"I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine in Musashino." – the Meiji Emperor, 1874
"No matter in what capacity or form Japanese leaders visit Yasukuni, in essence it is an attempt to deny Japan's history of aggression through militarism." – Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, 2013
Into a leafy, unassuming six hectares in Tokyo's Chiyoda ward, is concentrated Japan's bitterest, most explosive cocktail of history, religion and politics.
The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates the souls of two and a half million people – deified as kami, as is the custom – who died in service of Japan since the shrine's establishment by the Meiji Emperor in 1869, particularly in the catalogue of conflicts Japan was involved in since: those being the Boshin War, Satsuma Rebellion, First Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, WWI, invasion of Manchuria, Second Sino-Japanese War, and of course the Greater East Asian War (WWII). In other words, a memorial to war dead, grounded in cultural and religious commemoration – as is common in many countries.
It is also, more infamously, the focus of an seething international controversy. This is because as far as the last of those wars is concerned, the souls esnshrined include among them fourteen officials convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-8) of class-A war crimes, and a further thousand similarly implicated in Japanese atrocities during what was assuredly a rampage of aggression and bloodthirst across East and Southeast Asia.
The controversy arises from the miring of this matter in today's morass of confrontational regional politics, swaggering nationalisms, and painful histories improperly learnt from and now bent in service of agendas in today's contestations, whether on what kind of country Japan should be, or in its relationships with its neighbours, particularly China and Korea. With the protests that flare up each time Japanese politicians – including Prime Ministers – visit Yasukuni, its name frequently become synonymous with the unapologetic, right-wing uyoku dantai that would rewrite Japan's wartime madnesses out of history books and substitute shame for pride, and even now parade through the streets of Tokyo in dark cars festooned with imperial banners, speakers blaring patriotic nostalgia, and banners calling for the expulsion of foreigners, murder of Koreans, or other miscellaneous exhortations to ethno-national supremacist pride.
Japan's part in the great mid-twentieth century cataclysm is a subject I have discussed on this blog before, and return to here. On a matter obscured from informed inquiry by the explosiveness of extreme positions on all sides, I set out to examine Yasukuni myself – and its attached war museum – so as to develop my own conclusions.