Just one year after Emperor Meiji proclaimed the Japanese Empire in 1868, he ordered the construction of a majestic new Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The Yasukuni Shrine was to record the names of every man, woman and child who died in service of the new empire. And it was to be a place of worship, part of a larger effort to make the empire something of a state religion. By the time Japan collapsed in defeat at the end of World War II, more than 2 million names had been added to the shrine.
For more than 75 years, Yasukuni was a symbol of Japan's imperial mission; both were officially sacred. The shrine was considered the final resting place of Japanese soldiers, colonists and others who served the imperial expansion that had plunged all of East Asia and eventually the United States into a costly and horrific war.
When Japan surrendered in 1945 and its imperial era ended, so too, officially, did the state ideology that had been theologically enshrined at Yasukuni. That next April, less than a year after U.S. occupation forces took control of Japan, the Americans ordered Emperor Hirohito to never again visit the shrine or send envoys there, according to Herbert Bix's Pulitzer-winning biography of the emperor. The official symbol of Japan's supposedly divine mission of conquest would remain standing, much like the institution of the emperor himself, but the two could never again meet. Meanwhile, the shrine's keepers continued adding names -- including those of high-profile war leaders who were convicted of war crimes and put to death by U.S.-sanctioned tribunals.
In October 1952, shortly after the U.S. occupation ended, Hirohito resumed his visits to worship at Yasukuni. He made seven more trips after that. "It was as if there had been no occupation, or at least no reforms," Bix wrote in his biography. "He was completely indifferent to Yasukuni's disestablishment from the state for its role in channeling religious energy into war."
Like so many of the compromises and contradictions of post-war Japan, Yasukuni's place in the national identity has never been fully resolved. And, like the imperial history that Japan has never addressed quite as fully as did wartime ally Germany, Yasukuni continues to cause trouble.
On Sunday, three high-level Japanese politicians visited Yasukuni, bringing along a wooden token from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who did not visit. China and South Korea, both of which suffered heavily under imperial Japan and who have long accused Japan of refusing to fully atone for or even recognize its wartime abuses, howled in protest. On Tuesday, 168 more Japanese government officials arrived at the shrine, far more than usually attend the annual pilgrimage.
It's hard to overstate just how hated Yasukuni is in East Asia, the degree to which this shrine has become a symbol of Japan's role in the long-held regional tensions that have recently simmered into something a bit more dangerous. In December 2011, a Chinese man attempted to burn the shrine with homemade explosives, a crime he confessed to only when he was later arrested in South Korea for trying to attack the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. But South Korea refused to extradite the man to Japan for imprisonment there, announcing that he would instead be sent home to China after serving a few months' time in Korea. Last month, a restaurant owner in the Chinese city of Hefei became a minor celebrity on the Chinese Web for putting a sign reading "Yasukuni Shrine" over the restaurant's toilets.
The last year has seen rising nationalism in Japan and China, and to a lesser degree in South Korea, lead the countries dangerously close to war over a handful of tiny, disputed islands. The recent visits to Yasukuni seem to have substantially set back the efforts to make up and to have worsened tensions. South Korean officials, including the foreign minister, canceled their visit to Japan in protest over the pilgrimage and Abe's visit to the shrine. Japanese lawmakers said they had to cancel a trip to China because Chinese leader Xi Jinping was being "too difficult" about setting up meetings. A Japanese lawmaker with an opposition party warned that his country was paying a heavy cost for the visits.
Abe's administration has found other ways to infuriate Japan's neighbors and indulge nationalism at home. He has denied the Japanese military's well-documented enlistment of Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian sex slaves during the war and suggested he may want to "revise" the country's national apology for wartime abuses. A right-wing Japanese think tank has advocated for such moves, urging that Japan abandon what it called "apology diplomacy." The more recent turn might then be called "no-apology diplomacy."
So why do Japanese politicians keep visiting Yasukuni? It's not clear the degree to which they are stoking nationalism or merely riding it to office, although, as in any electoral democracy, the forces of popular sentiment and public leadership aren't always distinct. Whatever the cause, the effect is bad for Japan -- the islands disputes, even if they never escalate beyond where they are now, have hurt both diplomacy and trade -- and bad for Asia. South Korea and particularly China without question share responsibility for those disputes, although given that the anger and resentment in East Asia can in many ways be traced back to World War II, Japan perhaps holds some special responsibility.
As the historian W.R. Mead wrote on his blog, "Because Japan and China have never been able to have the kind of meeting of the minds and deep reconciliation that Germany and France had after World War II, Asia remains a turbulent and dangerous place."
Turbulent and dangerous might be a tad of an overstatement, and Europe was partially aided by the common cause of the Cold War as well as by Germany's efforts to make amends, but it's true that East Asia is still divided by the memory of the not-so-far-back war that had torn it apart. When Japanese politicians pay tribute to the Yasukuni shrine, they are also paying tribute, whether they intend to or not, to an imperial order in which Japan violently subjugated its neighbors. That era is over: Japan's economy is shrinking and its population declining as both China and South Korea rise in power and stature. Like post-war Europe, it's a place where cooperation and harmony are more likely to serve the interests of individual nations. But as long as Japan's leaders continue living in the past, as Hirohito did when he resumed visiting the imperial shrine to his devastated and discredited empire, they will struggle to prepare their country for its future.