Misunderstanding Yasukuni

Mindy Kotler has, according to her on CV, made her entire career out of being critical of Japan.  Or, to put it another way, she has made a career out of Japan-bashing.  Which of these is more true is really for the observer to decide.  This post will deal simply with her total ignorance and wrongheadedness displayed in a piece on Yasukuni that I was unfortunate enough to come across.


The piece aims to compare Yasukuni Shrine, which is dedicated to the souls of the millions who have died in service of the Emperor, to Arlington National Cemetery, on which holds the remains of some select hundreds of thousands who have died in service of the US military.  As the title, “Sorry Japan:  Yasukuni is not Arlington” reveals, the aim of this comparison is to prove that they are fundamentally different places (with the “sorry” indicating that Yasukuni will come off unfavorably in this comparison).  So let’s have a look at the arguments in the order in which they are presented:

“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.”

Kotler immediately begins with a factually incorrect statement.  Yaskuni was established in the 1800s, well before World War II, during Japan’s tumultuous Meiji Restoration which established the Empire of Japan.  The Pacific War certainly increased the number of dead enshrined there, but it still comprehensively covers all those who died for the Emperor since his restoration to prominence.

As an aside:

“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.”

This actually seems super aggressive to me.  I mean, “wanted to ensure that tombstones and widows would surround their home?”  Yes, because apparently the American Civil War was entirely the fault of Robert E. Lee.  Arlington’s origins seem entirely inappropriate to me, but that is neither here nor there I suppose.

“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.”

These are entirely subjective statements.  Yasukuni Shrine was established to enshrine the thousands that died to create the Empire of Japan during the Boshin War.  Any knock-on effects or ulterior motives those involved in its establishment might have had is entirely speculation on Kotler’s part.

“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.”

Again, factually incorrect.  At Yasukuni, men and women of all religions and races are enshrined.  It is a Shinto shrine, but Shinto is not monotheistic.  Regardless of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, etc., if you died in the service of the Emperor, you can (and will) be enshrined at Yasukuni.

“Further, some Japanese social classes are not allowed; and the unknown are not represented.”

As the enshrining essentially consists of having your name written down in Yasukuni’s private books somewhere, those without names are not recorded.  As for the “some social classes,” I have never once heard this before anywhere.  I invite anyone with information regarding this assertion to please provide it to me.  I have no idea what Kotler might even be implying here it is so out of left field.

“Yasukuni is now a private park that hosts religious rites as well as festivals.”

No, it is a shrine.  That is to say, a religious institution.  “Private park” does not accurately describe it and can be taken as rather rude (like calling an active church a “private museum”).  Nature worship is one of the few universal elements of Shinto, so shrines do very often resemble parks with their abundance of trees and other flora.  And Shinto is particularly relaxed about rules compared to most other religions, so the feel of the grounds is often that of a public park, but one should never forget that the grounds of every shrine is in fact a religious and holy place.

Similarly, the “festivals” mentioned are also religious in nature.

“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.”

Not just “enemies;” Chinreisha honors all war dead.  The modern Western attitude of invariably demonizing the other side of any conflict never really caught on in Japan.

And it is not to “pacify” them, or at least no more than every shrine in Japan seeks to pacify their respective kami.  It is to honor them with appropriate ceremony.

“Encircling the property are a series of small memorial shrines created by various Japanese WWII military units including the notorious Kempeitai (Military Police).”

Not really “encircling” so much as scattered about, they are not “shrines” in most cases but simply monuments (such as the mentioned kempeitai one), and they are not all about World War II.

“There is also a modern museum, Yushukan, glorifying wartime deeds.”

It certainly does not do that.  In fact, it is the only museum of its kind I have ever been to that goes out of its way to show the horrors of war.  Right on the first floor are two artillery pieces used in the defense of Okinawa, but instead of looking like proud and powerful weapons, they are shot to hell.  There are holes ripped through their protective armor clearly showing that anyone manning these guns at the time was surely killed in a most gruesome manner.  It is an incredibly powerful exhibit that I think would stop anyone from considering going off to war.

