Yasukuni Shrine and Museum: Japan’s WW2 Responsibility



While the Yasukuni shrine memorialises Japan’s war dead its accompanying museum gives a revisionist view of Japan’s responsibility for the Second World War that is troubling.



AT THE start of the four-day autumn festival on 17 October 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni shrine, without making a personal visit. Perhaps Abe was hoping that this gesture would appease Chinese leaders who will host him during the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Beijing on 10-11 November. This is unlikely to happen.


I had visited the Yasukuni shrine a week earlier during a tripto Tokyo to understand the reasons for the persistence of Japanese politicians in making annual visits on ritual holidays as well as the strong opposition of the Chinese government to such visits. While the shrine honours 2.5 million Japanese war dead since the Meiji Restoration, it is seen by many as a reminder of Japanese militarism during the second world war. Criticism is strongest in China, South Korea and Taiwan. I felt that like many other nations, Japan would want to honour those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice serving their country.


Commemorating War Dead or Revising History?


My visit to the Yasukuni shrine and its museum changed my view. I did not have great problems with the shrine itself which had an air of tranquillity and was marked by respectful attitudes by middle aged and elderly Japanese paying homage to their ancestors and relatives and worshipping them as “guardian deities”. Although Japan lost the war, commemorating its war dead could help to reinforce the belief in the futility of such wars.


Most criticism has centred on the enshrining of 14 Class A war criminals at Yasukuni shrine in 1978. The enshrining was done by the temple’s Shinto priests without any public consultation. As a consequence, Japan’s emperors have not visited the shrine since then. This enshrining and the criticisms by Japan’s neighbours of visits by Japan’s leaders and parliamentarians have reinforced the controversial image of Yasukuni shrine. My view is that the inclusion of the Class A war criminals has symbolic significance and will be an opportunity for China, in particular, to criticise the Japanese government.


However, it is the revisionist view of the second world war presented in the museum which really highlights the perspective taken by the Shinto leadership responsible for the shrine and is most troublesome for Japan’s friends. As the museum has excellent descriptions in Japanese, with English translations, the revisionist message is relayed even to foreigners visiting the museum.


Honouring Suicide Pilots

As someone from Southeast Asia, I was taken aback by the honoured place at the museum’s entrance of the original locomotive which had been used during the opening of the Siam/Burma railway. The ‘death railway’ was built during the war and resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Southeast Asian forced labourers and 13,000 allied prisoners-of-war. There was no indication of the cost of the project in terms of the lives lost and the privations undergone by the conscripted work force. The display of the beautifully reconstructed Zero fighter aircraft and heavy artillery next to the locomotive paled in comparison.


In the well-tended garden near the entrance to the museum is a statue honouring kamikaze suicide pilots, after one’s views had been positively influenced by walking past statues honouring horses, carrier pigeons and dogs serving the Japanese military which were killed during the war. As I visited the galleries, despite the wide variety of displays, most visitors were drawn to the section on kamikaze suicide attacks, with photographs of successful kamikaze air attacks on naval vessels, photographs of those who had undertaken these attacks and poems and letters written before they embarked on these acts as well as a display of a kamikaze mini-submarine torpedo and a piloted kamikaze glider with three rocket engines that fired for nine seconds each which would be released from an aircraft. As someone familiar with the eulogies to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State suicide terrorists, the reminder was chilling.


The garden also contained a statue honouring Dr Radha Binod Pal who was the Indian judge on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (the International Military Tribunal for the Far East). Pal was the only judge who supported not guilty verdicts on all charges for those on trial on the grounds that the impartiality of the tribunal was doubtful and that it was carrying out ‘victor’s justice’. Pal has legendary status in Japan. During his visit to India in 2007, Prime Minister Abe said that Pal was ‘highly respected’ for his ‘courage’ in his address to the Indian parliament.


He also met Pal’s octogenarian son in Calcutta and was given photographs of Pal with Abe’s grandfather, former Japanese prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. The museum visit thus provided me with an insight into the background for Abe’s positive attitudes towards India today and the development of closer ties with the Narendra Modi administration.


Japan as Victim of The War


The museum visitor is left with an image of Japan as the victim of the war, reinforced by the scenes of the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the effects of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stark revisionist message is conveyed in a 50-minute film which stresses that Japan was forced to go to war by the American oil embargo in support of American demands that Japan must withdraw from China, denies the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and criticises the wrongful convictions in the Tokyo Tribunal. The dioramas and displays highlight Asian support for Japan’s war effort and Japan’s role in the national liberation of Asian peoples.


While international attention has been focused on visits to Yasukuni shrine by Japanese leaders, the museum is really more worrying. It draws attention to the lack of recognition in Japan of the Japanese role in the second world war. With the passing of time, stridently nationalist views of history in China and Japan will make peace-making between the two Asian giants more difficult and spark periodic tensions in the bilateral relationship.



Barry Desker is a Distinguished Fellow and former Dean, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This article first appeared in The Straits Times on 5 November 2014.


