Thursday marks the 74th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, a national day of mourning, for those who remember the war and those who don’t.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit Yasukuni Shrine, where Hideki Tojo and 13 other war criminals responsible for Japan’s deadly reign are enshrined, but he sent his emissary to make ritual offerings.

There were better places he could have expressed his condolences, but that would risk being seen as a sign of regret for the suffering of those non-Japanese formerly under the rule of Imperial Japan.

Every year, Japan wrestles with how to pay their respects to the dead of the Pacific War – those who fell on Pacific Islands and in Burmese jungles, on Manchurian hills and in Chinese villages, and in bombed and blazing cities in the home islands – which ended 74 years ago on Thursday.

Post-war emperors and other members of the Imperial Family are willing to pay their condolences to the Japanese war dead. But one important place that they do it, is not the famous – or notorious – Yasukuni Shrine, it is rather the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery.

A tale of two war memorials

Yasukuni is perhaps Asia’s most controversial place of worship. As such, it is widely covered in global media. Chidorigafuchi is a very different matter: few have even heard of it.

Yasukuni Shrine was created by Emperor Meiji, and celebrates its 150 anniversary this year. However, it is not state property. Yasukuni is a privately run Shinto shrine where millions of war dead are commemorated. Problematically, it is also where 14 Class A War Criminals are worshipped as gods.

On August 14, the Mainichi Shimbun, a national paper, ran a scoop detailing how bad the relationship is between the imperial family and Yasukuni. According to the Mainichi and other reports, last September, Yasukuni contacted the Imperial Household Agency about a visit. The response was that the emperor would certainly not be going.

Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery is a national cemetery. Many, either in or outside of Japan, know little about, for it is buried in the metaphysical and political shade of Yasukuni. While right-wing, allegedly emperor-worshipping politicians and prime ministers have made it a litmus test of their faith to make pilgrimages, no member of the Imperial family has visited it since 1975.

Documents from those close to the Showa Emperor – Hirohito, who ruled Japan during and after the catastrophic Pacific War, and over whose responsibility historians still argue – was deeply disturbed by the inclusion of the architects of Japan’s war into those worshipped and commemorated at the shrine.

Eternal home of the war gods

Yasukuni has historically been a symbol of Japanese militarism. According to the Asahi Shimbun’s five-part series on the shrine, and the book Inquiry Into Yasukuni Jinja (2001), the shrine was founded on June 29, 1869, and originally called Shokonsha.

It was at first meant to honor those who had died fighting for Imperial Japan. However, after Emperor Hirohito ascended the throne, it became a site glorifying warfare.

“At first it was about a requiem for the dead, then a memorial, then public recognition of service for the country,” wrote one of Japan’s most famous scholars of nationalism, Yukio Hori. “Finally, by making ‘gods’ of the war-dead, it served the function of affirming dying for the war and making the public accept that.”

As Imperial Japan thrust into Manchuria in the 1930s, State Shinto – centered around Yasukuni – became the ruling ideology of Japan, not dissimilar to Nazism in Germany. When three Catholic students from Sophia University refused to worship at the shrine, in 1932, it became a national scandal, inflamed by reports in the Yomiuri newspaper, almost resulting in the closing of the university.

The Japanese government pushed the idea that sacrificing one’s life for the country in the war could make you a hero and elevate you to the status of a Shinto deity. The military hailed the war dead as eirei (“heroic spirits”) who would live forever, always honored at Yasukuni.

Kuniyoshi Takimoto, a former soldier who later become an anti-war activist, was a vocal critic of the Yasukuni Shrine and the role it played in the war. His last book, published when he was 96, Yuigon, is a personal and scathing look at Imperial Japan and the role State Shinto, and the part Yasukuni Shrine played.

“We were all brainwashed,” he wrote. “In elementary school, if you were a boy, you were told to become a soldier and if you died that being enshrined in Yasukuni was the greatest honor.”

In that totalitarian period, suspected activists vanished in the dead of night and all national activity fell under government oversight, including places of worship. However, Yasukuni had a very special status: It was directly under the management of Japan’s military. Its chief priest during the war was General Takao Suzuki.

The US was aware of the role state Shinto had played in the war and in 1945, issued the Shinto decree, which separated shrine and state. However, the people who were responsible for the war and unrepentant militarists clung to the idea of making Yasukuni central to Japanese culture again.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke, who served as Minister of Munitions during the war, was arrested as a war criminal in 1945 but later returned to power and actively campaigned to make the Yasukuni Shrine a government entity. During his brutal role in a puppet state in Northeast China, he was called “The Devil of Showa.”

In 1969, the Liberal Democratic Party put forward the “Yasukuni Law Act” to nationalize the shrine. The bill was defeated after massive protests by veterans, Buddhists and Christian groups.

Yasukuni’s secret moment

However, the emperor still visited the shrine up to 1975 to pay respects. That would change.

In October 1978, Yasukuni’s Head Priest Nagayoshi Matsudaira secretly enshrined 14 Class-A war criminals there, including Hideki Tojo, the architect of Japan’s war, in a religious ceremony.

In a speech, Matsudaira once stated: “If we don’t deny the historical perspective of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, Japan’s spirit will never revive.” That is a view echoed in the ruling Liberal Democrat Party’s constant refrain of “breaking away from the postwar regime.”

Emperor Hirohito expressed unusually strong distaste for the ceremony that made gods of war criminals. While emperors are not free to speak freely, his thoughts were described in a memorandum by a former Imperial Household Agency official. When the memo came to light in 2006, Abe – the cabinet spokesman at the time – was at a loss for words.

In recent years, revisionists have tried to deny the memorandum as ’fake news’ but the continued refusal of the Imperial family to visit the shrine speaks volumes.

