Church and State in Japan: The Case of the Yasukuni Shrine

In February 2009, Okuribito (“Departures”) received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. This was cause for celebration in Japan, a nation hungry for good news after many months of gloomy reports about the downturn of the economy and the ensuing financial troubles at even the most successful Japanese companies.

Unfortunately, the political world does not provide much basis for optimism. Prime Minister Taro Aso is barely hanging on to power, and the leader of the opposition party, Ichiro Ozawa, is engulfed in controversy and scandal. In this dismal economic and political environment, it is a pleasant diversion to celebrate the Oscar and escape to the theater.

Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita, is a film about a down-and-out musician who returns to his small hometown in northern Japan to search for work. The “travel agency” job he thinks he is applying for turns out to be part of the funeral business. Daigo’s wife is so offended by his new line of work that she flees back home to her own family. She is only won over when circumstances bring her into a family gathering where Daigo’s graceful skill and sensitive care of the deceased is experienced as a great comfort to the bereaved family.

It has been over two decades since Juzo Itami’s Ososhiki (“The Funeral,” 1984) brought the issue of death and family relationships to the Japanese screen in such a powerful and entertaining way. This earlier film also dealt with Japanese religious sensibilities (or lack thereof), but the focus was on how an urban family struggled to cope with a death after losing the Buddhist traditions and rituals that had guided generations of Japanese through the grieving process over centuries. In contrast to The Funeral, ritual care of the dead in Departures is cast in a more positive light and, interestingly, without a direct connection to institutional religion.

As I left the theater several weeks ago, I was struck by the silence of the audience as they made their way to the exit. In spite of the stigma attached to the protagonist’s occupation, it is apparent that many viewers considered this a life-affirming story. Given that it addresses such universal human concerns as love and death, estrangement and reconciliation, and the renewal of familial bonds, it is not surprising that it would connect with viewers beyond Japan. For those of us who make our life on this island nation, the ritual care and sensitivity to the needs and wishes of the bereaved depicted in Departures are reminders of the more general social etiquette, politeness, and civility that we experience and take for granted on a daily basis.

The Story of the Yasukuni Shrine

In stark contrast to this soft side of Japanese culture, there exists another way of dealing with the dead in Japan that many bereaved families experience as uncaring and unbearable. During the time that Departures was attracting international acclaim and being celebrated, the courts in Japan were busy processing lawsuits against the Yasukuni Shrine and the Japanese government for their alleged disregard for the personal rights and concerns of bereaved families and violation of the constitutional separation of religion and state. Media coverage of these cases has been minimal, but they deserve some attention since they reveal another side to life in contemporary Japan.

Court cases related to the Yasukuni Shrine (the controversial site dedicated to Japan’s military war dead) have been going on for some time now. Most recently they were provoked by Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, who stirred public controversy by following through on his campaign promise to LDP members that he would visit the Yasukuni Shrine in his “official” capacity if elected, which he did a number of times between 2001 and 2006. There was considerable domestic opposition to Koizumi’s visits, and eight different court cases were launched against him across the nation. Over 900 plaintiffs claimed that his behavior violated the Constitutional separation of religion and state, causing them mental anguish, and demanded compensation. Although the district courts dismissed these lawsuits, the Osaka High Court judges ruled on September 30, 2005 that the Prime Minister’s visits did violate the constitution, but denied compensation for damages. This decision did not seem to discourage Koizumi, however, as he returned to Yasukuni the following month during the Fall Festival. Emboldened by the Prime Minister’s actions, 195 Diet members made a group visit to Yasukuni the following day (these politicians belong to a group within the Diet organized in 1981 to encourage regular visits and support of the Yasukuni Shrine).

Koizumi’s behavior also provoked widespread international concern. The governments of South Korea and the Peoples’ Republic of China issued strong official statements and criticisms of his actions. It did not escape notice in the United States either. At a hearing before the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations on September 14, 2006, Republican Henry Hyde and Democratic member Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor, both expressed their concerns about Japan’s “historical amnesia.” In their statements, they urged future prime ministers to avoid visits to the shrine out of concern for peace in the region, and urged them to do something about Yushukan, the museum adjacent to the shrine, which promotes a revisionist history that especially disturbs Japan’s nearest neighbors. As Lantos explained:

For the survivors of World War II in Asia and America visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where fourteen Class-A war criminals are interred would be the equivalent of laying a wreath at the graves of Himmler, Rudolph Hess, and Herman Greer in Germany. My message to the incoming Japanese prime minister is very simple; paying one’s respects to war criminals is morally bankrupt and unworthy of a great nation such as Japan. This practice must end.

