CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Is There Religious Freedom for Japanese Politicians?
The Storm in East Asia over Yasukuni Shrine

Michiaki Okuyama (Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Nagoya)

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.
Koizumi Jun’ichirō and Yasukuni Shrine

The current prime minister of Japan, Koizumi Jun’ichirō, began his fifth year in office this past April. Since then his administration has been dragged into unforeseen diplomatic conflicts with China and South Korea, complicating the already thorny issue of its relationship to North Korea.

Mass demonstrations against Japan held in several major cities in China early in April were widely reported in the Japanese media broadcast. Late in the month the Chinese government took measures to calm the situation, but then another problem flared up: A meeting between prime minister and the Chinese vice premier Ms. Wu Yi scheduled for 23 May was cancelled abruptly and without warning. From one day to the next, on the flimsiest of official reasons, she was hustled out of the country and back to China. Only later did Japan learn what it had supposed all along, that her withdrawal was a protest against the Koizumi government. The issue is no doubt multifaceted, but the most glaring problem is the positive position the prime minister has taken towards one particular Shinto shrine, the Yasukuni Jinja.

Since the composition of his first cabinet in 2001, Koizumi has visited Yasukuni Shrine once each year and publicly bowed to honor those enshrined there, a gesture that has continued to infuriate China and Korea. What is this Yasukuni Shrine? What is to be said of the visits of Koizumi and other Japanese politicians there? Why the protest from China and Korea? Is there any solution that would satisfy all sides? What follows will not offer direct answers to all these questions but only attempt to put them in perspective by taking a brief look at religious legalization in modern Japan and the history of the Yasukuni Shrine, before turning to some final remarks on the present issues.

Religious Legalization in Modern Japan

Since normalizing international relations around the mid-nineteenth century, after more than two hundred years of virtual seclusion from the outer world, Japan adopted two different constitutions in accord with modern legal systems in its attempt to assimilate western ideas: the Meiji Constitution (Constitution of the Great Empire of Japan) and the Constitution of Japan, promulgated respectively in 1889 and 1946 and enforced the following year.

The principle underlying the Meiji Constitution is given in a Dedication preceding the Preamble. In it Emperor Meiji humbly offers the Constitution to the divine spirits of the Imperial Ancestors. The last part of the Dedication reads:

In addition to praying for the divine assistance of the Imperial Founders, Ancestors, and Fathers, I, the Emperor, swear to my subjects that I will take upon myself the responsibility of seeing that this Constitution is carried out, that neither now nor in the future will I sway from this task. I earnestly wish the divine spirits to consider this. [author’s translation]

The Meiji Constitution was thus promulgated within the framework of an imperial prayer to the divine spirits. In effect, this places both the Meiji Constitution and the governmental system that it inaugurated under a kind of sacred canopy. The religious legalization is, therefore, twofold. On the one hand, the Constitution legitimizes religious freedom within certain restrictions. On the other, the framework itself is religiously authorized. To treat the Meiji Constitution system in its totality, with the whole complex of relationship among religion, politics, the juridical structure, and education, falls beyond the modest scope of this paper. I will therefore concentrate on the guarantee of religious freedom.

The question of religion and the sacred is located in the following sections of the Constitution:[1]

Chapter 1: The Emperor

Article 3: The Emperor is sacred and inviolable.

Chapter 2: Rights and Duties of Subjects

Article 28: Japanese subjects shall, within limits not prejudicial to the peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects, enjoy freedom of religious belief.

Now this guarantee of religious freedom—with the proviso against antagonism to “duties as subjects”—leaves ample room for interpretation concerning just what these “duties” might be. Thus obligatory visits to Shinto shrines as one duty of all imperial subjects found its way into law after Shinto was proclaimed a “basic reverence for the nation” (kokka no sōshi), not a religion. Leaving aside a discussion of how this came, we may single out a crucial turning point in the history of modern Shinto, namely, the year 1900 when a Shrine Office (Jinja kyoku) was established within the Home Ministry to administer shrines, detaching its authority from the Religion Office (Shūkyō kyoku) within the Ministry of Education whose task was to oversee “religions.”

Characterizing Shinto as a way of reverence rather than a religion has an odd ring to our ears today, and indeed even at the time questions were raised about granting Shinto the status of a non-religion. “Is Shinto a religion or not?” Behind this question lies the deeper and more complicated problem of defining the concept of “religion” itself. The concept (the approximate Japanese equivalent being shūkyō) was by no means self-evident in Japan but had to find its way into post-Meiji Japan through contact with the outside world, especially with the West and more specifically, in response to the newly introduced “religion” of Christianity. Thus the question of whether Shinto is a religion or not hinges on defining a term that was in itself a neologism. Without going any further into the history of the concept, it should be born in mind that when the Meiji Constitution incorporated the ideal of freedom of religion, it did so with a term whose meaning was not yet settled. (And even today, the definition of “religion” is debated.)