Flower offerings at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery on August 14. Photo: Asia Times/Jake Adelstein

Where emperors bow their heads

Yet, the imperial family has not avoided Chidorigafuchi. In May of 2018, Prince Hitachi, the younger brother of Emperor Akihito, attended a memorial service there.

Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery is only one kilometer south of Yasukuni in downtown Tokyo. It was established by the Japanese government on March 28, 1959, to house the remains of the many soldiers who died overseas during World War II.

On that day, Prime Minister Kishi, Emperor Hirohito and ambassadors from the UK, US and five other countries attended and offered flowers to the dead. Some of the remains enshrined there were recovered from distant killing grounds in a series of government missions which date back to 1953.

They include not only soldiers and military support personnel, but ordinary civilians as well. It became the equivalent of Japan’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” and is non-denominational.

The poem of the former Empress, lamenting the suffering of war, carved in a memorial tablet at Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo. Photo: Asia Times/Jake Adelstein

However, from the start, arch-conservative groups that would later become the powerful Shinto-based right-wing lobby, Nippon Kaigi, fought to diminish its status.

“Japanese political leaders, including the prime ministers, regularly do visit Chidorigafuchi, but the site has often been regarded with considerable suspicion, and even hostility, by Yasukuni supporters because they fear that the former has frequently been discussed as an alternative – and more appropriate and legitimate – site for national mourning by the critics of Yasukuni,” said Professor Koichi Nakano, a professor of Political Science at Sophia University.

“Earlier in the postwar period, there were repeated attempts to renationalize Yasukuni, but they failed each time largely due to the contradiction with the constitutional stipulation that requires the separation of state and religion.”

The Obama rebuke

When Shinzo Abe returned to the prime ministership for a second term in December 2012, Yasukuni was notorious, not just in wartime victim China and in ex-colony South Korea, but across the wider world. When Abe visited Yasukuni in 2013, US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy issued an unusual statement expressing “disappointment.”

US State Department officials, speaking on background, explained the US reaction. The Barack Obama administration essentially warned Abe about this diplomatic issue, by example and explicitly. Both Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid flowers at Chidorigafuchi, with official comments that it was the closest equivalent to Arlington Cemetery.

“It was as if Obama pointed his finger on a Tokyo map at Chidorigafuchi and told Abe  ‘You go here, not Yasukuni,’” said Nakano. “Abe has [since 2013] been unable to revisit Yasukuni, though he continues to send offerings on a regular basis.”

The Sophia University professor continued: “I personally think that Chidorigafuchi should be expanded as the official, secular, alternative to Yasukuni as a site for national mourning and remembrance, but I cannot imagine that would ever be done with the current coalition in power.”

Historian Jeff Kingston, author of the seminal, Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change since the 1980s, notes the even Abe prayed at Chidorigafuchi on August 15 last year. However, the cabinet office downplayed the visit. This year he skipped a personal visit to Yasukuni but sent a ritual offering instead. His former handpicked defense minister, and special aide, Tomomi Inada, made the offer in his stead.

This gesture was not well-received in South Korea, which is in a trade dispute with Japan which has its roots in the war. Last year South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate Koreans conscripted as forced labor during the war.

Ironically, it is probable that the bones of Koreans who died in the war are also contained in Chidorigafuchi. Yasukuni has not yet responded if Koreans fighting for Japan in the war are also enshrined as deities.

“It’s true that Chidorigafuchi is not well known, but is a secular space for honoring war dead without the historical baggage of Yasukuni. Yasukuni is the ground zero for an unrepentant view about Japan’s rampage through Asia. There is a large map of Asia listing Japanese casualties in various counties but this doesn’t detail the countless victims of Japan’s imperial aggression,” Kingston points out.

But then why do Abe and cabinet members insist on visiting?

“[A politician] going to Yasukuni dog whistles to the hardcore nationalists [like Nippon Kaigi] who support the Liberal Democratic Party and promote revisionism. The adjacent Yushukan [Japanese military and war museum] embraces a revisionist narrative downplaying Japanese depredations and shirking responsibility, while omitting any reference to the millions of Asian victims of Japan’s Pan Asian crusade,” Kingston explained toAsia Times.

A flower in Chidorigafuchi

The cemetery is nearly 40 acres, covered with evergreen trees and lush vegetation. At the center is a Hexagonal Hall with a five-ton ceramic coffin. Emperor Hirohito gifted a bronze urn in the shape of a tea jar to the shrine while still alive.

There is no adjoining museum glorifying Japanese warriors and war machines. It is solemn and quiet.

Every August 14, the Federation of New Religious Organizations in Japan holds a ceremony there entitled “Prayer For Peace and Memorial For the Victims Of War” to call for an end to warfare.

Until 1987, it was a “Memorial For Those Who Died In War,” but the organization changed the name to clarify the ceremony was not only for those who died in combat. They wished to make it clear that a wish for peace beyond nations and religions and to acknowledge the full tragedy of war.

This year, the 54th ceremony, hundreds of people attended.

Takashi Kubo, a retired office-worker in his eighties, from Saitama, came early in the day to pay his respects. “My father died overseas in what was a senseless war. I would never visit Yasukuni Shrine – I have no wish to thank the villains who got him killed,” he said.

“Everyone forgets what really happened. Some of us don’t. Every time the prime minister and his cronies visit Yasukuni, they make a choice to glorify war, not lament it. They should come here instead. That’s what I think.”

He bought a white flower for 100 yen and placed it on the altar and prayed silently. He stopped briefly to read a monument, erected in 2005, with the poem of the previous empress engraved upon it, and left shuffling down the gravel path, after a friendly wave goodbye.

The poem reads:

Having walked through times
where there was no such Great War
My thoughts go out to
the people who had lived through
these days of cruel hardship.