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William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Yasukuni Shrine Visits, A Catholic Dilemma
Published: November 13, 2005 01:05 PM
Yasukuni Shrine Visits, A Catholic Dilemma

Yasukuni Shrine. (Photo: wikipedia)

The fifth annual visit of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro to the Yasukuni Shrine that honors Japanese military personnel who died in uniform since the 1870s has produced the fifth annual protests from China and Korea.

The visits do not generate much excitement here in Japan since, for the most part, there is not much interest in Yasukuni or other issues related to it. After all, most Japanese were born after World War II ended. The Japanese empire and its sins are as remote from them as the invention of the telephone in 1876 was remote from people who lived under that empire.

The number of Japanese passionately interested in "protecting" Japan´s colonial and imperial image is declining rapidly as the country´s long-lived elderly die off. Their influence will probably disappear in the next decade or so. Those who oppose visits are also decreasing as anti-everything holdouts from the 1960s mellow. The majority does not care. This is not apathy; it is a normal lack of interest in the "once upon a time."

I am among those who think the annual uproar from China and, decreasingly, South Korea is related to the interests of the governments in those countries. Rousing people to manufactured indignation over what the Japanese did three generations ago is a handy way to distract citizens from developing or expressing indignation over what their own governments may be doing today. The decline in anti-Japanese activity in South Korea as that country has democratized illustrates the point.

And yet, the Yasukuni Shrine does provoke strong emotions among the generation of Japanese who lived through the imperial period. A large number of them look on the shrine not as a place that honors 14 class-A war criminals but as the place where their dead fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and friends are remembered. For them, questions of colonialism, war guilt and politics are irrelevant.

For others of that generation, Yasukuni is a reminder of the militarism and injustice that victimized the Japanese as well as others. They oppose visits to the shrine by political figures. Frequently, they advocate building another memorial to commemorate all victims of Japan´s Asian wars, civilian as well as military, foreign as well as Japanese.

Those who oppose Yasukuni tend to be most vocal about it. Sometimes, they provoke a response from the small number of diehards who would glorify Japan´s imperial past, which Yasukuni´s museum and overall ethos certainly do. The majority stays out of the fray.

The issue can be divisive even among some Catholics who lived through the war period.

Following the August commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Japan´s defeat, the letters column of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan´s Catholic weekly, has carried many letters pro and con about the visits to the shrine and the somewhat related issue of amending the Constitution to regularize the situation of Japan´s military. Some people go beyond excusing Koizumi´s visit and even advocate such visits to the Shinto shrine by Catholics.

After Koizumi visited the shrine on Oct. 17, Japan´s bishops issued a protest. However, their statement is unlikely to end the controversy among older members of the Church. Ironically, Catholics who favor not only politicians´ visits to the shrine but even encourage Catholics to visit despite what the bishops say can claim to have an ally. The Vatican.

In the 1930s, at a time when militarists had taken control of the Japanese government and society, Catholics in Japan faced a problem. Children had to go to Shinto shrines as part of their school activities. In September 1932, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste-Alexis Chambon of Tokyo asked the Ministry of Education to clarify whether or not such visits were religious. A week after the archbishop sent his letter, a response came saying such visits were a manifestation of patriotism and loyalty, not a religious activity.

Based on that, Cardinal Pietro Fumasoni Biondi, prefect of "Propaganda" (now the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) in Rome, sent word to Japan in May 1936 indicating that since visits to Shinto shrines were not religious activities, Catholics were allowed to make such visits.

After Japan´s defeat in 1945, the U.S. occupation authorities ordered the denationalization of Shinto shrines, including Yasukuni. Thereafter, they were to be religious entities. At the first post-war gathering of Japan´s bishops in May 1946, the bishops decreed that Catholics henceforth were not allowed to go to shrines in either a private or a public capacity.

That probably would have put the issue to rest except for a 1951 declaration from the Vatican stating that the 1936 decision was still in effect. It may be significant that this statement was signed by Cardinal Fumasoni Biondi, who had signed the 1936 one. Might a reluctance to admit having made a mistake 15 years earlier have caused him to reaffirm the earlier position?

In any case, the last word from the Vatican is the cardinal´s reiteration of permission for Catholics to go to Yasukuni and take part in its rituals. There is now a move afoot to have the bishops of Japan look at the issue and make some sort of statement on the issue.

If that happens, though politicians will continue to visit the shrine as long as its supporters remain party contributors and voters, Catholics at least would have a clear teaching from their bishops to follow or ignore.

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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