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Yasukuni Is Japan’s Arlington, A Monument of Respect Beyond Religions




Part 1: At Yasukuni Shrine, People Pray for the Dead; Leave Politics Out of It



When foreigners ask me, “What is Yasukuni?” I answer, “Japan’s Arlington.”


At the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA, are inscribed on headstones the names of those who died in America’s wars: the War of Independence, the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War. Soldiers who fought to abolish slavery are laid alongside generals who fought to preserve it.


This is the result of a political compromise by later generations, but it is precisely because memorials transcend former enmity that the repose of the war dead should be carried out above the level of worldly politics.




Human judgment of good and evil is, ultimately, unreliable. Proof that the verdicts rendered by victors’ courts are not to be trusted may be found in the bronze statue in Ōbori Park, in Fukuoka, of Hirota Kōki, who was hanged as a Class A war criminal. Most of the people living in Fukuoka have no problem with the statue of the pre-war Japanese prime minister.


China has a political culture very different from Japan’s on the issue of enshrinement. I myself was mistaken on this at first. In Xikouzhen, south of Ningbo, there is a large mountain, the entirety of which is a grave for the mother of Chiang Kai-shek.


When I was teaching in Beijing, I went to visit that grave during the National Day holidays. When I was back in the classroom, I mentioned, “It is far better when people don’t set up any grave like that, but instead have their ashes scattered, as Premier Zhou Enlai did.”


One of the students immediately responded: “Professor, you’ve got it wrong. The reason that Zhou had his ashes scattered was that, if he were to be buried in a grave, at some point his grave may have been desecrated.”



Even students who had endless respect for the late Zhou Enlai could easily give voice to so sober-minded a view. When I asked further, I learned that Chiang Kai-shek’s mother’s grave, too, had at one time been destroyed, but that it had recently been restored as part of an appeasement policy toward the Kuomintang Taiwanese.


This conversation, in which I got laughed at for my naïve opinion, took place in 1992, the year when Deng Xiaoping shifted China over to a capitalist track. Just as my students had predicted, when Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, he had no grave erected; instead, his ashes were scattered from the sky.


In China, even dead enemies receive no forgiveness. A faction of those Chinese who joined with Japan to establish the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere were executed as collaborators with the Japanese. Wang Zhaoming (Wang Jingwei) died before Japan’s surrender. After the war, his grave was blown up with dynamite.


Korea, too, has a similarly intolerant continental political culture. There, the aftermath of Japan’s annexation of Korea is still very much present. For example, the descendants of Korean politicians who cooperated with Japan in trying to modernize their country in the first half of the 20th century stand accused for their ancestors’ pro-Japanese attitudes even today. Their properties are confiscated in accordance with a law issued as recently as 2005. Some of them were denounced as being unpatriotic and were forced to desecrate their ancestors’ tombs, as happened to the Yi family.


If there should ever be any Japanese soldiers who lose their lives in the course of Japan’s participation as a member of a multinational peace-keeping force, I want them to be memorialized at Yasukuni, as long as the soldiers had raised no objections to it. Then it will be expected that the heads of state of our allies will also come to pay their respects.



In such an event, though, there must be a formal agreement that Yasukuni is the Arlington of Japan—an agreement that Yasukuni is a national monument of respect that transcends religious particularities.


Whenever I hear the Kōmeitō (the political arm of the religious group Sōkagakkai) say that official visits by the Japanese prime minister to Yasukuni violate the constitutional separation of church and state, I am discomfited by a strange feeling: Is the Japanese Constitution currently in force founded on the principle of materialism? Does the Constitution purport to impose atheism on the people of Japan? Holding funerals for the dead and praying for their repose is, already, a religious activity in the broad sense of the term. Does the Constitution say such things cannot be done?


