Member Login

Member Login

Password *

Number 1 Shimbun

Who Needs Yasukuni?

 No1-2015-9AbeCucekRegrets? I’ve had a few. But then again . . .
PM Abe giving his speech for the anniversary of the end of WWII.
He didn’t visit Yasukuni shrine.


There's a reason Shinzo Abe has given up

performing one of his most symbolic acts.

And it might not be what you think.

by Michael Cucek


Something very odd has occurred in the world of Japanese politics: For over a year and a half, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has managed to avoid visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which hosts the spirits of those who died in military service to the Emperor. After a lifetime of faithful pilgrimage, the supposed arch-hawk Abe hardly speaks of the place, the purportedly irreplaceable heart of his revisionist, militarist agenda.

To be sure, Abe is not alone in his sudden seeming loss of passion. In fact, this year’s fraught 70th anniversary of the end of World War II passed without incident or much enthusiasm by many in the political spectrum. Only three members of Abe’s staunchly conservative Cabinet, all women, paid their respects in person at the shrine. Only one member of the Liberal Democratic Party’s directorate, policy chief Tomomi Inada (again, a woman) visited. And although around 60 or so members of the Diet took part in the famed “Let Us All Pay Our Respects At Yasukuni” mass visit, that was a big drop from the 83 members who attended in Abe’s first year in office.


There is an explanation that requires that he be neither

a Machiavellian prince nor a run-of-the-mill political hack:

Shinzo Abe does not visit Yasukuni

because he has found something better.


Three days after the anniversary, Abe’s spouse Akie did pay her respects at the shrine. Possibly it was a means of compensating for her husband’s absence. More likely it was to provide her with political cover: her love of all things Korean and her opposition to many of her husband’s security initiatives have made her a target of Japan’s xenophobic and paranoid rightists.

Abe himself, however, came only as close as the official end-of-war memorial service with the Imperial Couple at the Budokan, a 300-meter walk from the main torii gate of Yasukuni. Representing Abe in spirit at Yasukuni on Aug. 15 were a masasaki altar decoration and a sum of money, hand delivered by his protege Koichi Hagiuda, the militant of the House of Representatives widely described as the mouthpiece for Abe’s true feelings.

This cooling attitude toward Yasukuni seems hard to fathom, given what is allegedly known about the prime minister. Prior to his return to the premiership in 2012, Abe famously expressed regret that he had failed to pay his respects at the shrine during his first term (2006-7). After Abe’s reelection, doppelganger Hagiuda warned the press that Abe needed to do a Yasukuni visit every year.

ABE DID MANAGE TO stay away from the war memorial for 365 days. The hope inside the Abe circle may have been that the governments of China and South Korea would recognize his sacrificing of his vow to visit and, in return, would reward him with invitations to meet presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye. After a full year of waiting in vain, though, Abe went ahead with a visit, despite having received explicit warnings against doing so from the Obama Administration.

Since that provocative Dec. 26, 2013 visit, however, Abe has stayed away, despite a lack of U.S. pressure (having been ignored by Abe once, the U.S. government is likely reluctant to test his resolve again). He has done so despite continued cold shoulders from the leaders of South Korea and China.

Conventional explanations for this seeming about-face are that Abe is a pragmatist and a politician. The former argues that Abe has a calculating nature and is able to restrain himself when a visit would damage the national interest. The latter argues that Abe is congenitally dishonest, willing to make solemn vows in order to win an election, but able to forget them once he is in power.



Yasukuni’s dilemma is that it is burdened with the spirits

of 14 convicted Class A war criminals.

This isn’t a problem when it comes to Ise.



There is, however, an explanation that requires that he be neither a Machiavellian prince nor a run-of-the-mill political hack: Shinzo Abe does not visit Yasukuni because he has found something better. A lot better.

Namely, the Imperial Shrines at Ise.

Yasukuni’s dilemma is that it is burdened with the spirits of 14 convicted Class A war criminals who were either executed by the Allies or died in prison prior to their convictions. This isn’t a problem when it comes to Ise, where the enshrined spirit is Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess and – according to tradition – the progenitor of the unbroken Imperial Line.

