Why is the Yasukuni Shrine so controversial?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: War crimes cast a very long shadow think about the Holocaust or any of the Armenian Americans who remember the fate of their great grandparents. The same is true for China and South Korea, it is almost 70 years since the end of World War II and yet today we have seen a storm of protests in China and Korea against Japan. All it took is the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to visit a shrine which he did this morning. It is a Yasukumi Shrine which commemorates Japans war dead. So for Today's the World that Was our history guy Chris Wolfe is here to help to understand why China and South Korea are so mad. First of all what is this Yasukumi Shrine Chris?

Chris Wolfe: It is a national religious institution, it is the home of the kumi which is the Japanese word for the kind of revered spirits which can be translated as Gods probably closer to Saints in the western universe, they are respected almost have a holy quality to the people who are inducted in their. And it contains all of those who have died in the service of Japan since 1867 when the thing was built up. It is mostly military men and some civilians as well workers who are killed in air raids working in vital missions. Not the general population who are now called collateral

Werman: For many Japanese it is a sacred spot. Why is the shrine so controversial then?

Wolfe: There are a lot of reasons then, principally because a lot of convicted executed war criminals were inducted into the shrine. Also it is not just a memorial , it is also a museum of bad history the way the history of WWII and the preceding conflict with China was presented is very nationalistic and certainly excludes the details of the many, many atrocities that took place in that period. The lesser point is any Koreans or Taiwanese that were part of the Japanese Empire were conscripted have also been inducted contrary to the wishes of their families, tens of thousands of them.

Werman: So who exactly were these war criminals?

Wolfe: There are several types according to the tribunal that was set up by the US after WWII. Class A were actually those who ordered the start of the war which is actual the crime against peace to wage war aggressively without provocation. Then Class B and C were those who actually carried out particular trustees or had ?? responsibility. It is a very interesting consistent all members of the royal family were exempt despite several princes being being known to be involved, for example the Nanking Massacre in '37 when maybe a quarter of a million Chinese were killed. And then also there was one guy Shiro Ishii(sp) who was in charge of the German warfare tests on live prisoners and civilians and he was exempt from being prosecuted because his data was useful to the US. But overall looking at about 6,000 that were charged and of whom 1,000 were executed and it is their spirits that have been inducted into the Yasukumi Shrine.

Werman: And one of these people just to put a name to who you are talking about, Prime Minister Tojo(sp) is buried there. Would he be considered a war criminal by ….

Wolfe: Not buried his spirit is enshrined there. Your spirit is inducted , your body could be anywhere.

Werman: So I see, so everybody's spirit is inducted there.

Wolfe: Yes. There is about two and a half million people in there.

Werman: So if it is so offensive for Mr. Abe the Japanese prime minister to go to this shrine , if it is so offensive to China and South Korea why did he go?

Wolfe: Two things, he takes it very personally his own grandfather was arrested by the Americans as a Class A war criminal he was later released without being charged or prosecuted but he has a very real feeling of personal shame and stain attached to his family at least the way he sees it. And close observers have said he is taken it to heart and that has made him kind of a nationalist in a sense of historical revisionist. It also plays well to his base politically, he is a right wing politician so this fits in to a patent of his willingness to confront China over territorial disputes and his attempt to change the constitutional picture of the armed forces from being like a self defense force to an actual military force. That triggers all hot buttons across the region that Japan might becoming re militarized.

Werman: So Chris how do modernized Japanese feel about this? Even during the war there was a lot of bitterness about the way husbands and brothers were expected to die as heroes during the conflict instead of being captured?

Wolfe: Well it is really a lot of concern to a lot of Japanese but it is that older generation that lived through this or who have immediate memories of there parents talking about it. The younger generation one of part of the big problem is and one of the grievances is China and other Asian nations is that is that the younger generation doesn't really know about what happened. There has been several poles that indicate this and there is kind of an awareness that Japan was aggressive but the extent of the atrocities is not really very well known.

Werman: The world history's guide, thank you Chris Wolfe. Thanks for telling us about the Yasukumi Shrine.

Wolfe: You are welcome.