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Hanging out with the Yakuza at Yasukuni Shrine

On the 72nd anniver­sary of Japan’s sur­ren­der in World War II, I vis­ited Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine com­mem­o­rates sol­diers who fought and lost their lives in ser­vice of Japan. It is also where their souls are enshrined, rest­ing peace­fully for eternity.

After World War II, the United States imposed the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state onto Japan. The shrine, pre­vi­ously ran by the gov­ern­ment, had to become sec­u­lar or break off into a pri­vate insti­tu­tion. The gov­ern­ment chose the lat­ter, and since then, the shrine has been owned and oper­ated by a ultra right-wing nation­al­ist group. The shrine is now also home to a revi­sion­ist history museum.

In the 70s, priests secretly enshrined the souls of a thou­sand war crim­i­nals, includ­ing those directly respon­si­ble for plan­ning and order­ing atroc­i­ties in WWII. Enshrine­ment effec­tively erased their sins and their souls are now hon­ored along­side other ser­vice­men and women.

As a result, Yasukuni Shrine has since been mired in con­tro­ver­sy. Japan is a paci­fist coun­try now, with its con­sti­tu­tion out­law­ing war and a proper military.1 As such, many Japan­ese oppose the enshrine­ment, see­ing it as a step back­wards to Japan’s impe­ri­al­ist past. Asian coun­tries, hav­ing been vic­tims of Japan’s war crimes, see the shrine as a cel­e­bra­tion of Japan’s actions in the war and a lack of remorse.

Every once in a while, Prime Min­is­ter Shinzō Abe and his rul­ing party will visit the shrine as a way to please their nation­al­ist and yakuza friends. On this anniver­sary day, Abe sent mem­bers of his cab­i­net there on his behalf to avoid sour­ing rela­tions with China and South Korea, as he sought to work with them on the North Korean issue.

The anniver­sary is a spe­cial day that draws many vis­i­tors. As such, the num­ber of polit­i­cal activists has also increased. They lined the streets from the sub­way exit all the way to the shrine’s entrance.

Some were anti-Chi­na, some were pro-­Tai­wan, and oth­ers were advo­cat­ing for domestic issues.

In front of the Yasukuni entrance, some­one had started a poll ask­ing whether there will be a cri­sis with North Korea, whether Japan should expand the pow­ers of its mil­i­tary, and whether Japan should pos­sess the abil­ity to con­duct pre-emp­tive strikes. As you can see, the answers are over­whelm­ingly yes, but there’s prob­a­bly some sam­ple bias in ask­ing this crowd as well.

A couple bows to show respect as they leave the shrine.

Right behind the entrance lies a statue of Ōmura Masujirō, the father of the modern Japanese military.

There was quite a bit of police pres­ence as there was an event of some sort hap­pen­ing that day.

There was a gath­er­ing of nation­al­ists hang­ing out, talk­ing, and singing nation­al­ist and war songs.

One thing I found sur­pris­ing was how many Self­-De­fense Force per­son­nel openly asso­ci­ated with right-wing nation­al­ist groups. These groups insist on a revi­sion­ist ver­sion of his­tory where Japan never started the war and never com­mit­ted war crimes. They also advo­cate for a much more expan­sive mil­i­tary, directly at odds with the mis­sion of the Self­-De­fense Force.

Man in white passionately leads nationalists and sympathetic onlookers in song.

A grandma asks a teenager, dressed in an Imperial Japan uniform, to take a photo with her grandson (not pictured).

Out of nowhere, it started rain­ing apoc­a­lyp­ti­cally and I had to take shel­ter in the cafe­te­ria, which also dou­bled as a sou­venir shop. Many Yakuza fac­tions, aligned with nation­al­ist groups, came to Yasukuni that day. We were trapped in the cafe­te­ria together for almost two hours.

The Yakuza oper­ates largely in the open. They have offices that politi­cians vis­it, they own com­pa­nies, oper­ate whole neigh­bor­hoods, and they are in every part of Japanese society.

Know­ing all that, I still found it sur­pris­ing that every­one was just non­cha­lantly min­gling with them. In fact, I think one of them made some room for me as I tried to find a spot to eat some yak­isoba (the cafe­te­ria sold over­priced food and beer).2

The cafe­te­ria also had some pro-Abe posters. Amus­ing­ly, their Abe illus­tra­tion of Abe made him look fun­ny. Should­n’t this kind of thing make him look flattering?

As the rain slowed from a storm to a con­stant driz­zle, I decided to go line up to see the actual shrine.

Filming is prohibited inside the grounds. Here, we see a television cameraman filming. I’m guessing he got special permission.

There were hun­dreds of peo­ple in line, and they were there even before the storm sub­sid­ed. These are not old peo­ple who are prod­ucts of the past, they are part of the younger gen­er­a­tion who still fully sub­scribe to Japan’s pre-war philosophy.

As I write this, many Asian coun­tries are turn­ing away from democ­racy and human rights to embrace more author­i­tar­ian regimes. In coun­tries like the Philip­pines and Thai­land, the masses went to the polls to vote their own rights away.

In Japan, Shinzō Abe is win­ning the fight to change Japan’s post-war paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion. This would lift restric­tions on Japan’s mil­i­tary and would be a huge step back­wards into the past.

What is old is new again.

Pho­tos taken on August 15th, 2017

More on Yasukuni Shrine:

Japan Sub­cul­ture Research Center’s Explainer
Lowy Insti­tute’s 15 August Photo Essay

  1. Instead, Japan have Self­-De­fense Forces. They’re only for domes­tic use, although this has changed recently. 

  2. Beer and yak­isoba are typ­i­cal fes­ti­val food, but the yak­isoba here is espe­cially bad.