01.09.2022 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Yasukuni Shrine Factor in Another Ceremony in Japan Marking the End of the War in the Pacific


At the outset, a few words about the dates by which countries mark events of international significance. It is quite common for something to be perceived as the same event, but its beginning and end are dated differently by different countries.

In Japan, the date August 15, 1945 is significant because it is believed to mark the end of fighting in the “Pacific Ocean theater of World War II”. This, among other things, cost the country the lives of over two million soldiers and around one million civilians.

In fact, even after that date, things were very different in the various sections of the “theater” mentioned above for some time afterwards.  But Japan, again, believes that the war itself ended with Emperor Hirohito’s speech on the night of August 14-15, 1945, when he declared his acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration and ordered his armed forces to end the fighting. The signing of the Instrument of Surrender on September 2 aboard the battleship Missouri was no more than a formal record (“on paper”) of what had already happened two weeks earlier. The August 15, 2015 incident is also given weight by the fact that it came from the Emperor, whose figure, due to national cultural and historical features, occupies an exceptional place in Japanese perceptions of everything that happens in the world.

All countries have adopted some kind of remembrance ceremony for those who have died in certain wars. In Japan it is held at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which was built especially for this purpose in the second half of the 19th century. According to Shinto tradition, the souls of all soldiers who died in wars (including civil ones) in which Japan was involved from the second half of the 19th century are buried there. Of all the deaths during this time, about 90% (2,133,885) come from the last war. In 1978, the souls of the 14 Japanese wartime leaders who had been declared “Class A suspects” by the Tokyo Tribunal were added to them.

It is mainly this latter circumstance (plus the very fact that this “specialized” shrine even exists) that gives an international component to the seemingly purely domestic ceremony commemorating those killed on the front lines of World War II in Japan. The ceremony takes place on August 15. And every such act, especially when it involves members of the country’s incumbent leadership, is not without the (wary) attention of Japan’s neighbors. Mostly on the part of China.

That can be explained firstly by the complicated (to put it mildly) history of China-Japan relations in the second half of the 19th century and also secondly (and mainly) by the general deterioration in the political sphere of relations between the two leading East Asian countries. Mutual suspicions began to grow as the PRC’s emergence as a second global power and Japan’s overcoming of the post-war syndrome have synchronized over the past two decades.

This second process is often referred to as “normalization”, a term which until recently has been used primarily to refer to the various measures introduced since the beginning of the 2000s to actually remove the antiwar restrictions in the 1947 constitution that is still in force. External critics of this kind of “normalization” of Japan have invariably been countered by the fact that for decades the country’s defense expenditures have been within 1% of its GDP and the overall defensive posture of its armed forces (still referred to in English as Self-Defense Forces, SDF).

In the last two or three years, however, it has been increasingly said that a “normal” Japan should gradually raise the aforementioned expenditure to the “normal” 2 percent of national GDP, and that the SDF should have an (also “normal”) offensive-defensive appearance.

Notably, as soon as this “normalization” took shape, Japanese government officials at various levels began commemorating ancestors who had been killed in various wars on the battlefield. Depending on the current foreign policy environment, the ceremony takes the form of either a direct visit to Yasukuni Shrine or the sending of the prescribed offerings to its attendants.

The first prominent Japanese statesman to visit Yasukuni Shrine in 1985 (i.e. after the inclusion in the memorial list and the convictions by the Tokyo Tribunal) was then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. However, further on, for a relatively long period of time, this level of demonstrative action was the first and the last, as the process of ending the Cold War with the prospect of “the end of history” had already been set in motion.  Signs of a “resurgence”, however, were already evident at the turn of the 21st century, not least in the already mentioned competitive positioning of the PRC and Japan. This was evidenced by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, 2001. It should be noted, however, that it has been visited (before and after this date) by retired Japanese prime ministers in private capacity.

The only time the most prominent post-war Japanese statesman, the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has participated “fully” in the event was when he visited the Yasukuni Shrine eight months after his return to office in late December 2012. By then, the trail of an incident two years ago involving the detention by Japanese border guards of a Chinese fishing boat in the area of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands had not yet fully receded. Those islands, moreover, had just been “bought back” by the government from a certain “private owner”. Both have permanently ruined an already difficult bilateral relationship. So with that visit, Abe demonstrated to both his own people and his Chinese opponent the firmness of his starting position.

However, there have since been attempts on both sides to ease tensions in bilateral relations and on August 15 of each successive year, Abe confined himself to making appropriate ritual offerings at Yasukuni Shrine. At the same time, there were almost always some ministers in his government who performed this memorial ritual directly at the shrine. The resulting rebuke was followed by an explanation that the prime minister “cannot forbid” his subordinates to do what they see fit in their free time.

Neither of the two prime ministers who followed Shinzo Abe have visited Yasukuni Shrine. On August 15 this year, it was visited by three ministers from the new Fumio Kishida government, although he confined himself to making a ritual offering. A rather incisive editorial in the Chinese Global Times commenting on the event cites photos of the memorial to one of the darkest events of the initial phase of the “Second Sino-Japanese War”, which took place in Nanjing. One of the photos easily shows the number of victims of what is commonly referred to as the “Nanjing Massacre”.

It seems fitting that in the last two decades references to the so-called “Murayama statement” have all but disappeared from the official political rhetoric in Tokyo. Its author, Tomiichi Murayama, then serving as prime minister in 1995, formulated three theses in connection with the painful topic of the relatively recent period of Japan-China relations. The final thesis was to express “sincere remorse” on behalf of today’s Japan for what happened during the period in question.

In this context, it is worth noting the qualitative change in assessments of the aforementioned recent past that has been observed for almost three decades. And not only by the Japanese political establishment. By the middle of the last decade, slightly less than half of the country’s population believed it had nothing to be sorry about because its neighbors had “deliberately distorted” (a stronger term is used – “falsified”) the reality of Japan’s presence on their territories. Since then, the number of supporters of such views has only increased.

In the overall issue of Japan’s reassessment of both its own recent history and its current positioning in the international arena, the Yasukuni Shrine factor hardly goes beyond political symbolism.

But it is by no means a secondary issue, since the very reappearance of this factor is a diagnosis of ill-being, to put it neatly, in the general state of affairs both in East Asia and in the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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