In light of the widespread criticism and legal action against Koizumi, it is not surprising that his successors in this office (Shintaro Abe and Yasuo Fukuda) avoided visiting the Yasukuni Shrine during their brief tenure. It remains to be seen how Japan’s first Roman Catholic Prime Minister, Taro Aso, will deal with this issue now that he has assumed the office, but he did declare in a 2008 interview that prime ministers “should” visit the shrine. His personal homepage also contains a clear statement of his strong support for Yasukuni, and his proposal for restoring direct government support. In spite of his commitment to the shrine, it is hard to imagine that he will chance a shrine visit this year, given his already low approval ratings and the dire economic situation.

My interest here is not so much with the question of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni, but the way in which the war dead have been unilaterally enshrined in the postwar period without regard for the wishes or feelings of many bereaved families. Although State Shinto was disestablished by the Occupation authorities at the end of the war, the Yasukuni Shrine survived in the postwar period as a voluntary religious organization supported by the faithful and without direct financial aid from the government. In some respects, however, it has operated “as if” nothing had been changed by the Occupation policies or the postwar Constitution, which established religious freedom and the clear separation of religion and state (Articles 20 and 89).

Given the postwar legal framework, one might assume that those among the bereaved families who wished to have a family member enshrined would indicate this to Yasukuni and request that the ritual be conducted. In fact, however, Yasukuni Shrine officials contacted the Ministry of Health and Welfare—without consulting any families—to request assistance in the preparation of lists for all of the war dead so that enshrinement rituals could be completed. After the war, this ministry was responsible for veterans’ affairs, repatriation of Japanese from overseas, and the Yasukuni Shrine, which had been managed by the Army and Navy. The paper trail revealing cooperation between the Yasukuni Shrine and government offices stretches back to 1956. That year the Ministry of Health and Welfare sent instructions to city and prefecture offices to assist with the shrine’s administrative needs related to enshrinement plans. At least 20 meetings between shrine representatives and government officials occurred over the years to discuss the issue and arrange for the paperwork required. Extensive documentation revealing the extent to which government offices were involved in assisting with this process is now preserved in the National Diet Library.

While those who belong to the Japan Association of War-Bereaved Families (Nihon Izoku Kai) are strong supporters of Yasukuni and pleased about the enshrinement, there are many who belong to alternative associations of bereaved families—the Shinshu Izokukai (Buddhist) and Heiwa Izokukai (Christian), for example. They are appalled that their family members have been enshrined and deified, and are now worshipped as a kami (god), along with the Class-A war criminals enshrined several decades ago.

Over the years, a number of individuals have made personal visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and requested that enshrinement be cancelled and the names of their family dead be removed from the shrine register. In addition to appeals from Japanese families, there are also Koreans and Taiwanese who have been dismayed and angered to learn that Yasukuni’s generous enshrinement policy extended even to individuals from former colonial domains who had been conscripted and mobilized for Japan’s war efforts, and later died “on behalf of the Emperor and nation.” While shrine representatives no doubt believe they are honoring their memory and sacrifice, these Korean and Taiwanese families feel they have been exploited by Japan in both life and death, with their ancestors still spiritually under “colonial rule” symbolized by enshrinement in Yasukuni.

In spite of their numerous personal appeals, Yasukuni priests have insisted that “de-enshrinement” is impossible. Families have never been consulted in advance, they explain, since all are enshrined according to the “will of the Emperor” and the tradition established in the early Meiji period. It has nothing to do with the will or desires of the deceased or the bereaved families. In other words, Yasukuni is engaged in “business as usual,” and “usual” here means according to the norms established in the prewar period. The “will of the Emperor,” according to priestly interpretation at the Yasukuni Shrine, still trumps individual choice and family religious tradition.

Much to the dismay of many Yasukuni supporters, however, it was recently revealed that even Emperor Hirohito was not pleased with the shrine’s handling of the war dead in the postwar decades. According to the diaries of Chamberlain Urabe and Chief Steward Tomita, both of whom served the late Emperor, he was opposed to the plan to enshrine Class-A war criminals. No doubt nervous about being too closely associated with those held responsible for Japan’s wars of aggression, he stopped making visits to the shrine from 1975 on. While many Japanese may be offended that a relative has become part of such a questionable pantheon, those who belong to the alternative associations of bereaved families are opposed to all that the Yasukuni Shrine stands for, particularly the glorification of so many tragic deaths and promotion of the view that Japan’s past wars were all about liberating Asia from Western colonialism and oppression.

