Lesson on Yasukuni Shrine: Teaching Shintoism and History by Analogy
Woodson High School
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 http://thepaperboy.com/ , where
news articles from many foreign publications are available.
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.
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.
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),