The principle of the separation of church and state prevails in the United States as well, and yet there are rows of crosses, symbols of Christianity, at American military cemeteries in Europe. At the Arlington National Cemetery, there are 41 officially recognized religious symbols for marking tombstones, including the symbols of Sōkagakki and even of atheism.


If it isn’t a constitutional breach of the separation of church and state to bow reverently at those graves, then is it not a natural choice to select the shrine at Yasukuni, which does not exclude any other religions, as the place to propitiate the souls of our war dead?


Some may protest that the ceremonies for the war dead are conducted by Shintō priests at Yasukuni. But let us remember that funeral rites are generally conducted by Christian clergymen at Arlington. Should laymen be masters of ceremony at such funerals? While many people go to Yasukuni Shrine, very few visit the artificially produced, areligious Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, where many living Japanese are not always at ease, feeling that the souls of the dead are not properly laid to rest.



On the subject of Yasukuni, we should understand why the Japanese people are so grateful to Jesuit Father Bruno Bitter (1898-1987) and to Patrick J. Byrne (1888-1950), an American Maryknoll priest. In response to General Douglas MacArthur’s request, they submitted a report in which they were said to argue, “It is the important duty, and right, of the people of any nation to offer their thanks to, and show their respect for, those who sacrificed their lives for their homeland.” Even though the popular claims about how Yasukuni Shrine survived the Occupation are not entirely accurate, such claims should be kept in mind and respected.


By the same token, while it is common for military museums the world over to have patriotic stories on display, this does not mean that it is permissible to use subjective rhetoric in signage at the Yūshūkan War Memorial Museum. For example, as a biographer of Rear Admiral Ichimaru Rinosuke, who died at Iwo Jima, leaving a letter written in both Japanese and English and addressed to President Roosevelt, I felt uncomfortable at the exaggerated explanation of this given by the museum staff. What is needed is impartial treatment by trained historians. It is best to let the things of history speak for themselves.




Born in 1931, Hirakawa Sukehiro is Emeritus Professor at the University of Tokyo and a Director at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. A prolific scholar and author, Prof. Hirakawa has studied in France, Germany, and Italy, translated the Divine Comedy into Japanese, published and/or edited dozens of books, worked extensively in Japanese modern history, and has won, among other awards, the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, the Yomiuri Prize for Literature, the Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon, the Watsuji Tetsurō Culture Prize, the Order of the Sacred Treasure, and the Japan Essayist Club Prize. A version of this Yasukuni essay appeared, in Japanese, in the newsmagazine Will (September, 2014), and in Prof. Hirakawa’s latest book, Nihonjin ni umarete, maa, yokatta (Shinchōsha, 2014). Prof. Hirakawa’s English works include Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West (Global Oriental, 2005).



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  1. Mindy Kotler

    July 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

    There are a number of very fundamental differences between Yasukuni and Arlington. For one, Yasukuni is a state-Shinto religious shrine for the souls of those who fought for the Meiji Emperor and Imperial Japan until 1945. Arlington is a multi-religion cemetery for the ashes or bodies of those who died during and after the Civil War. Wives/husbands and in some cases children can be buried by their loved one. War criminals and murders cannot be buried at Arlington. There are hundreds enshrined at Yasukuni. Women can be buried at Arlington, whereas at Yasukuni exceptions need to be made. Yasukuni also does not allow the individual enshrinement of those who fought against the Emperor in their 19th C civil wars or imperial wars. As noted, soldiers from both sides of the US Civil War are buried at Arlington. Whereas Yasukuni has many combatants who did not want to be enshrined in a Shinto ceremony, no one is buried at Arlington in a ceremony against their wishes or their family's wishes. Yasukuni was created to glorify death for the Emperor and his rule. It is a venue for festivals and fairs. Arlington was created to remind the Commander of the Confederacy, on whose land the cemetery is built, of the cost of war. Arlington is a quiet reminder of the sacrifice for democracy. It is a self-serving misunderstanding to say that Yasukuni are Arlington are the same. They are not in conception or practice.

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