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.
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 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.