After the defeat of Japan in World War II and under occupation by the Allied Forces, the Constitutional system of Japan underwent a radical transformation. The General Headquarters (GHQ) and the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) worked to reform the country into a modern democracy, beginning with a disarmament of the military and a dismantling of what remained of its political machine. This process continued from 1945 until the formalization of a Peace Treaty between Japan and the Allied nations in 1952.

The GHQ and SCAP regarded what they called “State Shinto”[2] a perversion of Shinto into a means of militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda, and accordingly issued a “Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto from the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers” (abbreviated hereafter as the “Shinto Directive”) on 15 December 1945. It opens with a statement of the aim of the Directive:

In order to free the Japanese people from direct or indirect compulsion to believe or profess to believe in a religion or cult officially designated by the state, and

In order to lift from the Japanese people the burden of compulsory financial support of an ideology which has contributed to their war guilt, defeat, suffering, privation, and present deplorable condition, and

In order to prevent a recurrence of the perversion of Shinto theory and beliefs into militaristic and ultra-nationalistic propaganda designed to delude the Japanese people and lead them into wars of aggression, and

In order to assist the Japanese people in a rededication of their national life to building a new Japan based upon ideals of perpetual peace and democracy.

This is followed by the first item of the directive:

(1. a) The sponsorship, support, perpetuation, control, and dissemination of Shinto by the Japanese national, prefectural, and local governments, or by public officials, subordinates, and employees acting in their official capacity are prohibited and will cease immediately.


A critical ingredient in the disestablishment of “State Shinto” was, of course, the redefinition of the status of the Emperor. An imperial rescript was issued on 1 January 1946 by Emperor Hirohito (posthumously, Emperor Shōwa) in which he formally denied his divinity.[3] In it he states:

We stand by the people and we wish always to share with them in their moment of joys and sorrows. The ties between us and our people have always stood upon mutual trust and affection. They do not depend upon mere legends and myths. They are not predicated on the false conception that the Emperor is divine and that the Japanese people are superior to other races and fated to rule the world.

As a result, the Emperor’s sacredness that had been declared in the Meiji Constitution and the alleged superiority of the Japanese race that had been advocated by the militaristic regime, were both repudiated. The Emperor system itself was transformed into a “symbolic” system under the Constitution of 1946.

The new religious system after World War II may thus be summarized in three points:

1.   the survival of the Emperor System with the Emperor as a symbol, consequent on a declaration denying his divinity;

2.   the denial to Shinto of the status of an institution for national reverence, demoting it to a religion on the same level as other religions; and

3.   the formalized separation of politics and religion, and the declaration of the freedom of belief.

Related articles in the Constitution of Japan are as follow.

Chapter 1: The Emperor

Article 1: The Emperor shall be the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people, deriving his position from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign power.

Chapter 3: Rights and Duties of the People

Article 20: Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State nor exercise any political authority.

(2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite, or practice.

(3) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.

Chapter 7: Finance

Article 89: No public money or other property shall be expended or appropriated for the use, benefit, or maintenance of any religious institution or association, or for any charitable, educational, or benevolent enterprises not under the control of public authority.[4]

The issue of the “Shinto Directive” and the promulgation of the Japanese Constitution obliged persons connected with Shinto to rethink its status as a religion in order to insure its survival under the law in the new era of religious freedom. This was especially important for Yasukuni Shrine, which had official ties to Japanese militarism in that its administration had largely been in the hands of the Ministries of the Army and the Navy until 1945.

The History of Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine (the name means “peaceful country”) was originally built in 1869 as a Tokyo Shōkonsha (Tokyo Shrine for the Consolation of Departed Souls). It was one of a number of special shrines established after the first year of Meiji to pray for the repose of the souls of those who had sacrificed their lives fighting for the unity of the country during its process of modernization. Yasukuni Shrine was placed under government control, mainly the Ministries of the Army and the Navy and for a brief period under the Home Ministry. Consistent with its ideology of loyalty to the Emperor and the nation, the Yasukuni enshrined (and has continued to do so to this day in line with the intentions of Emperor Meiji) those who had given their lives for the nation as soldiers, and excluded those who died in civil wars opposing the state as well as foreigners who died in wars waged against Japan.

