Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Per a request in the comments of my previous post, let me post a few more of my notes about Yasukuni Shrine.

First of all, it is an independent religions organization not directly affiliated with the government. Over 2 million soldiers are memorialized in Yasukuni. The votes of these relatives have value, but it isn't since the Koizumi days that the media have started picking it up as a big deal. Koizumi ran for office three times before he was successful. The first two times, visits to Yasukuni were never part of Koizumi's campaign, but starting with the third try against Hashimoto, he promised to visit Yasukuni as Prime Minister to try to take this swing vote from the Hashimoto faction. Some believe that this was key to his winning the fourth election. There appears to be some "logic" in domestic politics for his action. However, I think there is a consensus that it makes no sense from a foreign policy perspective and even the US which has been rather neutral on the issue in the past seems to be concerned. On the other hand, some polls show the Japanese public divided on the issue. The Sankei newspaper is currently the only newspaper supporting Koizumi's visits the Yasukuni Shrine. The Yomiuri, which once supported his visits, now criticizes them. Some people believe that maybe there is some secret plan to use this as a bargaining chip with China in the future. However, most people believe that even if this ends up happening it was not particularly planned by Koizumi.

One expert in Japanese religion at this meeting pointed out that the original Nara Buddhism does not memorialize the dead or believe in heaven. He argued that the religious underpinnings of the necessity of memorializing the war dead didn't make sense under real Japanese Buddhism and that we should stop making such memorials in Japan... that Japan should go back to Nara Buddhism where once you died, you were dead. Full stop. Another person commented that there is a division of state and church under the Japanese constitution and these visits are a violation.

This is reiterating the obvious, but the two main point are the class A war criminals memorialized there and probably the war museum. The war museum tries to argue that the WWII was justified.


The Yasukuni War Museum does not "try" to argue that WWII was justified, it explicitly DOES argue that Japan was justified in its actions. One of the central exhibits is the Yushukan theater, which presents a film that explains the "ABCD Theory," that Japan was forced into WWII by the Americans, British, Chinese, and Dutch cutting off their access to oil. I watched the film and sat there in astonishment as it portrayed Japan's actions as liberation of the oppressed Koreans and Chinese. It showed Japanese troops distributing rice balls to smiling refugee children, and made the war look like it was a famine relief effort that was being hindered by brutal Allied soldiers. By the time the film was over, I was ready to scream.
The whole theory of Yasukuni being a sacred Shinto temple to all Japan's war dead is a total sham. You can go through the whole museum and while it is full exhibits about Japan's "justified" foreign wars of the modern era, it conspicuously avoids ever mentioning the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who died in the decades and centuries of civil wars. Ah, but this is far too distasteful to mention, it is unseemly to commemorate Japanese killing Japanese, when instead, you can commemorate glorious battles against the barbarian gaijin.

Firstly, I don't think there's any justification for having a museum as part of a shinto shrine. IMHO, it goes against the whole idea of a shinto shrine, period.

Secondly, however, I think there should be a place people can go to pay respect to ALL of Japan's war dead. We don't take peoples' names off the Vietnam Memorial because they did something despicable (at leat, I don't think we do)... If the shrine, through this museum, weren't pushing a political agenda, I think it would be fine...

On a deeper level, though, there is a need in Japan to return to some of its native cultural values in order to find its identity going forward. I think that shinto and bushido can be a part of this, but not exactly as they were - i.e. drop the suicide part, and go back to a more inclusive, pre-war type of shinto, before it was corrupted by the State....

I am reluctant to comment here. First, because we are talking about powerful cultural factors of which I have no understanding or experience. Secondly, because my own society doesn't provide a very consistent example (consider FEMA's P-R of the relief of New Orleans versus the ground truth), I don't have much claim to righteousness. I just don't want to pontificate over how the Japanese might "correct" themselves.

Some comments on how Japan was driven to war reminded me of something quite startling in my home library.

"Our Oriental Heritage," the first volume of Will Durant's "The Story of Civilization" was published in 1935. The final chapter, on "The New Japan" ends with the question "Must America fight Japan?"

