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Feminist Perspectives on Yasukuni Shrine


By: Fahreen Budhwani

Photo from: https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2018/04/12/yasukuni-shrine-more-than-just-honoring-the-dead/


Yasukuni Jinja (shrine), one of Tokyo’s largest Shinto shrines, memorializes the souls of those who have sacrificed themselves for the Japanese nation. In the Shinto tradition it is believed that the dead will become kami (gods) and their spirits should be worshiped and revered by Shinto followers. Amongst the many individuals enshrined at Yasukuni are over 1,000 convicted war criminals, including 14 Class A war criminals. The shrine has been the center of controversy in recent years with the public visits paid to it by sitting Prime Ministers. Without a doubt Yasukuni exists as a fraught site where representations of war, peace, nationalism and the military all intersect. A feminist reading of Yasukuni illuminates various troubling aspects of the shrine and can be used to better understand the negative influence of growing right wing nationalism in Japan.


"Amongst the many individuals enshrined at Yasukuni are over 1,000 convicted war criminals, including 14 Class A war criminals."


Yasukuni can be viewed as a site which produces and promotes nationalist narratives. Yasukuni was established in the early Meiji period (1868-1912) which marked a turning point in Japanese history (Yasukuni Jinja, 2019). The previous Tokugawa period was characterized by isolationism and fractured control of the country by approximately 300 regional Daimyō (feudal lords). Against this backdrop the Meiji Restoration focused on heralding modernization by creating a western style nation-state (Repo, 2008, pg. 229). Benedict Anderson describes nations as “imagined communities” where individuals have an imagined sense of belonging (2006, pg. 3). Anderson finds the basis of nations to lay in the creation of abstract links based on shared cultural, historical or religious experiences (ibid). Based on Anderson’s idea the creation of a Japanese nation was heavily dependent on cultivating an imagined community. The military and Yasukuni both served as mechanisms for realizing this imagined nation. The Meiji military was imperative in fostering nationalist ties by birthing a common language amongst the populace through the mobilization of men from all regions of the country (ibid, pg. 220). Furthermore, soldiers ceased to be individuals in their own right and began to embody the nation as a whole. This is evidenced in the popular notion that declared soldiers to be the sons’ of the emperor (Low, 2003, pg.83). Yasukuni Shrine, can be read as an extension of these nation building practices. The shrine cultivates a sense of nationalism by promising soldiers respect, honour, valour and worship in death (Repo, 2008, pg. 229). The official Yasukuni Jinja website declares that the shrine is dedicated to those who have “made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation” (Yasukuni Jinja, 2019) it is through this language of sacrifice and the promise of worship that men were enticed to serve and protect their nation. Thus, Yasukuni can be regarded as suppressing the realities of war by fostering a sense of heroism in defence of this imagined community. The soldiers enshrined at Yasukuni are glorified and appropriated in death to justify militarism and nationalism. Yasukuni, like other commemorative sites, demonstrates how bodies continue to live on beyond death through their ideological power.


“Commemorative monuments instruct their visitors about what is to be valued in their future as well as in the past”

(Blair et al. in Inuzuka and Fuchs, 2014, pg. 25).


Analysed as such, Yasukuni Jinja has served a distinct purpose from its origin to modern day by actively shaping ideas about nationalism and promoting a certain vision of nationalism for the future. It is undeniable that this form of nationalism is intimately linked with a strong military. The continued valorization of Yasukuni accompanied with the current governments interest in revising Article 9 (the pacifist anti-war clause) are reflective of the ultra-nationalist path Japan is heading down.


Moreover, Yasukuni Jinja illustrates the intersectional interplay between the structures of gender and race. Among the 2, 466, 000 deities enshrined are 14 Class A War Criminals (Inuzuka and Fuchs, 2014, pg.21), some Korean and Taiwanese Imperial soldiers (Yasukuni Jinja, 2019), and a marginal group of women. The official Yasukuni website claims that “people, regardless of their rank, social standing, or gender” are commemorated equally at the shrine (ibid). However, a further analysis of those enshrined reveal clear hierarchies based on gender, race, and status.


The military and Yasukuni itself perpetuate the notion that masculinity is fundamentally linked to military service. The “warrior” is a key symbol of masculinity and as such possesses the attributes of aggression, courage, violence, duty and honour (Morgan, 1994, pg. 2). To die “like a man” ultimately implies dying with honour in battle protecting your country. This idea is lamented by the fact that no victims of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombings have been enshrined as deities at Yasukuni (Inuzuka & Fuchs, 2013, pg. 35) and nor have any other civilians. It is undeniable that the Japanese citizens who lost their life at the hands of the Americans have sacrificed no less than those on the battle field, yet their contribution to the nation has not been deemed worthy of the same valour or respect. A “real man” is perceived to be a man who served and protected his country through military service. This is evidenced by the prominent statute at Yasukuni of the Kamikaze warrior. This statue embodies the notion of being “willing” to die for ones country as Kamikaze pilots are known in the West for conducting suicide missions. The statue itself serves to instruct visitors about what continues to constitute worthy masculinity today. The Kamikaze coupled with the invisibility of civilian bodies at Yasukuni can be seen as clearly perpetuating a hierarchy that values hyper masculine military bodies over civilian.


