“Til Valhalla” is becoming a more and more common exaltation among veterans today, especially when hearing about the passing of a fellow veteran. Whether you believe in Odin, Master of Ecstasy, leader of the Gods, chief of the Æsir and the king of Asgard, is irrelevant, the warrior ethos is the heart of the expression. It’s not necessarily meant to be a religion.
Unless you’re Japanese, that is.
The Yasukuni Shrine is a Shinto temple that was founded at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, a period in Japanese history that saw the Emperor return as the true ruler of Japan. Around this time, the Shinto worship of nature spirits and ancestors became an official state apparatus, the Emperor himself became one of these divine spirits. Today, there are some 80,000 of these public shrines, and the Yasukuni Shrine is just one of many.
What’s unique about the Yasukuni Shrine is that it is dedicated to the memory and spirit of those who died fighting for Japan from the first war in which the shrine was founded – the civil conflict that restored the Emperor in 1869 – and World War II in 1945. The Meiji Emperor originally wanted the shrine to honor the souls of those who died fighting for him in that conflict, but as more conflicts came to pass, the Emperor decided to house the souls of more and more war dead there. As the Empire expanded, so did the ethnicities of those enshrined at Yasakuni. There are more than Japanese souls; there are Koreans, Okinawans, Taiwanese, and more – anyone who fought for Japan.
Anyone. And these days, that’s a problem.
That’s a problem.
These days, the Yasukuni Shrine is an incredibly controversial subject in Asia. It’s so taboo that Japanese Prime ministers can’t even officially visit. Even though war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East were denied enshrinement after World War II, lower classes of war criminals were slowly admitted to the shrine in the following years. Still, those class-A criminals like Hideki Tojo (above) were excluded…
… until the late 1970s, when the chief priest included them in secret during an enshrinement ceremony. There was nothing the government or the Emperor could do about it. Shinto was separated from the state in the 1947 MacArthur Constitution.
So now, the shrine causes a lot of friction between Japan, China, and the Koreas. The latter three accuse the shrine of encouraging historical revisionism and forgetting the crimes of its past. The museum attached to the shrine accuses the United States of forcing World War II on Japan with economic sanctions and military aggression. Thus, the last time an Emperor visited the shrine was in 1975.
U.S. Navy sailors visit the Yasukuni Shrine in 1933.
Any time a Japanese official visits the shrine, officially or unofficially, it sets off a firestorm of anger in the Pacific region. The last time a sitting Prime Minister visited Yasukuni was 2013 when Shinzo Abe made a visit, calling it an “anti-war gesture.” The Chinese said the visit was “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people,” and South Korea says it expressed “regret and anger.” Since then, Abe has opted out of the visit.
Yasukuni now lists the names of 2,466,532 men, women, and children (and even some war animals) enshrined as deities. Of those,1,068 are convicted war criminals.