The practice of enshrining the spirits of the departed belongs to a wider tradition of Kami worship in which certain guardian deities (kami) of a clan, a social group, or a region were venerated in a shrine. Some of these Kami had originally been human beings but had been deified for one reason or another (for example, to prevent them from taking revenge against the living, or to honor a virtuous life). This kind of “deification” is a common religious custom in Japan—in Buddhism as well as in Shinto—concerning which a great deal has been written.[5] At times deification has even been applied to charismatic living figures, which may well be the origin of the deification of the Emperor since the Meiji period.[6]

After World War II Yasukuni Shrine, along with other Shinto shrines, lost its national patronage. Immediately after the issue of the “Shinto Directive,” on 28 December 1945, the Religious Corporations Ordinance was issued stipulating the legal status of religious corporations. William P. Woodard, liaison officer until 1949 of the Civil Information and Education Section of the Allied Occupation, summarizes the features of the Religious Corporations Ordinance as follows:

Anyone who desired to create a denomination, sect, order, shrine, temple or church was required to provide certain specified regulations governing the control of its property and register the same at the appropriate local registry office. Incorporation was effected by registration. The denominations then reported their registration to the Ministry, while local shrines, temples, and churches reported to their respective prefectural government. (Woodard, 91)

As the passage makes clear, the religious administration authorized in this Ordinance begins with incorporation by registration. This led to some confusion and abuse, but rather than focus on the immediate aftermath of the Ordinance, we need to look at an amendment issued a few short weeks later on 2 February 1946. The intent of the amendment was to announce that Shinto shrines, including Ise Jingu (the Ise Grand Shrines) and Yasukuni Shrine which are singled out by name, are to be regarded as religious corporations, and the suggestion is made that they register, as prescribed in the Ordinance, within six months. Should they fail to do so, the amendment states, those corporations shall be regarded as disbanded. On the following day, 3 February, the vast majority of shrines nationwide —about 80,000 out of a total of 100,000—merged to establish a new religious corporation, the Jinja Honcho (Association of Shinto Shrines). Yasukuni Shrine, however, opted to remain independent of the Jinja Honcho and established itself as a religious corporation by registering at the Tokyo local government in September 1946.

In line with the 1946 Constitution of Japan, the Religious Juridical Person’s Law was enacted in 1951, replacing the Religious Corporations Ordinance that had been in effect for about five years. Helen Hardacre, a specialist on Japanese religions, reviewed the new legalization of juridical persons in these terms:

Drafted with the cooperation of Japanese religious leaders and the Religious Affairs Section of the Ministry of Education, the law granted religious organizations tax-exempt status and specified the mechanism of incorporation. The latter were formulated specifically to prevent the government from using the fact of incorporation or nonincorporation as a litmus test for whether the organization was a religion or not. Several religious organizations actually requested some distinction between “true” and “false” religions, apparently in fear of the marked contemporary growth of new religious movements, but these requests were denied. (Hardacre, 139)

In the period of transformation during the first few years after the war, the Association of Shinto Shrines was obliged to negotiate with the GHQ, the government, and the Diet to acquire the  right to use the property where their shrines were located, which officially belonged to the state, at reduced cost or free of charge. Since they had become private juridical persons, any request for the transferal of property to them would conflict with one of the articles of the Constitution being drafted at the time, according to which religions would be prohibited from disposing of or appropriating public property. Strenuous efforts by the Association resulted in the legal approval of the transfer of state lands to Shinto shrines in 1947. Permission for Yasukuni Shrine was delayed, however. Scrutiny by the GHQ concerning the shrine continued for some years until the approval was finally given in 1951, the year in which the Religious Juridical Person’s Law was enacted and the Peace Treaty with Japan was signed.

Allow me briefly to summarize the history surrounding Yasukuni Shrine after 1952.[7] The same year in which the Peace Treaty went into effect, 1952, the Emperor and the imperial family renewed their visits to Yasukuni (Shōwa Emperor, now a “symbol” as prescribed by the Constitution, visited Yasukuni seven times until 1975), one day before the Autumn Festival of Yasukuni that was held for the first time after the war. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru also made the first official visit to Yasukuni since its privatization. Prime Ministers after Yoshida—except for two, Hatoyama Ichirō and Ishibashi Tanzan—continued to visit Yasukuni during its Spring or Autumn festivals until 1974.

In 1952 the Japan League for the Welfare of the Bereaved (Nihon Izoku Kosei Renmei, founded in 1947 and renamed the Bereaved Society of Japan, Nihon Izokukai in 1953 as an incorporated foundation for approximately two million bereaved families) began to solicit financial support from the state for Yasukuni Shrine. From 1960 on, the aim of the petition shifted from financial assistance to complete state support.

In 1952, a law authorizing support to former soldiers, civilian employees of the military, and the bereaved was proclaimed, initiating the payment of pensions (until recently, excluding those in former colonies). The law was reformed in 1953 to include the bereaved of executed war criminals and those who had died in prison. As a result, Yasukuni Shrine came to enshrine not only soldiers, and civilian employees of the military, but also war criminals who were executed or died in prison, and even convicted war criminals from former colonies.