I won't attempt to justify Durant's rationale based on the history and nature of imperial and colonial efforts (those of the U.S., Europe, and also Japan), but pp. 932-933 could be reread today with the new question, "Must America fight China?"

My takeaway is that warring economic dependencies led to the inevitability of war between Japan and the United States, as carefully predicted by Durant. That doesn't make it right, it does indicate that invisible yet unerring forces were not dampered by the mutual distrust and perceived threats to economic and socio-political survival that prevailed (ours in the US, theirs in Japan).

>>>but pp. 932-933 could be reread today with the new question, "Must America fight China?"

I haven't read this chapter of Durant, but how could anything that was written before nuclear warfare had even been conceived of, much less experienced be reread today in that light with regard to China?

You seem to be contemplating a conflict that could easily end all civilization, something Durant's mind could not possibly conceive in 1935.

Economic dependencies are more likely to lead to greater understanding than conflict, particularly when the parties are aware of the catastrophic possibilities. We did survive more than a generation of Mutually Assured Destruction policy during the cold war. China's population may only be dimly aware of this but China's leaders must know some of this history.

That said, China does make me nervous at times.

Joi, you mention Nara Buddhism, but isn't the point really that Yasukuni is a Shinto memorial? Thus then kami, and the likely desire of some proportion of persons to want acknowledgement in a traditional way.

Perhaps it is not really a bad thing, to respect the reality of the many facets of nature, and of human nature. Post-war psychology has tried to do as much, and with some help - which we could use renewed today, in many more than one nation, that seems clear...

Thank you for bringing the subject up: that should help as well.


Yasukuni is indeed a Shinto shrine, and has no connection with Buddhism at all. As to whether or not 20th/21st century Shinto has anything to do with the Shinto of previous centuries is a matter of debate.

As for Nara Buddhism, sounds like someone has an axe to grind on this as well. Did the person in question state why Nara Buddhism should be favored over any other sect?

Japan is a mishmash of Shinto an Buddhism. Most official funerals take Buddhist tradition. Koyasan, for instance, one of the oldest Buddhist Temples where many famous people and Emperors are burries used to be a Shinto Shrine and was just converted when the country switch to more Buddhist funerals. I'm not an expert by any means, but the "official" practices of the government seem to take from both Shinto and Buddhism. And yes... the centralized Shinto that they put in place during the Meiji period is VERY different from the more decentralized Shinto before that. It has also changed a bit after the war. (I'm Shinto.)

I think the person from Nara was asserting that there was some historical reason for Nara being authoritative on certain Buddhist things, but I don't have enough information to understand all of the context.

Joi: When you say you are Shinto, do you mean your family has a history of patronizing a certain shrine or something, or do you have a personal/intellectual/aesthetic affinity for Shinto? Do you participate, or are you a "lapsed Shinto"? ;-)

Our family is "officially" Shinto. It's actually a funny story. I think my grandmother just got in a fight with the Buddhist Monk of our district and liked the Shinto Priest better so she switched or something. Or at least that's what I heard. So although our grave has been in a Buddhist cemetary for hundreds of years, our funerals are Shinto. We have Shinto kamidana to enshrine our ancestors although there are components that are Buddhist. So maybe the accurate way to express this is that we follow Shinto rituals. My sister has studied Buddhism and studied under Roshi Morinaga at Ryoanji and "some of my best friends are Buddhists." Beyond the ritual and some of the philosophy, I'm not much of a practicing Shinto. I don't buy most of the superstition part, but I think it's interesting and useful.

Oh, and yes. We have a shrine in Iwate called Hitaka Jinja which our family primarily associates with.

Is this the same grandmother who demanded the American soldiers take off their boots? If so, she must have been quite a character.

My intellectual interests are in Buddhism, especially Zen, but in Japan I like to visit shrines more than Buddhist temples for the most part, because of the aesthetics. When I lived in Kyoto I visited Shimogamo Jinja almost every day.

