The Yasukuni Shrine is a religious site, not a national one, and some Japanese visit simply to honor the war dead. But Yasukuni and its adjacent museum remain the symbolic heart of World War II militarism, when Shinto was the state-sponsored religion and an emperor-worshiping army tried to take control of Asia.
The shrine in central Tokyo also has come to symbolize a hardening, did-no-wrong narrative here about history, even though it contradicts the near-consensus of historians, including most in Japan. That sentiment was once held by only a nationalist fringe, but it is pushing closer to the mainstream as Japan’s political leaders shift to the right amid fears that the economically stagnant country is losing its clout.
Japan and the neighbors it once invaded — particularly South Korea and China — have long squabbled over past animosities, but most historians and security experts had predicted that those differences would dissipate, not intensify, as decades passed. The opposite is proving true.
As Tokyo’s relations with Seoul and Beijing deteriorated this summer over territorial disputes, Chinese and South Korean leaders used unresolved anger about Japan’s wartime brutality as a way to build domestic support. They have also demanded an unequivocal apology from Japan — something they say they have not been given — raising pressure on Japan to form a consensus about how to remember and reckon with its war memory.
Yasukuni has reemerged as the battleground for that debate. When Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to become prime minister after December elections, visited the shrine in October, South Korean and Chinese government spokesmen blasted the move, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman demanding that Japan “face up to and rethink history.”
But less attention was paid to reaction within Japan, where polls throughout the years suggest that most Japanese view World War II and its run-up as a dark point in the nation’s history, an example of military ambition run amok.
“Japanese people are way ahead of political leaders on this, and their common sense is strong,” said Jeff Kingston, author of “Contemporary Japan” and a professor at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “They’ve so far resisted the siren’s song of patriotism their leaders try to stoke.”
When Yasukuni in 1978 enshrined 14 Class A war criminals — those tried and sentenced as leaders of the war — Japan’s emperor, in a tacit sign of disapproval, ceased his occasional trips to the site. And no prime minister has visited since 2006. But Abe, after his visit, refused to say what he would do if elected.