Photo from: https://www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/about/photo.html



This hierarchy also exists when assessing the women, or lack of women, enshrined at Yasukuni. The shrines official website notes that some women are among those enshrined, while this is true, it remains necessary to address who these women are and why their deaths qualified as national sacrifices. Nurses for the Imperial Japanese army represent the women enshrined at Yasukuni (Repo, 2008, pg. 231). This is because nursing was viewed as the only legitimate task for women on the battlefield (ibid). The importance of the nurse is two-fold. Firstly, the nurse’s job is literally to keep the soldier alive and healthy and in that sense she was subordinate to a male figure. Since the health of the nation was intimately tied with the health of the military (Low, 2003, pg. 83) the nurse’s enshrinement can be understood through her service to the military’s health. Secondly, the nurse’s value derives from the fact that her duties mirror what was the appropriate hegemonic femininity of the time. It was seen as a mother’s duty to sacrifice her son for the nation and continue to birth more children from the Imperial Army (Repo, 2008, pg. 226). As Jemima Repo notes nurses for the Japanese imperial army were labeled the “mothers and sisters of the battlefield” (ibid, pg. 231) this refers directly to their selflessness and caring attributes. Thus, a hierarchy is visible here as well. While it is true that women are enshrined at Yasukuni it is only those women who served the military and did so through their stereotypically feminine characteristics.


While Jemima attributes the enshrinement of nurses to their service of the military, not all women who served were enshrined or equally valued. Another hierarchy is present when searching Yasukuni for the souls of Ianfu (comfort women). The name itself euphemistically describes sex-slaves as women who were intended to serve and “comfort” Japanese soldiers. The comfort stations (brothels) were sanctioned by the military and set up as a response to the sexual needs of soldiers (Allen, 2015). These women were exploited by the Imperial Japanese Army and were used by all accounts to improve the moral and efficiency of the military. Just like nurses, these women “served” soldiers; however, in most cases comfort women were exploited, lied to and put in harm’s way. Despite these parallels nowhere in Yasukuni Jinja is there mention of the Ianfu and the sacrifices they made. In this way the bodies of Japanese soldiers are seen as privileged over the bodies of the countless victims they harmed. It must be noted as well that the Ianfu and their invisibility at Yasukuni is also related to their race. Comfort women were, for the most part, Korean women or women from other colonized areas. These racial differences are significant since they served to justify the mistreatment of comfort women and explain their absence from sites like Yasukuni.


Jessica Auchter notes that dead bodies are classified as visible, invisible or hyper-visible (2015, pg. 130). Yasukuni Jinja as we have established plays an integral role in promoting visions of nationalism. The bodies which it actively highlights play a significant role in determining what that nationalism looks like. At Yasukuni the bodies of Japanese soldiers are hyper-visible while the bodies of women, civilians, radicalized others, and their countless victims are rendered invisible. In whole, the melting of war, peace, nationalism, and gender which occur at Yasukuni Jinja are indicative of the dominant power structures which continue to emanate throughout Japanese society today.


Sources:

Allen, Paula . 2015.70 years on, the “comfort women” speaking out so the truth won’t die. Amnesty International. www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2015/09/70-years-on-comfort-women-speak-out-so-the-truth-wont-die/.

Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed., Verso Books. E-Book,

Auchter, Jessica.2015. “Corpses” in Making things International 1: Circuits and Motion. Edited by Salter, B Mark. University of Minnesota Press.

Inuzuka, Ako and Fuchs, Thomas. 2014. Memories of Japanese Militarism: The Yasukuni Shrine as a Commemorative Site. Journal of International Communication. Vol. 20 (1). pp. 21-41

Low, Morris. 2003. “The Emperor’s Son Goes to War: Competing Masculinities in Modern Japan” in Asian Masculinities: The Meaning and Practice of Manhood in China and Japan. Edited by Low, Morris & Louie, Kam. Routledge. pp.81-100.

Morgan, D. 1994. “Theater of war: Combat, the military, and masculinities” In H. Brod & M. Kaufman (Eds), Theorizing masculinities. London: SAGE. pp. 165–182

Peterson, V. Spike. 1999. Nationalism as Heterosexism. International Feminism Journal of Politics. Vol. 1 (1). pp. 34-65

Repo, Jemima. 2008. A Feminist Reading of Gender and National Memory at the Yasukuni Shrine. Japan Forum. Vol. 20(2). pp. 219-243.

Yasukuni Jinja. 2019. https://www.yasukuni.or.jp/english


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