies made no effort to assassinate him, but the Americans needed an Asian equivalent. They did not want that equivalent to be Emperor Hirohito, the obvious choice, because they had already decided that they would keep the Emperor in place as a constitutional monarch after the war ended.

Since I am an unconditional opponent of capital punishment, my own view on the fate of Tojo and his colleagues is essentially that expressed by Richard Dudgeon in George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple: "You talk to me of Christianity when you are in the act of hanging your...

To continue reading