Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine is one of the most controversial places of worship in the world. This war shrine, in which the souls of soldiers who died for the Emperor are commemorated, has a highly symbolic status. Its connection with Japan’s militarism and nationalism makes it a sensitive topic both at home and abroad. In fact, Japan’s neighbours, especially China and South Korea, have often filed official protests against the visit to the shrine by Japanese politicians.
But what is the Yasukuni Shrine? When was it founded and why is it so important for the history of modern Japanese nationalism and militarism? Before answering these questions, I think it is necessary to briefly explain the origin, meaning and history of the Shinto religion.
Shinto: Japan’s National Religion
Shinto is a specifically Japanese religion, a combination of different ancient folk beliefs which over the centuries were influenced by religions that came to Japan from continental Asia, such as Buddhism and Daoism (ibid., p. 27).
In contemporary times, we are accustomed to thinking of Shinto as a Japanese state religion. Yet throughout Japanese history, Buddhism was much more powerful and influential than Shinto. Even the emperors and aristocratic families favoured Buddhism (ibid., p. 28).
Masaharu Anesaki (姉崎 正治 Anesaki Masaharu, 1873 – 1949), a renowned Japanese scholar and founder of Japan’s Religious Studies, explains that in prehistoric Japan Shinto developed as a polytheistic folk belief with animistic elements. According to Japanese mythology that refers to the Japanese archipelago, at the beginning of the world there were numerous
deities (or spirits) which shone with a lustre like that of fireflies, and evil deities which buzzed like flies.There were also trees and herbs which could speak … The God who originally founded this country is the God who descended from Heaven and established this State in the period when Heaven and Earth became separated, and when the trees and herbs had speech (Masaharu Anesaki: History of Japanese Religion: With Special Reference to the Social and Moral Life of the Nation. London 1930, p. 19).
According to Shinto’s view of the cosmos, the godly and the human are intertwined, like in ancient Greco-Roman religions. Gods are “men in the age of the gods, while human beings are gods in the age of men” (Anesaki 1930, p. 21). In the beginning of the world men and animals were gods, and plants and rocks could speak (ibid.).
Shinto was the worship of these primordial deities and spirits, without any particular scriptures, theology, or coherent and unified system (ibid.). In Religious Studies, Shinto is usually defined as an “indigenous religion”, that is, a religion which developed naturally out of various folk beliefs. There were no individuals who created a corpus of religious texts, no teachers and disciples, no church organisation. Other than the so-called ‘world religions’, for hundreds of years Shinto did not spread beyond the boundaries of the Japanese archipelago. It can therefore be described as a truly Japanese national religion which is a unique element of Japan’s culture (Inoue Nobutaka [edit.] / Ito Satoshi / Endo Jun / Mori Mizue: Shinto: A Short History. London 2003, p. 2).
Shinto, the Meiji Restoration, and Modern Japanese Nationalism
Since ancient times a dichotomy between native Japanese and foreign religions were present in the minds of Japan’s elites. For instance, the first historical reference to Shinto, which is contained in the Nihon shoki of 720, mentions that Emperor Yomei (who reigned in 585-7) “had faith in the Buddhist Dharma and revered Shinto” (Satoshi / Jun / Mizue 2003, p. 1). Old texts implied a difference between native Japanese religious beliefs and the religions which came from overseas in later periods.
In early modern times, the ‘Japaneseness’ of Shinto was consciously employed by Japanese thinkers to resist foreign penetration. For example, the scholar Okuni Takamasa (1792-1871), who perceived foreign powers and their Christian religion as a threat, sought in Shinto the religious and cultural foundation of an anti-foreign movement (ibid., pp. 155-156).
It is therefore no coincidence that during the Meiji Restoration Shinto was resorted to as a means to strengthen the Emperor and the state, and to instill a spirit of nationalism into the populace. An important part of this process was the establishment of a state-controlled shrine system and priesthood (ibid., p. 159).
Shrines are sites for the performance of state ritual; it goes without saying that they are not the private property of individual families. However, after the medieval period and the disintegration it brought to the Great Way [of the kami], there emerged a tendency … for a priest to be appointed temporarily to a shrine and then for the principle of heredity to establish itself. Elsewhere . . . priestly positions at village and hamlet shrines tended to become hereditary. Priests would take the shrine income as their salary and regard shrines as their private property. This became established practice everywhere in the realm. Shrine priests came to constitute a class distinct from [the ruling] warrior class, and this was in contravention of the governing principle of saisei itchi [according to which government and rites are inseparable]. The harm dealt by these practices has been considerable.
Reforms are now to be implemented and the practice of heredity [will be abolished]. Priests at all shrines, from the two Ise shrines to those of large and small scale the length and breadth of the realm, will be re-appointed only after the most careful consideration (ibid., pp. 162-163).
In 1875 the government began unifying the religious practices of Shinto with the publication of the Jinja saishiki (“regulations for shrine rites”), which were revised by the Home Ministry in 1907 (ibid., p. 167).
Through the Shinto religion, the government could create an ideology that depicted Japan as a sacred land and the Emperor as the embodiment of Japan’s godliness and immortality. This ideology became a cornerstone of the Japanese education system during the Meiji era and was taught to children in order to strengthen their devotion to the Emperor and the state. Thus the Emperor became a sort of priest-king, a personification of the continuity and holiness of the Japanese nation.
The Origins of the Yasukuni Shrine
|Shokonsha Shrine in 1873|
Between 1895 and 1945, the Shinto cult was one of the elements that were employed by the Japanese to foster the allegiance of the Taiwanese people to the Japanese Emperor (Shelley Rigger: Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse. 2013, p. 22).
|Taiwan Grand Shrine, Taiwan’s most important Shinto
shrine. It was demolished after retrocession.
Many Shinto shrines were built in Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, China, and Indonesia as part of Japan’s imperial project (Satoshi / Jun / Mizue 2003, p. 172). In Taiwan, there were 66 official Shinto shrines, the most important of which was Taiwan Grand Shrine, built in 1901 on Jiantan Mountain. After WWII and the handover of Taiwan to the Republic of China, the shrine was demolished. On its site now stands the Grand Hotel (note).
In 2007, Lee Teng-hui visited Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to his elder brother, who had served in the Japanese army and had been enshrined (note). Beijing criticised Lee fiercely. The PRC has made anti-Japanese feeling and the memory of the past suffering and humiliation an integral part of its new nationalistic ideology (see also my post about the reemergence of Chinese nationalism after 1989).