Sorry, Japan: Yasukuni Is Not Arlington

January 16, 2014 Topic: Society Region: Japan

Sorry, Japan: Yasukuni Is Not Arlington

Japan's World War II shrine is a place of defiance, not memory.


Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe made a well-planned and well-publicized visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on Christmas Day in the United States. The Shrine gives special recognition to war criminals tried after Japan's surrender in 1945 and has long been an unhappy reminder of the vast damage Japan inflicted upon Asians and Westerners during World War II. Nevertheless, Abe brushed aside criticism by saying that going to Yasukuni is no different than an American president’s visit to Arlington National Cemetery.

This analogy is mistaken, and the differences between the two places explain why the Prime Minister's visit is so provocative. The two memorials share neither the same history nor spirit. Although both were the result of civil wars, Yasukuni now focuses on the idealization of the Pacific Theater of WWII, while Arlington records the continuing sorrow of a nation.


Arlington National Cemetery was created from the estate of General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy’s armies. Occupying Union Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs appropriated the grounds around the mansion in 1864 to use as a military cemetery. Meigs wanted to ensure that if the Lee family returned, tombstones and widows in mourning would surround their home. The intent was for Lee's estate to symbolize the pain and suffering caused by the South's engaging in the Civil War.

Unlike Yasukuni, Arlington is a cemetery. The bodies or ashes of those who served and their family members are interred on the grounds. The fallen will continue to rest there as long as the United States exists.

None of this is true at Yasukuni. It is a religious shrine established in 1869 to embed the supremacy of the Shinto faith, the divinity of the Emperor, and the centrality of the Imperial institution into the national polity. At Yasukuni, those fighting for the Emperor from the civil wars of mid-nineteenth century Japan through the end of the Pacific War were transformed into divine spirits to join as one with the Emperor. Here the common foot soldier was rewarded in death by becoming equal to the Emperor.

At Arlington, men and women of all religions and races are buried. At Yasukuni only Shinto is practiced and only the souls of identified and approved members of Imperial Japan's military who died on the battlefield can be apotheosized with the Emperor. There are many exceptions, such as the fourteen Class A war criminals who were hanged or died in Sugamo Prison after the Pacific War. Further, some Japanese social classes are not allowed; and the unknown are not represented.

Yasukuni is now a private park that hosts religious rites as well as festivals. To the left (south) of the main sanctuary, behind often-locked gates, is the Chinreisha, a small shrine which pacifies the souls of Imperial Japan’s enemies so that they will not cause trouble to the living. Encircling the property are a series of small memorial shrines created by various Japanese WWII military units including the notorious Kempeitai (Military Police).

There is also a modern museum, Yushukan, glorifying wartime deeds. The Yushukan displays memorabilia and technology of past conflicts, especially the “Greater Asian War” and related “incidents.” The narrative boasts of how Japan liberated Asia from the Western colonialists after the United States “tricked” Japan into the war. Little is said of the atomic bomb or defeat. The Shrine’s website states “the truth of Japanese history is now restored.”

In contrast, Arlington does not dwell on the glory of any war or push one interpretation, providing instead a neutral ground upon which people can mourn and reflect. Arlington’s website is subdued and factual. It reviews the rules for interment, outlines the property, and notes the famous people buried there. The grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, says the website, are to “provide a sense of beauty and peace.”

The spiritual center of Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown, which consists of four crypts containing remains of an American from each of WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. These represent both the collective sacrifice and grief of the country.

At Yasukuni, the unknown cannot be deified. Thus, in 1959, the Japanese government created near Yasukuni Chidorigafuchi a public park that contains a crypt for the ashes of thousands of unknown soldiers, sailors, and likely civilians who died in the Pacific War. Every year, coinciding with Memorial Day in the United States, there is an official ceremony attended by the Prime Minister, a member of the Imperial Family, and foreign ambassadors to add new ashes to the ossuary.

Most important, one of the criteria for those buried at Arlington is an honorable discharge. Those court-martialed, tried for war crimes, or convicted of a felony cannot be interred. This is not the case for Yasukuni. In addition to the fourteen convicted war criminals who were found responsible for carrying forward the Pacific War, there are thousands who violated both Japanese and international laws. Notable is Washio Awochi (sometimes spelled Awachi) a civilian manager of a comfort station in Batavia (Jarkarta) who was convicted by a 1946 Dutch wars crimes tribunal (Case No. 76) of forcing Dutch women to be Comfort Women (sex slaves). He died in a Batavia jail.

Yasukuni is about rejecting the judgments of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Many Japanese still believe that Imperial Japan should not be subject to the rules or values created by the West. The Tribunal is deemed “victor’s justice.” To emphasize this point, a large monument to the Tribunal’s Indian Judge Radha Binod Pal, who questioned the legitimacy its judgments, stands on a plaza at the Shrine.

Arlington, by contrast, makes no moral or political judgments about either American military policy or about the individual soldiers buried there. Americans do not visit the cemetery to worship them. And unlike their Japanese counterparts, American politicians do not come to Arlington to make statements about current foreign policy. Indeed, any effort to go beyond recognition of the sacrifices made by American would backfire internally as well as externally. But for Japan’s conservative leaders, Yasukuni has become a tacit political expression of Japanese defiance and autonomy.

A visit to Yasukuni has always been a political act. War is presented as a noble and glorious sacrifice preserving Japan’s Imperial institution. Originally, the Emperor used it to unite his nation with his divinity. Today, Yasukuni allows a Prime Minister to assert Japan’s independence and recast its past.

The rites, the grounds, and museum all focus on Japan's Pacific War. The Shrine is for Imperial Japan. No postwar soldier is allowed deification. The story Yasukuni wants to tell is that an industrially sophisticated Japan liberated a backward Asia and that their fellow Asians should be grateful.

Today, the Shrine serves mostly as a protest against those who do not accept this narrative. The Shrine tacitly rejects the international and national legal underpinnings of postwar Japan—the Peace Treaty and the Constitution. Abe making an official visit as prime minister to honor the selected souls at Yasukuni blurs the separation between Japan’s religious and political institutions and suggests that the Emperor has regained his divinity. Both are central to the legitimacy of modern Japan.

The Yasukuni Shrine is about declaring victory. The Emperor God was right, the victorious foreigners were wrong. Yasukuni is not about contrition or reflection, but about certainty. There, Japan did not lose the war. Imperial Japan, when Japanese were said to noble, selfless and brave, is longed for as a better time. Yasukuni is a place of defiance, and this is what separates it most from places of memory like Arlington National Cemetery.

Mindy Kotler is the director of Asia Policy Point.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Philbert Ono. CC BY-SA 3.0.