Pursuing Government Sponsorship for the Yasukuni Shrine

While the normalization processes facilitated the commemoration of South Korean and Chinese victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings, the LDP and the Japan Bereaved Families Association continued to work together to defend nationalist commemoration at the Yasukuni Shrine. In February 1966, the Ministry ofWelfare sent the Yasukuni Shrine deity-enshrinement documents for the fourteen Class A war criminals.63 After meeting with officials from the ministry in May 1967, Yasukuni priests decided to enshrine the Class A war criminals. The shrine’s board of directors approved the decision in January 1969, but the ministry and the shrine agreed not to publicize it.64 Then, in June 1969, the LDP submitted the so-called Yasukuni Shrine Bill (Yasukuni Jinja Hoan) to reinstate government sponsorship for the shrine.65

All the opposition parties, however, denounced the bill by arguing that government sponsorship of the Yasukuni Shrine was unconstitutional according to the principle of separation of religion and state.66 The JSP, for example, condemned the bill as an attempt to “affirm and glorify the imperialist war of aggression under the name of the emperor and designate the Yasukuni Shrine as a place to honor war dead of future wars of aggression. . . . The bill fails to examine Japan’s war responsibility for Asian peoples, who were the worst victims of Japan’s past aggression.”67 Given the strong criticisms and the tight schedule of the Diet session, the bill was discarded in August 1969, when the session was adjourned for a summer recess.68 The bill met the same fate when the LDP resubmitted it in 1970, 1971, and 1972.

When the LDP submitted the bill for the fifth time in May 1973, the Japan Bereaved Families Association and the Yasukuni Shrine stepped up their lobbying activities. In March 1974, the association organized a rally near the shrine and demanded that the LDP push through the opposition to pass the bill. Meanwhile, the chief Yasukuni priest, Tsukuba Fujimaro, submitted to Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and speakers of both houses a petition requesting the passage of the bill.69 The LDP responded by using its numerical dominance to pass the bill at the House of Representatives in May 1974, while all the opposition parties boycotted the vote in protest.70

The opposition parties, as well as Buddhist and Christian NGOs, strongly criticized the LDP’s move. The most damaging criticism, however, came from the House of Representatives Legislation Bureau, which firmly stated that government sponsorship of the Yasukuni Shrine would be unconstitutional unless the shrine changed almost all of its current practices to eliminate religious elements.71 Furthermore, even though the bill was sent to the House of Councillors, the ongoing session was to be adjourned in fewer than ten days. Given such a short window of opportunity, the LDP could pass the bill only if it completely ignored the opposition parties again. The LDP’s political calculation was complicated by the upcoming election for the House of Councillors. Not only was the LDP reluctant to galvanize supporters of the opposition parties at this time, but also the Diet customarily did not extend deliberation on a bill to the next session when an election was forthcoming.72

In the end, the LDP did not try to push the bill through the House of Councillors and, as a result, the bill was discarded in June 1974, for the fifth time. But the LDP still struggled in the July election of the House of Councillors and barely secured the house majority.73 Besides, the Yasukuni Shrine became reluctant to support the bill because they were worried about the bill’s ramifications: “If the Yasukuni Shrine Act is created according to the House of Representatives Legislation Bureau’s position, the Yasukuni Shrine will surely regress into an amorphous organization devoid of gods and spirits (shinreifuzai). . . . If we rush and end up enacting a bad law that will destroy the Yasukuni Shrine’s original form, we will regret forever.”74

The LDP and the Japan Bereaved Families Association therefore decided to suspend their campaign to reinstate de jure government sponsorship for the shrine. Instead, they decided to pursue de facto government sponsorship in the form of an “official visit” (koshiki sanpai) to the shrine by a prime minister and, ultimately, by the emperor. Such visits would symbolically mark the shrine as the national memorial to honor war dead for their sacrifices for the Japanese nation. As a first step in this new direction, Prime Minister Miki Takeo visited the shrine on August 15, 1975, the thirtieth anniversary of the Asia-Pacific War’s end. Miki’s visit was significant because it was the first time any prime minister had visited the shrine on this anniversary, the most important day in Japan for commemorating the war. But Miki was careful to state that he visited the shrine as a “private person” (shijin), not as prime minister, in order to avoid potential criticism from opposition parties and non-Shinto religious organizations.75

