Yasukuni Shrine

History, Memory, and Japan's Unending Postwar

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Akiko Takenaka
Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawaii Press
    , July
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar, Akiko Takenaka explains the rise of Yasukuni Shrine and its relevance to our current age. Many scholars and others have written on Yasukuni Shrine, but none, at least not in English, have produced such a captivating account of the shrine’s history. Takenaka analyzes the conflation of religion, memorialization, and nationalism that produced one of Japan’s—and Asia’s—most controversial sites. Takenaka analyzes Yasukuni’s history from three perspectives: Yasukuni as a site, Yasukuni as a belief system, and Yasukuni as a political or social issue (4). Religion is central to her analysis, since it is intertwined with all three aspects. It relates to the larger problem of the Japanese state’s historical relationship with Shinto, and the way in which Shinto recruited, and is still used, in relation to military death and national identity. Religion, as Danièle Hervieu-Léger argued, is especially adept in its capacity to maintain community and continuity, and act as a “chain of memory” (Religion as a Chain of Memory, Rutgers University Press, 2000: 2). Hervieu-Léger challenges the idea of secularization, instead pointing out that religion has a stock of symbols, which are used for modern projects—especially when secular projections are called into question. Religion’s capacity to sustain secular projects is especially important for modernizing nations, such as Japan, where the national project underwent periodic crises and recalibrations throughout its turbulent modern history.

Yasukuni shrine played just such a role for modern Japan, as Takenaka explains in her first four chapters. From its beginning in the early days of the Meiji era through its contemporary (and controversial) role in Japanese society, the shrine has served as an anchor of identity. The state used it to educate, captivate, and entertain its citizens, as it sought to forge a national identity. Takenaka’s book skillfully captures the various changing roles the shrine has played. In Japan, sacred spaces are flexible, and Takenaka shows that the shrine’s role as a place of enshrinement of the emperor’s soldiers’ souls was initially not its most prominent role. Even though its creators intended it as a war shrine to memorialize the war dead, in the early postwar, most ordinary Japanese used Yasukuni as a place of entertainment and exhibition (64).

Religion and entertainment were closely related in the Edo period, and this continued into the modern era. In Meiji Japan, this included novelties such as circuses, horse races, and military museums. Takenaka shows how commemoration changed as the Japanese state embarked on more and more martial adventures, and even entertainment activities were tinged with militarism (57). Shrines downplayed commemoration of the dead, and authorities celebrated victories in wars over China and Russia. But as Japan’s involvement on the continent grew, so did efforts to “ educate visitors and . . . promote loyalty and patriotism” (68). And the state skillfully used technology to put forth its agenda. Using film, battlefield panoramas, and voice recordings, the shrine “transform[ed] itself . . . to a military themed entertainment site that offered sensational representations of battlefront triumphs” (74). As Takenaka shows, “It was a space for celebration: of war, of national strength, and of modernity and technology” (74). This did not mean that rituals of commemoration were completely ignored. The public may have paid less attention to military deaths, but enshrinement rituals and memorialization ceremonies were regularly performed. After 1931, as war on the continent intensified, and the ever-nationalist Japanese state hardened its ideology, such ceremonies received more and more attention.

Indeed, as the war progressed, enshrinement rituals gradually took central stage. In one of the book’s most noteworthy sections, Takenaka uses the case of a single soldier, Kurekawa Ukemichi, to demonstrate the intricate ways in which the state sought to claim ownership over soldiers’ bodies and souls. As the war situation worsened and greater numbers of Japanese soldiers lost their lives, the shrine took on increasing importance. It came to the forefront of the state’s campaign to spiritually mobilize and emotionally prepare citizens to give their lives for their country. This “institutionalization of grief,” as Takenaka calls it, reached its peak with the Asia-Pacific War. “Yasukuni the belief'’ (95) —the idea that war death in the family was an occasion of pride and joy—reached its horrible realization, as countless millions of lives were sacrificed in the name of the emperor.

All this changed abruptly in 1945. After the defeat the state pulled away from the shrine, and its place in Japanese society became more controversial. Takenaka’s first four chapters offer us a detailed and captivating account of the various changing roles the shrine played in Japan. In the latter two chapters, when Yasukuni enters its postwar phase, Takenaka changes course and moves from history to analysis. The last two chapters of the book offer a sustained examination of the shrine as a place of memory and controversy. Takenaka’s analysis is insightful and inspiring and is especially sensitive in the way it treats the problem of victimization and the importance of the site for the soldiers’ families.

Of course, the shrine’s history did not end abruptly in 1945. As Franziska Seraphim (War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005, Harvard University Asia Center, 2006) and others have shown, the shrine’s peculiar place in Japanese memory owes as much to postwar history and developments as it does to its wartime role. While Takenaka does not omit this history, she focuses instead on the politics of commemoration and mourning. While this shift contributes to the reader’s understanding of the Yasukuni’s complex politics, it results in a somewhat uneven reading experience. This concern notwithstanding, this book is essential reading for anybody interested in Japan’s twentieth century, where concerns over Yasukuni shrine influence Northeast Asian politics, as well as scholars who focus on Japanese memory and religion. If religion is, indeed, a “chain of memory,” Yasukuni is one of the most important links in Japan’s own chain, and Takenaka’s book does much to promote our understanding of it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ran Zwigenberg is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies, History and Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Date of Review: 
May 25, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Akiko Takenaka is associate professor of Japanese history at the University of Kentucky.



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