“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.”

Incorrect.  Yasukuni 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.  In the same exact way that people go to Arlington to pray for the repose of the souls of American war dead, people go to Yasukuni to pray for the repose of the souls of Japanese war dead.  It’s no different.  Most people don’t go to the inoffensive little museum off to the right any more than they go to the gorgeous little koi pond off to the left.  They go for their own personal reasons to say their own silent prayers, and the shrine does nothing to get in their way.

“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.”

Here Kotler and I agree almost entirely:  this is the most important point.  Why are war criminals and violators of international law buried at Arlington?  An “honorable discharge” hardly exonerates you from having done either of those things.  Even those who dropped an atomic bomb on a defenseless civilian population are buried at Arlington, or is that somehow not as bad as “carrying forward the Pacific War?”  I’m with Kotler here:  let’s investigate the behavior of each and every one of the hundreds of thousands that are buried there, and dig up anyone who is found to have acted inappropriately during their particular war.  There’ll be hardly a full grave left.

“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.””

The war crimes trials clearly were victors’ justice, by simple definition:  the victors, and only the victors, tried the vanquished, and only the vanquished.

However, it is hardly necessary to “reject” the outcome of the trials in order to still enshrine those labeled war criminals.  For surely those hanged by the Americans for being generals and politicians of Imperial Japan died for the Emperor.  Their ostensible crimes were committed in the name of the Emperor, and their very deaths helped to shield the Emperor from being tried himself.  Regardless of whether they were good people or not, I can’t see how anyone can argue that the one and only requirement for being enshrined at Yasukuni was not fulfilled.

“Arlington, by contrast, makes no moral or political judgments about either American military policy or about the individual soldiers buried there.”

Well that is clearly not true.  To be buried with military honors is to be honored, I’m afraid.  Support for the fact that they died for their country is very explicit.  Wider “American military policy” is certainly left up in the air to the exact same extent as at Yasukuni.

“Americans do not visit the cemetery to worship them.”

Japanese people do not visit the shrine to worship them.  It is to pay them respects, to pray for the peaceful repose of their souls, and to wish an end to all armed conflicts.

In fact, while we often use the word “worship” for what people do at shrines (and temples, and churches, etc.), there is little actual “worshiping” going on in Shinto.  The kami are not all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good.  They are gods because they possess powers beyond those of mortal humans, and can intercede in human affairs for the sake of those who petition them properly.  But they are not “worshiped” for simply existing as the gods of monotheistic religions have grown accustomed to being.

“And unlike their Japanese counterparts, American politicians do not come to Arlington to make statements about current foreign policy.”

I challenge Kotler to find any press conference about foreign policy held at Yasukuni.  Politicians go there to pray like anyone else.  If anything, they rather try to avoid making any statements as much as possible.

“Indeed, any effort to go beyond recognition of the sacrifices made by American would backfire internally as well as externally.” (sic)

Really?  So if an American politician said that the US was completely justified in everything it did during the second World War it would have terrible ramifications for them?  Hardly.  Just the opposite, in fact:  any politician who insinuated that anything America did during World War II was wrong would be immediately on the defensive.  And if they said that America did more harm than good they’d be lucky not to be hanged in the street.

“But for Japan’s conservative leaders, Yasukuni has become a tacit political expression of Japanese defiance and autonomy.”

This is somewhat true.  The problem is that visiting Yasukuni to pay respects to the war dead has long been an ordinary obligation, just like visiting Arlington is for American politicians.  But China and Korea have now politicized it, and it is not possible to neither visit nor not visit Yasukuni.  So everyone has to make a choice.  If you do the traditional thing and visit, then it’s a “tacit expression of defiance and autonomy.”  But if you don’t visit, then you’re bowing to international pressure and disrespecting the dead.

It is hard to argue that visiting Yasukuni has not become a political act, but it certainly wasn’t “Japan’s conservative leaders” that made it so.  Their interests lie in de-politicizing visits to Yasukuni as much as possible.

“A visit to Yasukuni has always been a political act.”

No it hasn’t, see above.

