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Yasukuni Shrine dominated Sino-Japanese relations from 2001 to 2006, and my life from early to late summer 2010. I’ve more or less finished my dissertation, which focused on those years, but I thought I’d write briefly about the future of Yasukuni Shrine in Japanese domestic politics and bilateral relations with the PRC and Korea.

Yasukuni Shrine was built in the Meiji period as a place to pacify the souls of those who died during Japan’s modern wars. It functioned both as a religious repository for the war dead, and a place to glorify their sacrifice. As pre-war nationalism reached its apogee, Yasukuni became a symbolic pillar of the Emperor-led state, along with patriotic education and military conscription. After World War 2, Yasukuni entered an ambiguous place. It was officially an apolitical, private Shinto shrine, yet it continued to function in the minds of many as a national centre for memory and war commemoration. Right-wing groups from the 1950s encourages renationalisation and visits by prime ministers and other politicans. In 1978 14 Class-A war criminals were enshrined. In 1985, Nakasone Yasuhiro visited to mass condemnation for the PRC. The Yasukuni issue lay more or less dormant until 2001, when Koizumi Junichiro first pledged to visit.

Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine six times in his official capacity as Prime Minister of Japan, from 2001-2006. During those visits Sino-Japanese relations sank to a post-Cold War nadir, including mass protests around China in 2005. Following his departure in 2006, Sino-Japanese relations improved, and no subsequent Prime Minister- including the hawkish Abe Shinzo and the mad Aso Taro- has visited officially.

There are contradictory signs as to the future of Yasukuni Shrine in politics: on the one hand, the Kan cabinet made a collective decision for no member to visit on the symbolically significant date of 15th August this year. On the other hand, supporters of Yasukuni have just created a “Yasukuni college” as an initial counter to the DPJ’s insistence in turning Chidorigafuchi into an alternative site of worship.

There are, as far as I can see it, three problems with moving the centre of national memory to Chidorigafuchi. First, Yasukuni Shrine has, according to Shinto “theology”, the enshrined souls of over 2 million servicemen who died during Japan’s modern wars. Thus for any worshippers with a strong belief in Shinto, Chidorigafuchi simply cannot replace Yasukuni Shrine as the main site of worship for those souls. Second, there is the issue of right-wing groups, such as the Nihon Izokukai, who congregate outside of Yasukuni Shrine, and campaign for its continued presence on the Japanese political landscape. They are clearly not going to move down the road to Chidorigafuchi. On the other hand, they are declining in influence for one simple reason- they are dying. In failing to attract younger generations to their cause, groups such as the Nihon Izokukai are overwhelmingly made up of the Second World War generation. So maybe this factor has less influence as time progresses. Third, moving to Chidorigafuchi can be accomplished, but while Yasukuni still exists many would see the change as a ‘temporary’ one – that is, as soon as a centre-right government re-emerges, there will be calls from the right to renew the Yasukuni visits, restoring Japan’s prestige, and ending the ‘masochistic’ behaviour that leads Japan to kowtow to its Asian neighbours.

I believe the DPJ should fight fire with fire- what is needed to truly establish Chidorigafuchi is a conscious political effort, including the mass worship of the Cabinet at Chidorigafuchi on a symbolic date, and repeated assertions that the national cemetery represents all of those Japanese who died during the Second World War, not just the soldiers. Only then will Yasukuni’s spell over Japanese politics and diplomacy be ended.

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