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On Walkabout At: The Yasukuni Shrine In Tokyo, Japan

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The Yasukuni Shrine has been a source of friction between Japan and their Asian neighbors Korea and China for many years due to the colonial and World War II history between the nations.  Both China and Korea regularly condemned Japan when former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would periodically visit the shrine because the shrine honors Japanese war dead including war criminals from World War II.

The largest bronze tori gate in the world leading to the Yasukuni Shrine.

There is approximately 2.5 million Japanese who died during the Meiji era of Japanese history that are enshrined at Yasukuni.  Think of it in the spirit of the Vietnam War Memorial, but instead of a wall a Shinto shrine is used. Korea and China believe the shrine should not include Japanese war criminals from World War II and Japan thinks otherwise. Interestingly enough, something you won’t hear too many Koreans talk about, is that over 21,000 Koreans who fought for the Japanese Imperial military during World War II are also enshrined in Yasukuni.

The museum is located in Chiyoda District of Tokyo and is actually quite a nice green space in the city:

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Statue of Omura Masujiro who organized the Meiji military and promoted the modernization of the military in line with western standards. He was assassinated by discontented samurai in 1869, but his movement to modernize the military lived on.

After visiting the shrine I did not find it overtly insulting to China or Korea because there was no banners of General Tojo and other war criminals that the media would lead you to believe that this shrine is all about. In fact the shrine was actually pretty simplistic and underwhelming.  The way the names are enshrined there is no way to know where the names up the country’s World War II war criminals are hanging up.  However, just the fact that the names of the war criminals are located somewhere within the shrine is enough to upset many Koreans and Chinese.

This is a smaller bronze tori gate that visitors walk under before passing through a large wooden gate leading to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The large wooden gate that is the entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The final bronze tori gate in front of the Yasukuni Shrine.

Something I noticed about Yasukuni is that the shrine was filled with old Japanese men, some even wearing their old Imperial Japanese military hats, hanging out, bowing at the shrine, and then sitting down on the benches smoking their pipes, and maybe sharing memories of their time in the military with each other. These old guys seem hardly a threat to peace and stability in northeast Asia.


Some people are the reason the Koreans and the Chinese get so worked up by the Yasukuni issue is because  politicians in each country uses the Yasukuni issue to deflect attention away from their own governmental short comings. George Will in this Washington Post article probably best explains this political dynamic::

Between that enshrinement and 1984, three prime ministers visited Yasukuni 20 times without eliciting protests from China. But both of Japan’s most important East Asian neighbors, China and South Korea, now have national identities partly derived from their experience as victims of Japan’s 1910-45 militarism. To a significant extent, such national identities are political choices.

Leftist ideology causes South Korea’s regime to cultivate victimhood and resentment of a Japan imagined to have expansionism in its national DNA. The choice by China’s regime is more interesting. Marxism is bankrupt and causes cognitive dissonance as China pursues economic growth by markedly un-Marxist means. So China’s regime, needing a new source of legitimacy, seeks it in memories of resistance to Japanese imperialism.

Actually, most of China’s resistance was by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, Mao’s enemies. And Mao, to whom there is a sort of secular shrine in Beijing, killed millions more Chinese than even Japan’s brutal occupiers did.

However, something a lot of people don’t realize is that their is more to the shrine than the shrine itself. Near the shrine is the Yushukan Museum that is supposed to chronicle Japan’s long military history. After visiting the museum and interpreting the displays from the minimal English language signs, I can safely say that the museum is something that I can see people getting worked up over. The museum’s view of history is vastly different from what is accepted as agreed upon history in the west. If the history being exhibited by the museum was so slanted in English, I can only imagine how bad the display’s signs in Japanese must be.

Japanese World War II era “Zero” airplane.

Most of the museum chronicles the various samurai wars during Japan’s feudal times and then into the Tokugawa era. I would have liked to read what was displayed for the Hideyoshi invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598 but there was no English language signs available at the time. Really the vast majority of the museum is quite interesting until you get into the post Meiji Restoration years. For one the exhibit for the Russo-Japanese War claimed that the Japanese Army liberated the Korean peninsula from foreign rule and were greeted by an enthusiastic Korean populace as liberators. This is true to an extent because there was many people in Korea happy to see the end of the corrupt Chosun dynasty, however the exhibit made no mention of the brutal Japanese occupation that would follow the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The exhibit also maintained that the Japanese brought much industry and modernization to the peninsula. Once again true to extent, but it makes no reference to the fact that the modernization of the peninsula was implemented in order to increase areas such as rice production in order to ship the majority of Korean grown rice to Japan.

A steam engine that actually operated on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway made famous by the movie, A Bridge On the River Kwai.

The World War II era exhibit was also quite provocative. According to the museum, World War II which is called the Asia Co-prosperity War in Japan is where the Japanese single handedly liberated one Asian country after another from foreign colonial occupation and the Asian people were all happy to be liberated. No mention was made of the atrocities committed by the invading Japanese troops. Additionally the museum blames the US for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Since the US implemented a trade embargo on the Japanese, the militarists felt that an attack by the Americans against Japan would only naturally come next. The museum even alleges that the United States even had a plan to attack Japan in the works and would have been executed if Japan had not pre-empted the American attack by conducting the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The museum said that the American President Franklin Roosevelt was committed to an attack on Japan as a way for the US to escape the Great Depression. One theme I have picked up on at the museum is that every attack the Japanese conducted was only executed because of foreign colonizers threatening Japan and its neighbors. Japan never wanted to colonize any country, they just wanted to liberate Asians from foreigners.

Statue outside the Yushukan museum honoring the kamikaze pilots of World War II.

This is of course nonsense because the Imperial Japanese government at the time felt the modernization of Japan and the colonization of nearby countries were the best way to expand Japanese power and to compete against western rivals that busy colonizing large parts of Asia to add to their respective empires. The Japanese had no altruistic reasons of freeing oppressed Asians from European colonizers; it was simply about building Japanese power and influence and the attack on Pearl Harbor was where they overreached in spreading their power and influence that led to disastrous consequences for the country.


World War II era artillery piece on display at the Yushukan Museum.

By interpreting history the way the Yushukan museum does, it keeps alive the perception that the Imperial Japanese of World War II is still what represents Japanese policy in regards to its Asian neighbors today. This perception is what allows the political demagogues in Korea and China to use anti-Japanese sentiment to deflect attention away from their own political short comings. It is historical issues like this that will cause Japan to never have the credibility and influence in the world that it’s population and economic might should render it.


Overall, I cannot recommend a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine other then for people with a deep interest in Asian history and wanting to personally see the historical slant shown at the Yushukan Museum.  This is not a place for people looking to learn more about the historical past of Japan because the history is so slanted. A visit to the Tokyo National Museum at Ueno Park is much better place to learn more about Japan’s historical past.  That museum really doesn’t cover much about the World War II period, but at least it doesn’t make excuses for the Imperial Japanese government like the Yushukan Museum does.

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