Miki’s cautious approach, however, frustrated some LDP members. Yagi Ichiro, for example, said to Miki, “I believe it is proper for the prime minister, a representative of the Japanese people, to officially visit Yasukuni for war gods who died for the country. You should pay an open, official visit.”76 In June 1976, the Japan Bereaved Families Association, the Yasukuni Shrine, and veterans’ groups also formed the Association to Honor War Gods (Eirei ni Kotaeru Kai) to advocate an official visit to the shrine. The association created local branches in all forty-eight prefectures and lobbied prefectural councils to adopt resolutions requesting the government to move toward an official visit. Thirty-seven prefectures and 1,548 municipalities adopted such resolutions.77 In April 1978, LDP members also created the Council of Diet Members to Honor War Gods (Eirei ni Kotaeru Giin Kyogikai) to promote an official visit. These efforts finally paid off on August 15, 1978, when Prime Minister Fukuda Takeo visited the shrine with other members of his cabinet and signed the shrine’s guestbook as “Prime Minister.”78

Around the same time, the Yasukuni Shrine selected Matsudaira Nagayoshi as new chief priest. Matsudaira was a former navy officer and more nationalistic than his predecessor, Tsukuba Fujimaro, who had been cautious not to implement the 1969 decision to enshrine the fourteen Class A war criminals.79 Under Matsudaira’s leadership, the shrine finally and covertly enshrined the Class A war criminals as war gods and “martyrs” (ju- nansha) in October 1978. Matsudaira wanted to enshrine the Class A war criminals because he thought that “unless we reject the Tokyo Trial historical view (Tokyo Saiban shikan) that regarded Japan as solely and entirely wrong, we can never reconstruct Japan spiritually.”80 He also justified the enshrinement by referring to the 1953 reform of the Act on Relief for Injured Veterans and Bereaved Families that had granted pensions to bereaved families of war criminals: “The Tokyo Trial was not based on a valid international law. Then, the Japanese government officially decided to treat those who had been prosecuted as war criminals as the same as other war dead by the domestic law. So, there was no problem in enshrining them.”81

The enshrinement of the Class A war criminals was reported by Asahi shinbun in April 1979. Opposition parties responded by demanding that Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi refrain from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine.82 JSP member Yamahana Sadao criticized Ohira, who was a Christian, by quoting a Christian priest: “The enshrinement of Class A war criminals leads to the denial of war responsibility.”83 When Ohira disregarded the opposition and went ahead with his visit, JCP member Yamanaka Ikuko argued, “Your action absolves the Class A war criminals, the leaders of the aggressive war (shinryaku senso) that killed tens of millions of people in Japan and Asia. I have to say your action amounts to affirmation of the aggressive war.”84 Ohira counterargued that they had to wait for “history to hand its judgment” since t here were competing interpretations of the “Greater East Asia War.”85

After the enshrinement of the Class A war criminals became public knowledge, Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, though he continued to send his representative (chokushi) to annual festivals. In contrast, Ohira and members of the Council of Diet Members to Honor War Gods continued to visit the shrine. When Ohira suddenly died of a heart attack in May 1980, the LDP exploited the public’s sympathy to win a landslide victory in elections of both houses of the Diet. Encouraged by the election results, Prime Minister Suzuki Zenko visited the shrine eight times during his tenure between July 1980 and November 1982—the highest frequency of Yasukuni visits among LDP prime ministers.86 LDP Diet members also launched the Association of Diet Members for Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine Together (Minnade Yasukuni Jinja ni Sanpaisuru Kokkaigiin no Kai) in March 1981, and 197 out of the 259 association members visited the shrine during its annual spring festival in April.87

Thus, despite the normalization with South Korea and China, the LDP continued to promote nationalism in Japan’s official commemoration. While the LDP failed to renationalize the Yasukuni Shrine due to the lack of political opportunity, it pursued an official visit to the shrine and reinforced the nationalist logic of commemoration, justifying the Asia-Pacific War as a heroic act of self-defense.

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