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  • How Yasukuni Shrine Survived the Occupation:A Critical Examination of Popular Claims
  • Mark R. Mullins (bio)

Yasukuni Shrine, the controversial site dedicated to Japan's military war dead, or "Shōwa martyrs," has become the focus of public concern and debate on a number of occasions during the postwar period. From 1969 to 1974, it was the efforts of the Liberal Democratic Party to pass the Yasukuni Jinja Hōan , a bill to renationalize the shrine and provide direct government support, that provoked widespread protest. A decade later the shrine attracted attention again when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro and other government representatives made "official visits" (kōshiki sanpai), particularly the visit on 15 August 1985. On that occasion Nakasone made an offering of 30,000 yen from public funds, which was interpreted by many observers as a highly symbolic act done to promote the reinstitution of government support for the shrine. It quickly generated a critical response. Within Japan many intellectuals and religious leaders expressed their strong opposition to the prime minister's initiative. International criticism also appeared in newspapers and media reports in China, North Korea, South Korea, Singapore, and the Soviet Union. The negative press and reaction was such that Nakasone canceled his planned visit to the shrine the following year, and his administration organized a study group to review the issue and provide recommendations for future [End Page 89] government policy. As a result, "official" prime ministerial visits to the shrine were avoided for over a decade, and the debate subsided through the 1990s.

Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō reignited the public controversy by following through on a campaign promise he made in 2001—when running for the presidency of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party—that he would visit Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity, which he did a number of times between 2001 and 2006. The fact that fourteen Class A war criminals had been enshrined in 1978 and became objects of veneration made ritual participation on the part of government officials even more problematic. Because of the negative reaction to Koizumi's initiative, his successors as prime minister—Abe Shinzō , Fukuda Yasuo , and Asō Tarō —avoided visiting Yasukuni Shrine during their brief tenures. Asō had been a particularly outspoken supporter of Yasukuni over the years and in the February 2008 issue of Shokun, a popular right-wing publication, clearly stated his position that prime ministers "should" visit the shrine.1 Despite his strongly expressed views, he did not chance a visit during his short and difficult term, but tried to fulfill his obligation with an offering to the shrine during its Spring Festival in April 2009. Even this expression of support was picked up by the press and attracted critical attention prior to his China visit.

While Yasukuni Shrine was largely a domestic concern until the 1970s, since then the controversy has increasingly taken on an international dimension. In addition to the highly critical statements issued by the governments of Japan's neighbors in response to shrine visits by prime ministers and other government officials, citizens of South Korea and Taiwan have also become involved in the debate by formally objecting to postwar enshrinements of their family members. In cooperation with Japanese Buddhists and Christians, these foreigners have initiated lawsuits against Yasukuni Shrine and the Japanese government to end this alleged violation of the Constitution (Articles 20 and 89) and to have the names of their family dead removed from the shrine register (gōshi torikeshi soshō).2

Supporters of Yasukuni Shrine have not remained silent in the face of these criticisms and what they regard as "foreign interference" in Japan's domestic affairs. Over the past few years numerous publications have appeared in support of the view that government officials have every right—and even a duty—to participate in the ritual care of the military war dead at Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine's supporters argue furthermore that such patriotic behavior should be encouraged on the part of all Japanese citizens. What is particularly interesting [End Page 90] about these pro-Yasukuni publications is that most of them appeal to a "story" from the early days of the Occupation period to legitimize their point...


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