A group of Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine after they paid respect to war deads during the annual spring festival in Tokyo, Japan, April 22, 2015. [Photo/IC]
Thanks to foreigners’ poor knowledge of what Yasukuni Shrine actually represents, the Japanese government has become used to defending the practice of paying homage to the war dead at the site, which among others honors 14 Class-A war criminals of World War II. The Japanese government claims “to mourn the war dead is common in other parts of the world and thus it is not wrong for Japan to do the same in accordance with its tradition”.
In 2006, then Japanese chief Cabinet secretary and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued in his book that, to pay homage to the war dead at the Yasukuni Shrine is an observance of one of the country’s traditional folk customs and not a religious ritual in contravention of the principle of not mixing religion with politics. To legitimize Japanese politicians’ visits to the shrine, Abe has also compared them to the homage paid by the presidents of the United States at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
His contention is a blatant attempt to mislead world opinion.
To understand what actually the Yasukuni Shrine represents, it is important to know what is Shintoism. Shinto is an ideology that advocates aggression and expansion, and was propounded as the national religion to counter the spread of Catholicism in Japan. The impact of Western thoughts and the spread of Catholicism in Japan in the late 16th century prompted Toyotomi Hideyoshi to promote Shintism as the means to strangle Catholicism.
Toyotomi used Shintoism to assign Japanese “deities” to all things on Earth and promote Japan as the “center” of Asia to confront Catholicism, which advocates universal value. Thus the Shinto religion became a tool to promote the legitimacy of Toyotomi ‘s rule and legitimize his expansionist policies. Using the Shinto ideology, Japan soon launched two all-out but failed attacks on the Korean Peninsula. But despite Toyotomi’s failed military adventures, the expansionist ideology took deep roots in Japan.
Believing China’s civilization based on scholars and officials was too weak, the Shinto religion in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868) was reformed into the Bushido spirit. After the signing of unequal treaties with Western powers during the late Edo period, Ito Hirohumi and other key members of the Meiji Restoration (of imperialism in Japan) came to believe that Japan’s losses to Western powers should be made up by the neighboring countries.
During the Meiji Restoration, Shinto’s expansionist ideology evolved into militarism, with Tennoism and the Yasukuni Shrine becoming its integral parts, and turned Japan into a brutal military power seeking foreign expansion through the use of forces.
After World War II, Japan neither reflected on, let alone abandoning, the expansionist ideology. As a result, many even in postwar Japan believe the ideological development that began in the 16th century was rational. Internationally, too, some scholars view Shinto as the core element of Japanese culture and folk customs, and thus conclude that Japanese traditions and culture must be respected and protected if the US wants to make its global leadership acceptable to Japan. Such a view has helped preserve Shintoism and Tennoism even after Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces that ended World War II.
Shintoism is not by any means a modern ideology, as some Japanese have claimed. Instead, it is a military ideology coated with a strong religious color, with Tennoism on one side and the Yasukuni Shrine on the other.
The author is a scholar with the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.