Since the Yasukuni Shrine has been unwilling to comply with requests for cancellation of enshrinement and removal of names from the register, a number of individuals decided to pursue legal action against both the shrine and the Japanese government. Several years ago, lawsuits were launched almost simultaneously by three different groups and are now being processed by the courts in Tokyo, Osaka and Okinawa. Unlike the issue of prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni, these court proceedings have received minimal media coverage.

The nine plaintiffs in the Osaka case are an ecumenical group of seniors—ages ranging from 64 to 82—and include Buddhists and one Catholic priest. Although their philosophical and theological reasons for opposing the Yasukuni Shrine may differ, the plaintiffs were united in their view that ritual enshrinement without permission is a violation of their personal right to remember the deceased without interference from a third party. Individuals and families, the plaintiffs maintain, should be protected from actions and labeling that bring dishonor to a person’s name and memory.

While the plaintiffs made it clear that they were opposed to their family members being “used” by the Yasukuni Shrine to legitimize and beautify Japan’s past wars of aggression, they were primarily concerned in this case with the actions Yasukuni took regarding people who do not belong to the shrine. The plaintiffs demanded that the enshrinement be cancelled, and the names of the family members be erased from the shrine register. The judges regarded the plaintiffs’ claim that the self-image and memory of the deceased was damaged by Yasukuni’s actions to be too “subjective” and “abstract” to be taken seriously by the court, and their demands for compensation were denied.

The plaintiffs also argued that the enshrinement of their relatives was an illegal action carried out with close cooperation between the government and the Yasukuni Shrine, which is clearly prohibited by the postwar Constitution. In their view, the government violated their right to privacy and provided information to the shrine, which enabled it to proceed with the enshrinement ritual. The judges ruled, however, that the government could not be held responsible for the enshrinements, reasoning that the Health and Welfare Ministry routinely provided information regarding the deceased to various parties (in connection with pension inquiries, for example), and it would have been discrimination against a religious organization if the government offices refused to provide the requested information to Yasukuni. Although the government did provide information, in the end the decision to enshrine was made by Yasukuni officials according to their accepted tradition and practice, and did not involve the government.

The Osaka District Court dismissed the case as “groundless” and reduced it to the issue of religious freedom. Following the earlier decision of the Supreme Court in a 1988 enshrinement case, the judges ruled that the religious freedom of both parties—the Yasukuni Shrine and bereaved families—must be protected. The shrine’s “freedom” to remember and worship the dead according to their own tradition must be recognized. The Court is not in a position, they argued, to interfere with a religious organization and dictate what is appropriate belief and practice. While the judges conceded that it is clearly advisable to have the permission of the bereaved families, they concluded that the enshrinement did not violate their rights in any way since they were not forced to participate. Each party must allow the other to freely memorialize the dead in their own way and according to their respective faith tradition. Representatives of the Yasukuni Shrine and the government were obviously pleased with the Court’s decision, but the plaintiffs vowed to carry on their struggle to liberate their family members from the “cage” of the Yasukuni Shrine.

Masaharu Hishiki, a Buddhist priest and scholar, and leader of the support group for the plaintiffs in the Osaka case, finds it ironic that Articles 20 and 89 of the postwar Constitution, meant to establish religious freedom and “protect” people from the coercive practices of State Shinto (such as forced shrine visits during the war) are today being used to “protect” the religious freedom of the Yasukuni Shrine over the rights of individuals. In stark contrast to the judges’ perspective and reasoning, Hishiki argues that religious organizations do not have unlimited freedom. The government can intervene without violating the Constitutional separation of religion and state if a religious organization is involved in illegal activities. In fact, the courts have intervened in cases of tax evasion, fraudulent fundraising activities, harassment of individuals through high-pressure membership recruitment activities, and when religious groups engage in acts of violence and murder (the most extreme example in recent Japanese history is the Tokyo subway gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo members in 1995, which was legitimized by religious doctrine). All of these cases reveal that the courts and the Japanese public recognize there are some “limits” to the freedom of religion. In spite of all this, Hishiki maintains that the courts have given the Yasukuni Shrine a “free pass” to conduct business as usual even though their activities bring dishonor and shame to the name of the deceased, and contribute to the suffering of their bereaved families.

Limited media coverage of the Osaka trial and the ongoing cases in Tokyo and Okinawa means that the vast majority of Japanese are oblivious to their situation. In stark contrast to the happy office party and “Christmas” celebration scene in Departures, where Daigo’s mentor explains their “tolerance” policy and acceptance of the dead from any religious faith, the “politics of inclusion” as practiced by the Yasukuni Shrine reveals a harsher reality that still faces individuals and minorities in contemporary Japan.

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