Revisiting the Yasukuni Shrine

The Syagō Hyō, a stone pillar at the entrance engraved with the name of the shrine. 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the shrine, so there are repairs and improvements being done all throughout the grounds.

Last month Brett and I gave up before we got to the main structures at the Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社). After a day of walking all over downtown Tokyo, by the time we got to the shrine we were worn out, so only walked down the main pathway to the torii gate at the entrance before turning around and heading back to the station to go home.

Immense stone lanterns and temple lions flank the entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The lantern-lined path leads up to the main shrine enclosure and the Yushukan museum. Brett and I made it as far as the torii in the distance on our first visit.

Yesterday we ended up with an unexpected “free” day – the grands’ other grandmother came to watch our granddaughter for the day, who is still home with a cold, and our son was able to pick up our grandson from his school. So, since it was a lovely day, and the Yasukuni Shrine is just a few stops down from our station on the subway line, we decided it would be a good time to revisit the shrine as well as tour the museum there, which we had been told was a must-see, and the most interesting thing at the shrine.

The entrance to the main shrine enclosure.
Verdigris coats the bronze torii at the entrance.
On the doors of the main gate are huge gold chrysanthemums, the Imperial crest.

Yasukuni was founded by the Emperor Meiji in 1869 and commemorates those who died in service to Japan, beginning with the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868. Interestingly, the shrine’s name means “Pacifying the Nation” even though it is dedicated to war dead. Before the war Yasukuni was an official state Shinto shrine, but following the war that relationship was terminated and now it’s an individual religious corporation, maintained and supported through private funds. The names, birth dates, and place of death of nearly 2.5 million men, women, children and even pets are enshrined at Yasukuni, and the shrine also has interred the souls of anyone killed during WWII, including those from other countries.

The main shrine. There was a memorial service going on inside while we were there.
Most shinto shrines are tended by young women (miko), but at Yasukuni the attendants were young men.

Of all those enshrined, 1,068 are war criminals, including fourteen Class A war criminals – those responsible for the planning, preparation and waging of WWII, including General Tojo – which has created controversy over the years, especially from countries who suffered under the Japanese during the war. Originally, the U.S. Occupation Authority (GHQ) planned to raze the shrine and put a dog track in its place, but officials were reminded that honoring war dead is the sacred duty of any country and let the shrine stay. It was during this time that Yasukuni became an independent religious activity.

Performances were going on a stage on the shrine grounds. The woman above sang while accompanied by a shamisen. Chairs were set up under the trees for an audience. Later a man appeared to be presenting a puppet show.

Yasukuni-jinja had a very different feel to it than other shrines we’ve visited, but that just may be because its purpose is very different from other shrines. I don’t believe we have anything similar in the United States, although maybe Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier may come close. Up until 1944, the names of the war dead were read and enshrined at Yasukuni every day, as national heroes with great pomp and ceremony, and citizens were required to listen to the services on the radio.

The first thing you see upon entering the Yushukan museum is a Mitsubishi Zero fighter. They were used during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and were called the “scourge” of the Pacific war because of their speed and capabilities.
This restored engine actually served on the Thai-Burma railroad, which was built for the Japanese by British and American prisoners of war. Thailand returned the engine to Japan for the museum.
The final several rooms we walked through in the museum were filled with boards holding over 10,000 photos of Japanese war dead from the Second World War. It was a very sobering exhibit. Every war has two sides, and these men also served and died for their country.

The last place we visited at the shrine was the Yushukan Museum. We found the museum’s point of view to be interesting, to say the least. We found it a bit disturbing that major periods, such as the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Manchuria in 1931 were referred to only in the context of “incidents.” According to the Nanking exhibit for example, it was only Chinese military members dressed in civilian clothes trying to escape who were “dealt with,” completely avoiding the horrific massacre of the civilian population that took place. There was very little about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and although I didn’t really expect to see much of anything on the topic, there was nothing mentioned anywhere about prisoners of war. In other words, there was nothing in the museum expressing acknowlegement of the death, destruction, and suffering brought on by a war Japan precipitated. Still, in spite of the tone and the small amount of English available in the displays, the museum’s exhibits were interesting and we were both glad we had taken the time to go through it.

