How Japan made gods of its convicted war criminals

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Yasukuni shrine that has inflamed feelings across Asia is a sprawling complex of more than 20 buildings that glorifies the exploits of Japan's kamikaze warriors and parades its war criminals as gods.

The Yasukuni shrine that has inflamed feelings across Asia is a sprawling complex of more than 20 buildings that glorifies the exploits of Japan's kamikaze warriors and parades its war criminals as gods.

The shrine honours Japan's nearly 2.5 million war-dead in civil and foreign wars since 1853. Built on 25 acres of land in central Tokyo 132 years ago, it became the focus of international attention after a secret ceremony in 1978 that deified 14 leaders convicted by an Allied war tribunal as Class-A war criminals for their roles in the Second World War.

On an October night, a solemn Shinto ceremony elevated the souls of dead Japanese soldiers to the status of gods. Among them, unknown to the public, were the names of the wartime Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, and 13 other convicted leaders. News of the ceremony, which leaked out six months later, ignited widespread outrage over Yasukuni, seen by many in Japan, as well as by other Asian nations, as a symbol of military aggression.

The Japanese national flag, made an official symbol of the nation only in 1999, flies from lampposts around the grounds today and the shrine shares the site with a war museum that parades weapons including so-called "human torpedoes" or kaiten, suicide submarines.

It glorifies objects left by members of what the plaques describe as "special attack operations", the nation's kamikaze pilots. Outside the shrine, nationalists often park trucks and deliver messages over loudspeakers. The ashes of Tojo are housed in an inner sanctum there. He is widely regarded as the leader of Japan's aggression during the Second World War, and was hanged after his conviction by the Allied war crimes tribunal.

After leading Japanese forces in the Sino-Japanese war in Manchuria in the 1930s, Tojo became Prime Minister in 1941 and within two months ordered the raid on the American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor on Hawaii. In 1998, a Japanese film about his life provoked angry reactions from China, which saw it as a whitewash of Japan's war-time record, partly because it suggested that only a handful of people died in the Nanking massacre, the notorious atrocity in 1938 committed by victorious Japanese troops in China.

Inside the traditional wooden building, signs refer to Tojo and the other war criminals as "martyrs" who were "wrongly accused by the Allied forces, which unilaterally labelled them war criminals under the pretence of a court trial". Yasukuni, built in 1896 by order of the Emperor Meiji, became a central symbol of state Shintoism, under which the sovereign was revered as a god in whose name the wars were waged.

The shrine was supported by the state until the end of the Second World War but was stripped of government patronage after Japan's 1945 defeat. It has since been supported by a steady stream of donations.

The shrine has also become a massive tourism machine, attracting some eight million tourists annually who come to pray, look around and pick up souvenirs or fast food from one of the many stalls that line the walkway to its centre.

Comments