World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

A Lesson on Yasukuni Shrine: Teaching Shintoism and History by Analogy

Janet Martin

Woodson High School

    Japan's Yasukuni Shrine finds itself in the U.S. news from time to time. A Shinto site, it enshrines the souls of some 2.5 million of Japan's war dead. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has paid several official visits to the shrine, often on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The neighboring nations of China and South Korea, both victims of Japanese military aggression during World War II (the Great Pacific War), have responded to these official visits with reactions ranging from dismay to outrage. The decision in 1985 to add the names of fourteen Class A war criminals, including wartime leader Hideki Tojo, to the scrolls listing the souls enshrined at the Shrine, has brought the question of how Japan remembers its wartime history into sharper focus. 1
    Yet most American high school students, even if they are able to locate Japan, China, and South Korea on a map of East Asia, even if they recall that there was a war there in the 1930s and 1940s, and even if they are aware of the existence of Shinto as a Japanese religious faith, have little if any awareness of this controversy. A lesson using visual images and a primary source reading will lead students into constructing a series of mental analogies which may guide them to a deeper understanding of these issues. 2
    The teacher first shows the students a picture of President Bush laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. (This and other pictures used in the lesson can easily be found on the Internet.) Students are asked first to describe, then to identify, then to interpret the image. This is followed by a picture of a Memorial Day observance in the students' own community. Students discuss the fact that political leaders often commemorate the nation's war dead on patriotic holidays, and that prayer is often a part of these ceremonies. 3
    Now students are shown a picture of Prime Minister Koizumi in formal morning dress, accompanying a Shinto priest in his robes of office, as they enter the Yasukuni Shrine, and an image of average Japanese citizens visiting the shrine. This section could conclude with an image of protesters, either Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, against the Yasukuni Shrine visits. The teacher guides a discussion of ways in which the two leaders' actions are both similar and different, and of reasons why the Yasukuni Shrine visits have been protested. For example, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place of the physical remains of some U.S. veterans, while the Yasukuni Shrine, in Shinto belief, is the home of the souls of all those who died in military service to Japan between 1869 and 1945. Perhaps it is more similar to the U.S. Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of the dead from that war? But probably few Americans believe that the souls of those named on the wall literally reside at the memorial. The U.S. President might be confronted by protestors, even at Arlington, but they are unlikely to be protesting the fact that he is honoring U.S. war dead. 4
    The focal point of the lesson is an article recording an interview with a Shinto priest, Kiyama Terumichi, who serves at the Yasukuni Shrine.1 This lesson was composed as part of a seminar on East Asia led by Dr. John Rossi, under the auspices of the Nation Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA) in 2005-2006. This article offers a unique perspective on the Yasukuni Shrine and the controversy surrounding it, because Terumichi is both a Shinto priest and a veteran of the Great Eastern War. His remarks will help students understand that in Shinto belief, the souls of the dead are literally present at the shrine. They have attained the status of kami, the divine spirits often associated in Shintoism with natural forces. 5
    Terumichi reflects that he himself might easily have died in the war and become one of the spirits residing at Yasukuni Shrine, and that, when he enters the shrine, he is once again in the company of his dead comrades. He recalls that they went into battle in the expectation of joining the kami if they died. This is not the spiritual destination of everyone who dies, but is a particular honor for those who died defending Japan. 6
    Terumichi describes the visit of an elderly lady to the shrine, to visit the spirits of her two children who died in the war. He offers two thoughts, one of which might sound very familiar to American students while the other might surprise them. First, he muses that the young people of today fail to show the respect for religion that was common in his youth—a familiar complaint of the elderly in all cultures. But second, he mentions that this worshipper at the Shinto shrine probably also has a Buddhist shrine to her children's spirits in her home—probably a much less familiar idea. 7
    Terumichi's interview concludes with a thought that suggests two possible extensions to this lesson. He expresses the hope that Japanese schools will again teach students to respect the sacrifices of the war dead and that they will help revive their sense of pride in Japan's recent history. 8
    As a first extension, students could research news stories of Chinese, South Korean, and other protests against the Yasukuni Shrine visits, and related controversies over the adoption of new Japanese history textbooks and the conflicting claims of Japan and South Korea to the Dokdo or Takeshima Islands. An interesting research source, presented by Dr. Rossi at the NCTA seminar, is , where news articles from many foreign publications are available. 9
    Second, American students could examine what they have been taught about America's history during World War II, and what they think they American students should learn. They could also reflect on how they think their answers might differ if they were Japanese and influenced by Shintoism.  10
    In the end, if students still do not have an answer to the many questions raised by Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, they may at least have a more nuanced understanding of the question. 11


1  Terumichi, K., "Meeting at Yasukuni Shrine," in Japan at War: An Oral History, eds. H. T. Cook and T. F. Cook. (New York: Norton, 1992), pages 447-453.


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use