On December 29, 2016, the government of the Republic of Korea expressed its vehement protest to the Japanese authorities about the visit made by the Minister of Defense of Japan, Tomomi Inada, to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The indignation was caused not only by the visit itself but by the Minister’s statement during the visit to the temple that “any state can honour the memory of those who gave their lives for their country.”
According to the official statement made by the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Seoul “cannot but regret the fact that one of the key political figures of Japan visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies colonialism and aggression, and honours war criminals.” The document also notes that “Japan may only restore confidence and self-respect on the part of neighbouring countries and the international community if the Japanese leaders are able to interpret history correctly, reconsider its actions, and sincerely repent” its crimes committed in the past. The Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Korea expressed similar condemnation, and the Consul Ambassador of Japan’s Embassy in Seoul was called to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he received a formal protest.
Thus, we can observe the latest stage in “temple tension.” This is reason to explain why it has lasted for so long and continues to inflict such pain. The Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 at the end of the civil war and renovation of Meiji. When Emperor Mutsuhito visited it in 1874 he wrote, “Let the names of those who died fighting for our country be honoured in this shrine in Musashino.” In 1879, the shrine was renamed Yasukuni which means “peaceful country”, “pacifying the nation.”
Although both the Russian and Korean media posit it as the burial place of the Japanese war criminals and ignorant people believe that it is dedicated to them, in fact it is a kind of memorial to all who lost their lives in a number of wars – civil war, the Russian-Japanese war, and the both World Wars. However, there is no clear division inside the church for victims of a particular war or each group of victims so it occupies a niche in the Japanese mass consciousness, greater than Moscow’s “Eternal Flame.”
With the rise of Japanese militarism, the shrine became the main temple of State Shinto until 1945, after which it became private. This fact is important from the perspective of church and state relations. According to Article 20 of the Japanese Constitution dated 1947, “Freedom of religion is guaranteed for all citizens. None of the religious institutions shall receive any privileges from the state and hold any political power.” Yet, “…no one can be compelled to participate in any religious act, celebration, ceremony or practice…” Thus, the state has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of the Shinto shrines, including Yasukuni. On the one hand, this means that Yasukuni is not a state memorial (unlike the South Korean Independence Hall) and its administration may act outside of state policy. On the other hand, the state is unable to influence on the inclusion/exclus
On October 17, 1978, the Public Council that manages the shrine added the names of people who were executed at the decision of the Tokyo Trials as Class A military criminals (those who committed crimes against peace) to the list of commemorated persons. Officially, it was possible as the executed were participants of the war. However, this decision was disputable for many as the majority of the executed were guilty of various military crimes. Even Emperor Hirohito expressed dissatisfaction with the Public Council’s decision and stopped visiting the shrine, which then went on to be perceived as a “revanchists’ refuge” as when public politicians visited, it was considered primarily as and act of glorification of these criminals.
Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited the shrine in 1980 highlighting that his visit was a tribute to the memory of people who died for their motherland. The visits of Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine in the early 2000s were scandalous as well. Koizumi visited the shrine every year, and each visit was accompanied by a public opinion poll in the country and abroad. If foreign countries expressed their disapproval, Koizumi upped his rating as a populist in Japan.
As a result, the Republic of Korea and other Asian countries are strongly against the visits of the Japanese officials to the Yasukuni shrine as they perceive such visits as an insult to the memory of their citizens that died during the period of Japanese aggression in the early 20th century. It is of note that the memory of 20 thousand ethnic Koreans who served in the Japanese army is also honoured there. Accordingly, visits to the temple or non-attendance are perceived “from the outside” as a sign of overtures of a politician with the revanchist ideas. For example, the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not visited it since 2013 – three years already – but he sends ceremonial tributes to the shrine.
As for Tomomi Inada who was appointed the Minister of Defense on August 3, 2016, as a representative of the “hawk” wing of the LDP, she always used to visit the temple, but after taking a high public office, she started to send tributes.
Thus, that Japanese top officials have resumed their visits to the Yasukuni shrine is perceived as a lack of repentance for military crimes during the World War Two and Japan’s remilitarization. The shrine itself is sometimes the target of those who wish to destroy it. For example, the newsworthy case of the South Korean terrorist (to say it how it was) who tried to blow up the Yasukuni shrine but only managed to blow up the men’s toilets.
As for Japan’s public opinion, where the page of the past was turned long ago and the young generation does not perceive itself the successors of the Empire from the early 20th century, visits to the shrine are perceived as a tribute to those killed and not the glorification of a certain group. Moreover, Korea’s hysteria on this subject can increasingly be seen as an attempt to condemn Japan once again, to put it in place, to show their nationalism, and to put forward additional claims: whether the Japanese politicians visit the shrine or not, it does not affect the solution of historical conflicts.
Next time, we will discuss these claims and reasons for their disparity in the points of view of international observers.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“