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PacNet #5 — The Yasukuni Puzzle

On Dec. 26, 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo visited the Yasukuni Shrine. The visit invited harsh criticism from China and Korea and more reserved criticism from the United States and others. Domestically, there has not been strong controversy regarding the visit, unlike when Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited in 1985 or when Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made his first in 2002. In popular international media discourse, Abe is characterized as ultranationalist and Japan as drifting to the right. These overly simplistic narratives fail to appreciate the tremendous diversity among Japanese views and to understand the role the Yasukuni Shrine has played in both uniting and dividing the nation. The Yasukuni Shrine claims to have hosted the deified souls of military personnel who lost their lives in service for the nation. The controversy arose mainly after 1978 when the new chief priest of the Yasukuni Shrine added 14 war-time military and civilian leaders who were executed as Class-A war criminals by decisions of the Tokyo War Criminal Tribunal or who died during imprisonment to the list of souls enshrined at the shrine. The doubts of many Japanese about the legal, ethical, and factual legitimacy of the Tribunal and its rulings are at the heart of Japanese indifference to Abe’s visit.