Yasukuni Shrine

It was my last day in Tokyo, so I had a bit of time left in the morning before I had to go to Narita. I decided to visit the Yasukuni shrine.

The shrine has often been at the centre of controversy when a Japanese Prime Minister goes there to pay their respects to fallen soldiers from their previous wars. The ritual signifies to many a dismissal of the wartime atrocities the Japanese military committed during World War II. However, as the signboard just next to the corroded copper torii gate explains eagerly in careful English, this shrine is like a memorial, albeit a more religious one where fallen soldiers have been deified.

Of particular note is a monument to Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist on the Tokyo Trials who was the lone dissenter against a non-guilty verdict. This monument felt like a weird, desperate reciprocation of the legal sympathy he offered them, to proudly show us: “See! Someone(who’s not Japanese) didn’t think what we did was completely wrong.”

For other tourists, especially those with a tenuous grasp of history or who have no history with the Japanese, their texts might render a bit of sympathy. But as someone who comes from a country that had been invaded by the Japanese in World War II, I definitely felt slightly discombobulated walking through the complex. When I am at a war memorial in my own country, the gravestones or plaques inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers make me feel thankful for their sacrifice. But when visiting a shrine where the people you learnt in the history books in school were the villains, it’s a bit discomforting to see no restitution or recognition of past wrongs on explainers throughout the complex. At the same time, Yasukuni shrine isn’t a celebration of war, but like many war memorials, ostensibly about remembering the sacrifice of Japanese soldiers — although they were invaders, not defenders.

What tempers unambiguous distaste is the serenity pervading the place, as elderly locals wander in for a walk amidst the manicured plants. The Zen garden glosses over any problematic aspects with a peaceful sheen.

It was still a lovely spring morning. I walked quietly by myself around a still pond, watching the koi as I contemplated the place in silence.

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