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Approaching Critical Mass: Regional Views on Asia’s Multipolar Nuclear Future

Ladies and gentlemen (etc),

The momentous watershed of the contemporary age has been the end of the Cold War. The winding down of this great confrontation brought a sense of optimism with it. The “end of history,” Francis Fukuyama told us, meant that there would be no more all-encompassing ideologically charged encounters of this kind in times to come. An even greater sense of relief came from our sense of having evaded another kind of “end of history” – that which might have been wrought by global nuclear war.


But hardly had the fear of a world-embracing nuclear winter dissipated than it was replaced by a new source of worry. A fresh wave of smaller and often fractious players appeared on the scene. Three of them – India, Pakistan and North Korea – crossed the nuclear threshold with a series of tests; others (such as Iraq, Iran and Syria) showed signs of a desire to follow suit; and still others (Japan and South Korea) began to discuss the option to do so with unprecedented candour.

This brought to the fore the second great change in the contemporary security environment: the shift in the strategic centre of gravity from the Euro-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific region. This shift has three inter-related dimensions: first, the rapid growth of Asian economies led by China; second, the accompanying growth in the military capacities of Asian powers, again with China well in front; and third, the emergence of an increasingly edgy regional environment. The last involves multiple sources of tension involving nuclear powers on at least one side: between the “hegemonic power” (the United States) and the “resurgent power” (China); between the resurgent power and another rising power (India); and between China and its interlocutors in various territorial disputes in Northeast Asia (i.e. Japan), Southeast Asia (where several countries are involved), and South Asia (i.e. India).

Whether this post-Cold War environment is less stable than the preceding period is an interesting question, but a secondary one. The real issues are: how dangerous is this Asia-Pacific world and what can be done about it? Clearly, there are important elements of stability. The level of arms racing, for instance, is in no way comparable to the intensity and frenetic pace of the Cold War. But there are certainly risks as the newer players seek to enhance their nuclear capacities and the simmering territorial disputes bring periodic frictions. A key question, which I am sure will be a central one in the deliberations at this meeting, is whether the tensions that are being generated can be managed. Will the expansion of the younger arsenals be contained? What are the implications of the declining ratios between the big two and the rest as the former continue to reduce force sizes? Will arms control and confidence building efforts, which are under-developed in the region, be activated and, if so, in what form? Can the remarkable success with which ASEAN has managed the disputes among its members be replicated on a larger scale and in a more challenging environment?

The one thing that is sorely lacking in the Asia-Pacific is a set of institutional structures and processes that might bring together the nuclear powers and other interested players to explore ways to do three things: resolve or at least minimize the deleterious effects of territorial disputes; stabilize the tensions generated by arms build-ups; and construct mechanisms for crisis management. This forum, I am sure, will generate positive pragmatic ideas in all three respects.

The third substantive change that has characterised the post-Cold War era is the rise of terrorism, and in the present context particularly the kind of terrorism that seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Groups like Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo have shown serious interest in attaining the capacity to produce WMD, including nuclear weapons. And certainly, the acquisition of radiological weapons does not involve surmounting great technical or financial challenges. The discussions today and tomorrow would do well to keep in mind that the “multipolarity” of the present nuclear age is characterized not only by the existence or potential existence of nuclear-armed states, but also by the presence of non-state actors. And these, I need scarcely emphasise, are far more likely to use such weapons for their own brand of “warfighting” rather than for deterrence. What we can do about them is a central question that must exercise our minds.

A fourth aspect of change in post-Cold War Asia is its unprecedented interest in developing nuclear power to meet its voracious appetite for energy. Notwithstanding the serious doubts raised by the Fukushima disaster, China and India have in place ambitious nuclear energy programmes, while nuclear power is slated to become a significant component of the energy mix in several Southeast Asian nations. This development adds another dimension to the increasingly complex strategic environment as civilian nuclear technology and materials can spill over into the security realm by facilitating proliferation on the part of states as well as non-state actors. In addition, apart from being potential sources of materials and know-how, nuclear plants also constitute potential targets for attack that could release enormous amounts of radiation over a wide area. How this feature of the “second nuclear age” will be dealt with is a question of considerable urgency.

A related issue of concern which I highlighted in a recent essay is that bureaucratic practices in the region could be a deterrent to the development of a safety culture in the manning of nuclear plants. The report of Japan’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAICC) cited in the Japanese Diet’s report on the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster noted that Japanese cultural conventions such as ‘reflexive obedience’, ‘stick with the programme’ insular perspectives, cliquish behaviour and the tendency not to question authority could have an impact on safety management and governance. Such attitudes also characterise Southeast Asian societies and highlight a major risk as programmes for the development of nuclear power plants move ahead.

In conclusion, let me emphasise that in an exercise such as this, it is not always an easy task to achieve a meeting of the minds. Those who participated actively in the nuclear politics of the Cold War will tend to have different understandings about the “lessons” of that age from those who played a less central role in it. The view from Washington and London may sometimes be quite different from that which prevails in Beijing or Jakarta on defining key terms, on the kinds of interests at stake, or even the sources of stability. I hope that the deliberations at this meeting not only stimulate thoughtful ideas on building a more convivial strategic environment, but that they do so in ways that reflect a convergence of thinking on what is optimal as well as desirable.

Thank you (etc)