For centuries, the chief priestess at Ise had to be an imperial princess. From the Meiji Restoration until the Occupation the reigning emperor was the shrine’s chief priest. Even today, the chief priest at Ise is a relative (adopted) of the Emperor. Ise is also the assumed home of the Mirror, one of the three Sacred Treasures (the others being the Jewel and the Sword) of the Imperial House. The red sun on Japan’s official Rising Sun flag, the visual analog of the circular Mirror, is the symbol of Amaterasu herself.

As such, participating in rites at Ise swaddles the celebrant in Imperial symbols, and in a way that the Imperial Family cannot disdain, as it has disdained Yasukuni since the 1979 enshrinement of the Class A war criminals.

ISE’S RELATIONSHIP TO THE Imperial House has allowed it to hover above the separation of church and state arguments that have bedeviled efforts to win official status for Yasukuni. Indeed, the very first church/state dispute of the Occupation Period was over Ise, when Japanese officials asked whether or not the Showa Emperor could travel to the shrines to inform his illustrious ancestor of the outcome of the war. (Occupation authorities approved the visit under the legal fiddle that the Emperor was acting on his own in a private capacity).

Mie Prefecture, the home of the Ise Imperial Shrines, is also the prefecture in question in the Supreme Court’s Tsu decision of 1977, which ruled that public officials could have Shinto priests perform rites at the groundbreakings for public buildings on the assertion these were not just religious but social rites. (In his one published book, Atarashii Kuni e [“Towards a New Nation”], Abe makes mention of the Tsu decision.)

Ise is unique among Shinto shrines for its fabulously expensive (¥57 billion) Sengu rite, in which the main buildings of the shrine are torn down and reconstructed of new materials at a new location on a 20-year cycle. While the budget for the rite is officially from a shrine fund and public donations, the biggest donor is often the Imperial House, which means that to a certain extent all of Japan’s taxpayers are donors.


He followed up his hatsumode with his first

press conference of 2014, conducted at the visitor’s center

within the shrine’s precincts.


Felicitously for Abe, the most recent Sengu cycle ended and began in October 2013. He and his Cabinet took advantage of the wiggle room created by the Tsu decision in dramatic fashion, with Abe and eight of his Cabinet members looking on as the shrine’s contents, including presumably the Mirror, wended their glorious way from the old shrine to the new one.

A few months later, Abe was back, this time for his hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year. He followed up his hatsumode with his first press conference of 2014, conducted at the visitor’s center within the shrine’s precincts. In January this year, Abe repeated the pattern, doing hatsumode and conducting his first press conference of the year at the shrine.

ABE’S MOST STUNNING ACT of elevating Ise to official status, however, was selecting a nearby resort to be the site of the 2016 G7 Summit. Prime Minister’s Residence officials urged the governor of Mie to apply to have the prefecture host the Summit even though the official application period had expired. In announcing the success of the belated Mie bid, Abe expressed the hope that world leaders would visit the Imperial shrines, taking Abe’s dodgy stance toward Article 20 of the Constitution out of the realm of domestic administration and into international politics. (The article reads: No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.)

Aside from its associative, legal and international political advantages over Yasukuni, an infatuation with Ise befits Abe for another reason. Though he exhibits many different nationalist facets, he is most attuned to what political scientist Takashi Inoguchi has termed “imperial nationalism” – the faith that Japan is special because it is a racially homogenous island nation steeped in rice agriculture. As Abe writes in his 2013 book Atarashii Kuni e:

“The country called Japan has been from time immemorial a Mizuho no Kuni (‘land of abundant rice plants’), where we rose every morning, cultivated our fields with sweat running down, taking water and divided its use amongst us and when Fall arrived, celebrated, with the Imperial Family as the center, the Festival of the Five Grains.” (emphasis added)

With an unproblematic devotion to the Amaterasu cult at Ise offering a direct line to the Imperial House and thus essential center of Japan, who needs Yasukuni?

Michael Cucek is a Tokyo-based consultant to the financial and diplomatic communities and author of the Shisaku blog on Japanese politics and society.



Published in: September 2015

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • robun

    posted by robun

    Monday, January 11, 2016

    It seems you don't know about japanese history, and the fact that DPJs PM and cabinet member had went to Ise as Hatsumoude. the Cabinet of Japan has been going to Ise continuously. That is a very standard ceremony for japanese government even after 1945, so even liberal media like Asahi cannot condemn those act. You have a nice story, Michael.



Go to top