Yes, that is the same grandmother. ;-)

Joi, thanks very much for the answer and for the personal stories - truly appreciated. My grandfather lived in China, my father growing up there; and I for a time in Korea, teaching design in a graduate school. I always found Japan very interesting, in travel and later in literature, partnerships in projects. In a culture that deeply regards relationship, individuals. Here you are showing more of what I suspect ;) -- in person and in family. As you will know Korea and Japan have several interesting layers over time of relationship, also for individuals, and a new very modern layer since I have been there. A pleasure to read your weblog.


IMHO, I think Koizumi should have stop his Yasukuni visits instead of undermining cultivated relationships with China, Korea, and the South East Asian nations. The PM is the country's most prominent symbol and he shouldn't have been so insensitive. The reason why Asian nations haven't moved forward from this annual issue onto collaborative (and productive) ones is because Japan appears to be still entrenched in her war-time history.

Kira, tell me why, though, that in a world advancing into a generally post-modernist state -- especially with the huge acceptance for example of 'western marketism' in Asian countries -- that a position of understanding can't be developed, where a leader has plural obligations?

Everything one reads about Koizumi and Yasukuni says that he agreed to pay his respects there to accomodate one Japanese party. I think there are a few compromises the leaders in China and Japan and other places make also. As I mention, just as with European governments who have parties of all 'colors', perhaps there is a health in giving voice?

For Koizumi's part, perhaps there is even more he can say that will allow a Japanese recognition of fault and change acceptable to those (such as my Grandfather in fact) who suffered.

I have to wonder though why such an absolutist position of those who remember the fault, as if they have had none? Can this not change, as others in the world learn to, without naiveté seeing this as a human thing?


Naration: You may compare this to George W. Bush campaigning at Bob Jones University.

I didn't even realize why Yasukuni was such a problem until I read Charles' comment, so I'd like to thank him for that.

Perhaps one may say something very simple here.

A consequence of the furor around the Bush campaign visit to this 'Bob Jones University', was that it soon believably rescinded its odious racial dating policy, in March 2000. Remembering that BJU is in South Carolina, one of the states with the largest and longest held racial problems, this is respectable advancement.

This is the type of principle I am talking about. Include, rather than deny. Then you get a chance for public opinion to have effect, in the aspects it should have that power.

Re: Yasukuni and the time of the war. Yes, Charles' post mentions some facts. There are other facts, such as Japan's real need just as Germany to be included in the development of the world and its distribution of resources, instead of being treated as a source of 'Jap bellboys' (a Canadian-Pacific hotels advertisement from National Geographic that I remember of closely preceding war times).

Even the Asian World War alliance was treated by China (Chiang Kai-Shek) as a means to garner materials for their own internal battle of warlords to settle things afterwards.

No one was or is perfect. We learn better what fairness means. I think it very often includes not getting over-excited, so that we don't label others in totalities, when they have only exhibited minor aspects out of a full human range of intents, expressions, and freedoms of behaviours. And if we can see that their intents are generally for the good, as seems correct of Koizumi. It takes broad shoulders to respect what may be able to grow further respectable among _each_ of your citizens.

Perhaps America would be having a better time and wouldn't _elect_ a G. W. Bush, if had not gotten off on a bad track of Roman Circuses television and labelling, and were able to respect all its own better than it does.


Hi I found this site from my friend . I was born in japan and my father`s side are korean . I read a korean newspaper in japanese ,there is an article about Koizumi visited Yasukuni shrine. Yhe problem is japanese people dont know the recent history between korean and japan . Actually I didnt know many things since I had heard from korean people . From japanese viewing ,I think japanese people need more explain why korean and chinese people offense visiting Yasukuni shrine.
My japanese frind doesnt understand why chinese and korean people offence it. I cant explain probably I dont know many things clearly even I read the korean newspaper.

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靖国は中国共産党への贈り物 もし、中国民が中国の厳しい内政問題に注目しない為、中国共産党は抗日プロパガンダを使ってナショナリズム(民族主義)を高めているなら その抗日 Read More