Calls for removal of Class-A War Criminals from Yasukuni Shrine: conservative groups split over souls of the war dead

For decades, it has been the cause of scandal that still tears apart Tokyo from Beijing and Seoul. A place that few Japanese Prime Ministers have opted out of visiting. Yet today an influential conservative group finally came up with a good idea for a makeover of the notorious Yasukuni Shrine.

 REUTERS/Yuya Shino

A holy pilgrimage place for those who miss the Japanese Empire, the Yasukuni Shrine is located right in the middle of Tokyo. The Shrine, as its website explains, was founded by the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) and honors the souls of those who died fighting for Japan.

This does not sound particularly unusual: Europe, after all, is full of monuments and tombs of the Unknown Soldier that honor the fallen of World War I and II. A cross between heaven and earth, these places are integral part of our cultures, which wouldn’t be what they are today without those first decisive forty years of the 20th century.

In order to understand why the Shrine has become a chronic source of friction with China and South Korea, let us imagine for a moment that in the heart of Berlin, instead of the Holocaust Memorial, rises a monument that honors all the fallen for the three German Reichs. And when I say “all the fallen”, I mean all of them.

That’s right, because among the 2.5 million souls that are honored at the Yasukuni Shrine, there are also those of the Class-A War Criminals, who were convicted of “crimes against peace”. The Tokyo War Crimes Trials (1946-1948) condemned those men, who were part of the Japanese élite, because of their involvement in starting the war.

The story of their enshrinement is complex yet fascinating (here you can find a detailed account of the story: It is fascinating, for example, that the process took over thirty years, and ended with a secret ceremony in 1978 performed by a head priest whose goal was to discredit the Tokyo Trials; or that no Japanese Emperor has ever visited the Shrine except on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II; or that Pope John Paul II celebrated a Mass for the repose of the souls of the Japanese war criminals during a bizarre (and perhaps inappropriate)  rite that blended different religious faiths.

After years of controversy between Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul, finally a few members of the ruling LDP came up with a wise proposal. During a meeting a few days ago, a chapter of the Izoku Rengō-kai (the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association) passed a resolution calling on the shrine’s governors to enshrine the Class-A War Criminals elsewhere because it “hopes that the emperor and empress, as well as the prime minister and all other Japanese nationals, will be able to pay their respects at Yasukuni without reserve.” The group also said other chapters of the Association are considering adopting similar resolutions, which will contribute to make the proposal come true.

While members of the Imperial family have been avoiding visits to the Shrine for nearly 40 years, Prime Ministers, Ministers, and lawmakers seem to be quite fond of it. In fact, they seem to like the place so much that they even arranged group pilgrimages several times.

Mr. Abe himself had paid homage at the Shrine in December 2013 during one of his public outings as Prime Minister, causing, needless to say, an uproar in China and in South Korea.

It’s certainly true that everything at Yasukuni Shrine reminds us of the war: from the monument paying tribute to the first kamikaze to the pavilion where weapons used by the Imperial army are displayed. Such a “transmigration of souls” wouldn’t certainly have the same impact as the “Warsaw Genuflection”, when former German Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt in a gesture of humility and penance towards the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

However, freeing Yasukuni Shrine from the shadow of men like Hideki Tōjō (Prime Minister and Army Minister from 1941 to 1944, chiefly responsible for the ascent of the Japanese imperialism in the Asia-Pacific) or General Iwane Matsui (responsible for the Nanking Massacre, in which an estimated 200,000-300,000 people died) could represent a tiny step forward on the path to complete reconciliation with Japan’s Asian neighbors. A tiny step, but still a significant one.

traduzione a cura di Sayuri Romei

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