Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday 26 December 2013. Abe had previously visited the so-called “war shrine” in 2006, before his first term as Japanese Prime Minister, but had since been unable to make the visit. Thursday marked the first visit by an in-office Prime Minister since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who made annual visits publically but as an individual citizen rather than visiting the shrine as the Prime Minister. PM Abe’s visit has been reported as being the visit of an individual citizen of Japan, not an official visit by the nation’s Prime Minister.
Yasukuni Shrine is located in Chiyoda, a region of Tokyo, and was established by the late Emperor Meiji to memorialize those who gave their lives in the service of the island nation, particularly during the Meiji Restoration. More the 2.4 million individuals have been enshrined at Yasukuni, having died between 1867, the time of the Boshin War, and the end of World War II. Controversy over this shrine stems primarily from the latter period as those enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine include convicted war criminals.
In March 2007, documents were released by the National Diet Library of Japan and from the documents it was learned that a private meeting between the Health and Welfare Ministry and representatives of Yasukuni Shrine took place in January 1969 resulting in a decision to include convicted war criminals from WWII among the enshrined at Yasukuni and the decision to keep that information from the general public. In late 1978, Class A war criminals from WWII were enshrined at Yasukuni, including the infamous Hideki Tojo who was hanged for his war crimes. The majority of modern controversy regarding Yasukuni Shrine began in the mid-1980s.
Neighboring countries, particularly China and South Korea who both have rocky histories with Japan, are often quite publically vocal about their disappointment or disgust whenever a Japanese Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine and the response to PM Abe’s visit this past Thursday is no exception. Abe has expressed that he did not wish to offend or anger neighboring China and South Korea, both of which he has been working on improving relations. The U.S. has also expressed disappointment in Abe’s decision to visit the shrine, noting the rise in tensions reported by neighboring nations, but Abe has suggested the U.S. disappointment is more from a misunderstanding.
Prime Minister Abe visited the shrine as a private citizen of Japan, to pay respects for those who had lost their lives in service of the nation, which he now leads. Over 2.4 million individuals have been enshrined at Yasukuni, and although WWII war criminals are included in that list, there are many others enshrined there as well. In Japanese society, it is not uncommon to pray for and pay respects to the dead, so Abe’s actions should be considered in that context. China and Korea have similar traditions however, but reportedly see the Prime Minister’s visit as outrageous. Even the Japanese government has expressed mixed feelings over Abe’s decision, some expressing a wish that the Prime Minister would focus more on economic policies and current important issues rather than such traditions.