Passing back through the main gate to leave the shrine – a few cherry trees were still in bloom at the shrine.
Sitting between the Yasukuni Shrine and the Budokan, on a tall stone base, is the Kudan Hill lighthouse (Jotomyodai), built in 1871 next to the shrine.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of visiting shrines and temples in Japan. From the large and important, to small structures perched on the side of the road, there is something intrinsically fascinating about each one. Yasukuni Shrine serves a very distinctive function in Japan, and along with the museum made for a thought-provoking visit.


8 thoughts on “Revisiting the Yasukuni Shrine

  1. How interesting. The Germans were not even allowed to acknowledge their dead when we lived there in the 1980’s. In fact my landlord was taken to jail when they found out he had SS materials in his house.
    When we lived in Honolulu in the 1990’s there was a large cry that the US had provoked and started WWII. There was no real push back, and a shrine to Japanese war dead was erected. I never followed if that continued on. Do shrines, such as the one you visited, justify the victim, instead of aggressor, belief? The hero instead of the villain?
    In China, we were present at the ceremony commemorating the fall of Nanking. Powerful and I did not speak the language. There were some American Flying Tiger pilots in town. Amazing reception.
    Seems similar to the Confederate war statues debate. Do we honor people who died for their people even if they were unjustified? We had no family in that fight, so I have stayed clear of the debate.
    Fascinating to see how other countries handle it
    Thank you for sharing it in such a beautiful way.


    1. The theme of this museum seemed to be one of wars being what they had to do, for the noblest of reasons. Japan was not at fault, so not victims but not aggressors either. I am a big fan of Japan and the Japanese, but their inability to express contrition for some of the really horrific things they did, or to take too long to apologize, are dark marks on their record.

      The museum and the shrine have long been associated with right-wing nationalists and it really is evident in the way the museum is ordered and the inability to admit to any wrongdoing in even the slightest way.

      I have no problem with countries honoring their dead and those who served, and cemeteries and such even for enemy combatants are sacred ground, or a place like this shrine. Seeing those photos of all the Japanese who died and some of their letters showed that they were fighting for their country just as our soldiers and sailors did, and missed their families just as much. But, there’s a clear line between honoring the dead and glorifying them. The shrine itself was pretty low key; the museum on the other hand was not.


  2. I visited this shrine when I was in Tokyo. I didn’t go into the museum. It was closed but there was a sheet of printed material in English out the front to take away. I found it quite disturbing. Basically the page said Japan was not an aggressor but a defender and that the war criminals should be exonerated.

    All countries have their alt- or extreme right and nationalist groups, I suppose. But it did anger me. It’s not only the denial of any crimes against humanity with the treatment of the POWs and before 1942, the invasion of China, but the painting of Japan as a victim.

    I had a visceral reaction to the picture of the engine from the Burma railway. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I’d visited the museum. And I didn’t even have family who were POWs. I think it is the feeling the museum glorifies Japanese actions.


    1. I had a visceral reaction to the train as well – all I could think of were the British and American prisoners of war who built that railway, under absolutely horrific conditions. There was not even one sentence that the railroad had been built by prisoners of war let alone any mention of their responsibility for the crimes that were committed against those prisoners or civilians in other places.

      The whole theme of the museum was glorifying the dead, and that Japan was not an aggressor – they had to take the actions they did, and for the best reasons. The place left a very sour taste in my mouth, and provided some angry feelings about the motives of those operating the museum. I can feel real sorrow and compassion for those that fought for Japan; they served and died their country, and believed that what they were fighting for at the time was honorable and good. They were fathers, sons, husbands, friends just like soldiers and sailors from any other country.

      I read later that some Japanese these days want nothing to do with Yasukuni, and go to great lengths to keep their family members from being enshrined there.


  3. Wow…that’s quite a museum. I appreciate your pictures and sharing it, as always. You do such a great job of sharing your journey.


    1. Quite a museum is putting it mildly. We were told it was a must see, but we discovered that wasn’t for the exhibits but because we had to experience the mindset behind it (Japan was not the aggressor, and was forced to go to war) for ourselves. Both Brett and I left feeling somewhat dazed and more than a bit angry.


    1. Thank you for this correction. I was only aware of the British and U.S. involvement (it was known the Death Railway). The Australian prisoners of war were the first to be sent to work in the railway, from Changi Prison in Singapore. The Dutch were also early prisoners. The total number of POW who died working on the railroad is believed to be over 16,000.


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