In the international politics of Japan's war memory, Yasukuni Shrine has become indelibly associated with unrepentant historical revisionism, and a resurgent ethnic nationalism.
Each 15 August – the anniversary of the ending of the Pacific War with the unprecedented noon-time radio broadcast by the Showa Emperor – a motley crew of right-wing groups, militaria aficionados and very many 'ordinary' Japanese, visit the shrine. Their motives are as diverse as their social identities, and belie simple generalisations about the meaning of Yasukuni.
The shrine was founded by the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to enshrine the spirits of all those who served the imperial restorationist cause in the civil war against the remnant forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. This includes restoration (isshin) heroes in the popular imagination, such as Ryoma Sakamoto, and excludes those who resisted them, as they had not served the emperor. Yasukuni is therefore deeply linked to the ideology of imperial service, and this is reflected in the imperial chrysanthemum crest that adorns the shrine. It's striking that the present Emperor (like the Showa Emperor from the late 1970s on) will not visit the shrine,
Yasukuni Shrine is controversial for its enshrinement of convicted war criminals, especially the 'A class' criminals (those who planned and made war) of the Tokyo War Crime Trials. This was a consciously provocative decision of the chief priest of the shrine in 1978, and prompted the Imperial family to discreetly distance itself from Yasukuni. Other convicted war criminals had been gradually enshrined from the late 1950s, with rather less contention. The San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 marks the eligibility cut-off, meaning those killed in the service of the contemporary Self Defense Forces are excluded.
The cooperation of government ministries in providing details of military personnel and some categories of eligible civilians killed in conflicts up until the end of World War II was long controversial. Enshrinement is non-consensual, and if they object to it, family members cannot have it undone, because of a theocratic assertion that the souls of the dead are made indivisible.
Yasukuni Shrine is also controversial for the Yushukan war museum that has been co-located with it since the late 1880s. While there are similar exhibition spaces at the Australian War Memorial and the like, what is problematic is the museum's revisionist depiction of Japan's Pacific war, with its narrative of liberating Asian peoples from Western colonialism and the downplaying of Japanese aggression and warcrimes.
Japan's critics, especially the governments of China and South Korea and some of their citizens, draw dire conclusions about the meaning and intent of Japanese political figures who visit Yasukuni. Japanese opinion polls generally show significant opposition to the visits, out of regard for foreign sensitivities. At the same time, there is widespread distrust in the motives of the Chinese and Korean governments in criticising the visits.
Arguably, a key motivation for both Prime Minister Abe visiting Yasukuni in December 2013, and former leader Junichiro Koizumi, was a desire to redefine the meaning of shrine visits against the interpretation of sometimes ill-willed critics. Both leaders stressed Japan's peaceful intent, their motivation to pay respects to the war dead, and not to glorify Japan's wartime past. Yet Yasukuni has acquired a totemic association with historical revisionism and indifference to Chinese and Korean sensitivities that has proven impossible to break.
For a fringe of right-wing activists, Yasukuni is precisely what its critics allege, and they are unrepentant. But for a large majority of those who visit the shrine, it's something important yet rather more mundane: a place to to mark remembrance of those who died in a military conflict that became a deep national stigma, disallowing a more consoling legacy that they died in order that Japanese might enjoy prosperity and freedom today.
Many types of people come to Yasukuni on 15 August, and with varied intent: it is, to quote Australian playwright Alan Seymour, the 'One Day of the Year' for the established organisations such as the association of war bereaved, and the much-thinned ranks of veterans groups.
A wide variety of 'ordinary folk' accompany their veteran or bereaved grandparents to Yasukuni, and often keep up the custom of visiting as a mark of respect to them after their passing.
Senior serving Self-Defense Forces officers visit Yasukuni to pray in honour of the war dead.
A bassman works up a sweat, the full body tattoo associated with gangsters – the yakuza – showing through his drenched white shirt. The main 'exclusive' yakuza organisations typically double as nationalist organisations and that has long been part of their self-legitimisation. Every 15 August yakuza are in abundance at Yasukuni.
An old man dressed in the even older uniform of the Russo-Japanese war period.
15 August is a key day for hardcore right-wing martial groups, who also gather on other significant public holidays and in response to disputes with Japan's neighbours. A certain demographic of working-class men, some associated with bikie gangs, or in parts of the construction trades, associate culturally with Japanese nationalism and can be seen in abundance at Yasukuni. There is also another notable demographic: often well-educated white-collar conservative admirers of the Imperial family, modest in attire and sometimes ill-at-ease in the company of the 'rougher' elements drawn to Yasukuni.
Dressed as a World War II soldier, this doll-like young man consciously blurs the boundaries of bishonen (beautiful young man) idol culture, manga-inspired cosplay practice and military re-enactment: at odds with most military cultures but not out of place in modern Tokyo. Yasukuni every 15 August comes to resemble to a military 'cosplay' festival, akin to the youngsters dressing up in outfits of their favourite anime and manga characters at Akihabara. There is a clear performative intent at Yasukuni. For many it is the annual equivalent of their '15 minutes of fame', Warhol-style.
A cheery Japanese chap dressed as a Wehrmacht enlisted man. He gave a warm welcome to visiting Israeli students, telling them in Japanese English, 'don't mind.' A young German neo-nazi who came to visit told this photographer that he would smash the camera if his face was photographed, as he feared losing his job. He readily admitted that his act was illegal at home, and said that the Holocaust had been stopped too soon. Japanese around him, some associated with the right-wing, were clearly made uneasy by his presence. Yasukuni can take on an international significance in ways that surprise Japanese.
Yasukuni draws all types, including this well-organised group visiting from Taiwan who are committed to restoring Imperial Japanese rule over Taiwanese territory. They reject the KMT-imposed Taiwanese state, but obey it and are strongly opposed to reunification with China. In uniforms and Salvation Army-like marching formations, they aim to raise the consciousness of Japanese people to 'the fact' that Taiwanese soil remains the domain of the Japanese Emperor.
Predictions of ill fortune drawn through a lottery in a Japanese shrine are left tied so as to leave the bad luck behind. Yasukuni uses the cherry blossom and an evocative subtle pink as motif colours, along with stark white and black and a variant of Chrysanthemum crest signalling the Imperial system. Cherry blossoms have been a potent aesthetic in Japanese militarism, inheriting an association in samurai culture. The cherry blooms beautifully and soon is lost: a motif for the flowering of beautiful doomed youth destined to fall too early. White is the colour of purity and of death, and the subtle pink hues of the cherry blossom evokes images of white silk lightly stained with the fresh blood of the fallen warrior. Yasukuni has an abundance of cherry trees and is a popular sightseeing destination in the spring. Arguably this has reduced the resistance of many Japanese to visiting the Shrine. It is also in a central and beautiful part of Tokyo.