5 things about Japan's controversial Yasukuni Shrine

Two Japanese cabinet ministers visited a controversial war shrine in Tokyo on Friday (Aug 15, 2014) in a move likely to anger China and South Korea, which see the shrine as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit the Yasukuni shrine to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II, he sent a ritual offering. 

Here are 5 things about the 145-year-old Yasukuni Shrine:

1. THE SHRINE

Yasukuni Shrine - the name means 'peaceful country' - is located in Chiyoda, in central Tokyo. Like all shrines, it is open to the public.

It was built in 1869 on the orders of Emperor Meiji to commemorate those who died to bring about the Meiji Restoration of Imperial Rule.

It lists the names of military personnel killed while serving the country during armed conflicts.

Around 2.5 million people are enshrined. They include 2.1 million who died during World War II.

2. SHINTO

According to Japan’s traditional Shinto religion, humans are transformed into kami or deities when they die, and as such, are worshipped by their descendants.

Surrounded by war banners and military regalia, the Yasukuni kami  are venerated by hundreds of thousands of visitors at the shrine each year.

3. THE CONTROVERSY

The Yasukuni Shrine is seen by many as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism. Neighbouring countries that suffered under Japanese aggression during the World War II say frequent visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders are offensive, and serve as a major obstacle in the way of mending the past.

The decision to honour 14 Class-A war criminals at the shrine was taken in 1969, but it was kept a secret. That news was only revealed to the media a decade later, on April 19, 1979.

Some Japanese commentators have called for the removal of the war criminals from the shrine, as a means of ending the controversy. But Yasukuni’s head priest says enshrinement is permanent and irreversible.

4. VISITS TO THE SHRINE

Several Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine, including Yasuhiro Nakasone, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Junichiro Koizumi and incumbent Shinzo Abe.

Lawmakers also pay their respects at the shrine during matsuri or festivals throughout the year such as New Year’s Festival (Jan 1), Spring Festival for Harvest (Feb 17), Annual Spring Festival (Apr 21-23), Shrine’s Founding Day (Jun 29), Annual Autumn Festival (Oct 17-20).

5. THE FALLOUT

Visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders always ignite the anger of neighbouring nations such as China and South Korea, straining already tense ties plagued by territorial disputes.

After Mr Abe visited the shrine in Dec 2013, Chinese consumers took to social media to call for a boycott of Japanese goods.

SOURCES: AFP, BBC, CCTV, YASUKUNI WEBSITE, THE STRAITS TIMES

This article was first published on April 20, 2014, and updated on Aug 15, 2014.