“War is presented as a noble and glorious sacrifice preserving Japan’s Imperial institution.”

The people enshrined certainly did die preserving the Empire, that’s the condition for being enshrined.  Whether you think it is “noble and glorious” is really up to you.

“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 Emperor still unites the nation (by law), and he hardly needs Yasukuni to do that.  As for the Prime Minister, I would argue that honoring a nation’s war dead is not the same as “racasting the past.”

“The rites, the grounds, and museum all focus on Japan’s Pacific War.”

As talked about above, this is not true.  The focus is on the Empire of Japan, which ended simultaneously with the Pacific War, but was active well before it as well.

“The Shrine is for Imperial Japan. No postwar soldier is allowed deification.”

Actually this is somewhat undecided at the moment, as no “postwar solider” has died in combat.  There haven’t been any wars since the Pacific War, and no one has yet been killed in any of the peace keeping operations that Japan has participated in.  We’ll have to wait for the first combat death to see how Yasukuni Shrine reacts.  Heck, there aren’t even technically any Japanese “soldiers” at all, only Defense Force personnel.

“The story Yasukuni wants to tell is that an industrially sophisticated Japan liberated a backward Asia and that their fellow Asians should be grateful.”

I challenge you to provide evidence of these assertions.  Looks like libel to me.

“The Shrine tacitly rejects the international and national legal underpinnings of postwar Japan—the Peace Treaty and the Constitution.”

In what way?  As I stated above it is possible to accept the conditions of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and still enshrine those designated as war criminals.  As for the Constitution, which part or parts do you suppose Yasukuni is opposed to?

“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.”

This is factually incorrect:  Prime Minister Abe made clear that his visit was as a private citizen; it was not an official visit.  The constitutional separation between “Japan’s religious and political institutions” is exactly what allows him to do this:  he, like everyone else, has every right to exercise his religious freedom by visiting any religious institutions of his choosing.

Is it not much the same in America, or do American presidents refrain from visiting any religious institutions during their tenure?

And I have literally no idea where the Emperor’s divinity comes into it.  A visit to Yasukuni certainly suggests nothing of the sort.

“The Yasukuni Shrine is about declaring victory. The Emperor God was right, the victorious foreigners were wrong.”

Again, this is totally Kotler’s own opinion, devoid of any factual evidence.  It is not a shrine to victory (like say, the Arc de Triomphe or Nelson’s Column).  No where does it declare that the Emperor is a god, nor does it even say that the Allies were wrong (which would hardly be a controversial statement).

“Yasukuni is not about contrition or reflection, but about certainty. There, Japan did not lose the war.”

What?  Yasukuni certainly makes no assertions that Japan did not, in fact, lose the war.  It certainly is a place for reflection, but, no, not necessarily contrition.  It is not a shrine dedicated to victory or apology.

“Yasukuni is a place of defiance, and this is what separates it most from places of memory like Arlington National Cemetery.”

If Yasukuni is a place of defiance it is only because people like Kotler have made it so.  As way of explanation let’s imagine that Japan objected to anyone involved with the indiscriminate bombing campaign of Japan being buried at Arlington (which was a war crime even as admitted by its chief designer, Curtis LeMay).  Would the US consent to do this?  Of course not, they have never even apologized for this senseless slaughter of countless civilians.  So from now on anytime any high ranking American politician visited Arlington Japan would hold press conferences protesting the act, saying that America needs to recognize its history, etc.  Arlington would from that point on be a “place of defiance.”  To visit it would be to defy the international pressure from Japan, and assert that America did nothing wrong in its horrific firebombings of Japan.

But what would have changed?  The action of visiting the cemetery would be exactly the same as before Japan’s demands.  If visiting Yasukuni is a political act, an act of defiance, etc. etc., it is only because there are those outside of Japan who have decided to make it so.  It is like deciding that the two finger “peace sign” is actually an aggressive and insulting sign, the new middle finger.  And should anyone flash you the peace sign you will become angry and upset because they have insulted you deeply.  In that situation you really only have yourself to blame for feeling insulted in the first place.

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