13. Religion and Politics in Postwar Japan

War memorials, war museums, war anniversaries and “war shrines” all are recent things – starting in the nineteenth century and expanding in the twentieth century. Paying respects to the war dead may be seen as part of the modernization process, especially connected with issues of nation-building and national identity.

For a general study of war memoralization, see George Mosse, Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (Oxford, 1991).

History of the Yasukuni Shrine: established in 1869 to honor the war dead who fought for the emperor at the time of the Meiji Restoration. In the 1930s it became a major site for the celebration of patriotism and praise for those men and women who fought and died for their country. It had close links with the imperial family and with State Shinto.

After the end of the war, there has been a determined attempt to maintain a strict separation between religion and politics. Of special significance is Article 20 of the Constitution of Japan:

Article 20. Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State nor exercise any political authority.

(2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious acts, celebration, rite or practice.

(3) The state and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.

How has this worked out in practice? What is the so-called “Yasukuni Problem” ?

  • Look at the Yasukuni Shrine official website

  • Look, with caution, at the Wikipedia site on “Controversies surrounding Yasukuni Shrine

  • Currently there are around 2,466,000 souls enshrined as divinities (kami) –the shrine’s official site says that “all sacrificed their lives to the public duty of protecting their motherland.” This number includes 47,000 Koreans and Taiwanese who died as members the Japanese imperial army and 57,000 women, mainly nurses. Also included are a number of war criminals.

  • 1959 – Enshrinement of Class B and C war criminals

  • 1978 – 14 Class A war criminals were secretly enshrined; the news was made public six months later.

  • Controversial visit by Prime Minister Nakasone on August 15, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

  • Criticism of visits to the shrine by government officials, including the prime minister, continues to the present day. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s visit at the time of the sixtieth anniversary was particularly controversial. Why?

  • Optional reading on the “Yasukuni Problem”: Mark Selden, “Japan, the United States, and Yasukuni Nationalism” in the Japan Focus website.