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Yasukuni Shrine: How to Balance Welcome and Vandalism Risks

Vandalism at Yasukuni Shrine by a foreign visitor resulted in property damage and defiling of a religious place, prompting new diplomatic tension with China.

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A blue tarp covers the part of the pillar at Yasukuni Shrine that was defaced by graffiti. (©Sankei by Kanata Iwasaki)

A recent incident of vandalism at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo has shocked the nation and raised diplomatic tensions between Japan and China. The stone pillar, a prominent feature at the shrine, was defaced with graffiti reading "toilet" in English. Commenting on the incident to a question from JAPAN Forward, the Yasukuni Shrine office said, "It is deeply regrettable that the sanctity of the shrine was denigrated by graffiti." 

The perpetrator, believed to be a Chinese male living in Shanghai, fled Japan shortly after committing the crime. However, a video of the act later circulated on a Chinese social media platform. Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) subsequently traveled to China to interview the individual, who showed no remorse for his actions.

On June 4, the internet TV program ABEMA Prime uploaded a video on the case to its official YouTube channel. In it, various critics, former police personnel, and experts discussed the intricacies and wider implications for Yasukuni Shrine.

Not Just Property Damage

Many media outlets have pointed out that vandalism of a shrine constitutes intentional property damage. Still, as former Saitama Prefectural Police Detective Narumi Sasaki pointed out, "It is also a crime of defiling a place of worship." 

Article 188 of Japan's Penal Code outlines that defiling a place of worship constitutes one category of criminal behavior. Individuals who openly engage in disrespectful actions toward shrines, temples, graves, or other places of worship can also face punishment. Penalties include imprisonment for up to six months or fines of up to ¥100,000 JPY (approximately $640 USD).

Several such incidents have occurred in the past. For instance, one person affixed a paper with inscriptions to the cenotaph dedicated to the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. In another instance captured on video, individuals climbed atop tombstones with their shoes on and brandished stupas (wooden grave tablets) stolen from the graves. At another time, a photographer conducted a nude photoshoot with a woman standing on a gravestone.

Scene from a video posted on the Chinese SNS "Little Red Book," showing a man urinating on a stone pillar at Yasukuni Shrine (©Kyodo, some parts of the image have been edited)
A scene from a video posted on the Chinese SNS "Little Red Book" also shows a man spraying the stone pillar at Yasukuni Shrine (©Kyodo)

Propaganda Protest

As for the Yasukuni Shrine offender's alleged motivations? A video of what appeared to be the same individual standing outside Yasukini Shrine later surfaced on the internet. Appropriately calling himself Iron Head, he claimed to be protesting the Japanese government's release of "nuclear-contaminated water" into the ocean. "I'm gonna teach them a lesson," he also shouted. What this had to do with Yasukuni Shrine was unclear.

JAPAN Forward has extensively covered the unfounded Chinese allegations about the release of ALPS-treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency, furthermore, has confirmed the safety of the discharge.

Analyst Naha Otsuki addressed the perpetrator's claim. "Expressing dissent towards the government in such a vulgar manner is hardly the appropriate approach," she said. She also raised pertinent questions regarding the spread of videos depicting crimes across social media. "Should we really be allowing these videos to spread across the internet?" she asked. "I feel we could benefit from some sort of regulations in these cases."

China
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning holds a press conference in Beijing, March 27. (© Kyodo)

China's Response

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning responded only indirectly to the perpetrator's actions. She asked that "Chinese nationals overseas observe local laws and regulations and express their grievance and sentiments in a rational way." However, she qualified this by describing Yasukuni Shrine as a "symbol of Japanese militarist's aggression."

Political analyst Atsushi Iwata suggested that Beijing's inaction implies a reluctance to prevent the recurrence of such events. "The likelihood of a repeat occurrence is quite high," he remarked. "That is why it is important for Japanese citizens to express their dissatisfaction through social media and similar forums."

Screenshot of analyst Nana Otsuki on ABEMA Prime. (Courtesy of ABEMA YouTube)

Reaction in Japan 

And express their anger they did. X (formerly Twitter) users notably directed much criticism at Japan's police. "It's like the police are just box ticking. They're seriously dropping the ball," wrote one user. 

"Why didn't they grab him at the airport? How could immigration just let him waltz out?" someone else queried.

Another user suggested that Japan "ask China to extradite him." As Sasaki noted, however, this would pose significant challenges and entail a multitude of issues. 

Japan has extradition agreements with only two countries: the United States and South Korea. Although The Sankei Shimbun also called for China to extradite the accused culprit, Japan has no extradition treaty with China. 

Indeed, Japan's options are limited. "Japan could seek China's cooperation in investigating the suspect," Sasaki said. "However, it's ultimately China's decision whether to act on the request." China has applied its laws to prosecute suspects who returned to China from Japan in the past, but typically for serious offenses like murder. "While it is an option, it's less likely China will cooperate (this time)."

Security Solutions Needed

So, what security measures can be implemented?

The Yasukuni Shrine office said, "Moving forward, we will increase security measures at the shrine to ensure a peaceful environment for visitors. A report has been filed with the Kojimachi Police Station. As the investigation is ongoing, we are unable to provide further details at this time."

In the meantime, Iwata noted the challenge posed by Yasukuni Shrine's postwar transformation into a religious corporation. He said the change sparked a debate about equal protection under the law. "It's a nuanced issue," he also emphasized.

He suggested that "enhancing security might seem like government overreach at sites with political significance." However, "partnering with the shrine for security could be a viable solution," he proposed. At the same time, he cautioned that "bolstering security at one shrine may just shift criminal activity to another."

Amid the fallout from these disturbing events, Japan faces the daunting task of safeguarding its sacred landmarks. Moving forward, tackling these intricate issues demands an emphasis on accountability from all parties involved. Law enforcement, diplomatic channels, and civil society must actively engage to uphold the integrity of historical sites. 

(Updated June 17, 2024.)

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Author: Daniel Manning