In 1955 and 1956, the status of Yasukuni Shrine was discussed again and again on the Diet floor in the effort to secure state support for the shrine (one possibility is to remove the religious character of the shrine, a move that is all but certain to be opposed by those in the Shinto world). In the course of these debates it was disclosed that in the process of enshrinement Yasukuni had relied on cooperation from the Office of Demobilization (which had taken over from the Ministries of the Army and Navy as a new ministry in 1945, and later relinquished to the Ministry of Health and Welfare) to obtain data on those to be honored. According to an official document dating from 1956, the expenses for collecting the data had been covered by the official state budget. At the time discussions in the Diet did not consider the possibility that this might be in violation of Articles 20 and 89 of the Constitution. In any event, the debate in the legislature concerning the nationalization of Yasukuni Shrine continued until 1975.

In 1959, a national cemetery was founded in Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo, to house unidentified relics retrieved from battlefields abroad. A national ceremony for the memorial to the war dead was performed there in the year. A similar ceremony was held annually from 1963, first in Hibiya, at Yasukuni in 1964, and then at Nippon Budokan from 1965 on. The Chidorigafuchi cemetery has been in the charge of the Ministry of Health and Welfare and is open to those of all religions or without any religious affiliation.

In 1965 a lawsuit was filed for the first time in objection to the use of public monies for the conducing of Shinto rites at a construction site. In its 1977 ruling on the case, known as the Tsu Ground Purification Case; the Supreme Court judged the use of public funds for the purification rite to be constitutional on the grounds that it was more a “custom” than a religious activity. The first lawsuit having to do with the enshrinement of the dead at Nation-Protecting Shrines (local shrines with the same function that Yasukuni Shrine has at a national level) was filed in 1973. The widow of a Self-Defense Force officer, herself a Christian, requested the withdrawal of her dead husband’s enshrinement at a Nation-Protecting Shrine in Yamaguchi prefecture. (The Supreme Court dismissed the suit in 1988.) Since the 1970s a number of other cases have arisen to question the relation between Shinto and the public sector.

In 1975, Prime Minister Miki Takeo visited Yasukuni on 15 August, the day marking the end of World War II. This gave a new meaning to official Yasukuni visits, since 15 August did not otherwise have any other traditional importance for the shrine. In the ensuing years several Prime Ministers followed Miki’s suit.

In 1978, Yasukuni enshrined 14 war criminals, among them 7 Class A war criminals. On 15 August 1985, Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro visited Yasukuni, publicly announcing it as an official visit. Criticism from Asian countries was immediate. Even the United States and the Soviet Union questioned the wisdom of the act. In response to international reaction, the Liberal Democratic Party tried to persuade Yasukuni to withdraw the enshrinement of the Class A war criminals, but Yasukuni refused. Nakasone had to discontinue his visits during the rest of his term as Prime Minister (1985–1987). The next visit by a Prime Minister came only eleven years later, in 1996, by Hashimoto Ryūtarō, again provoking a storm of criticism from abroad, mainly aimed at the enshrinement of the Class A war criminals. Against this historical backdrop, Koizumi Jun’ichiro took office in 2001.

Current Issues

Since becoming Prime Minister, Koizumi Jun’ichiro has visited Yasukuni Shrine four times: 13 August 2001, 21 April 2002, 14 January 2003, and 1 January 2004. No less than seven lawsuits have been filed against these visits, in each case dismissed by district courts.

As reported by the media, Koizumi’s reaction to complaints against his visits may be summarized as follows:

1.   He visits Yasukuni Shrine to renew his vow not to engage in war.

2.   He visits Yasukuni Shrine to express reverence and gratitude to all the war dead, despite the fact that these include Class A war criminals.

3.   The way one chooses to remember those who died in war is an internal matter not to be interfered in by foreign countries.

A brief comment on these reasons. To begin with, it is highly questionable whether Yasukuni Shrine is a suitable place to pledge never to engage in war. Secondly, it is one thing for individual to make up their own minds about visiting a shrine that honors Class A war criminals; it is another for elected government officials to do so. Given that the declared position of the Japanese government has been to accept the decision of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East from 1946 to 1948, government officials need to adjust their actions in accord with the apposition. But even setting aside the question of honoring war criminals, the questions of elected officials making formal visits to a private religious facility needs to be clarified. Regarding the final point, even though a number of people take this for granted, the Japanese people in general need to rethink the extent and propriety of memorial activities for those who died in the war.

There are still other questions surrounding the Yasukuni issue. I would single out three of them:

1. Yasukuni Shrine, as a private religious corporation, decided on its own whom to enshrine and whom not.[8] What grounds are there to interfere in the activities of a private corporation in a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed?

2. All government officials, including elected politicians, share in the common right of religious freedom. To what extent should an official’s religious activities be tolerated as a matter of individual choice, and at what point do they endanger public impartiality towards religion?

3. Those who fell in the Pacific War are not the only Japanese in history to have given their lives for the country. Should the state perform national rites of commemoration to include others as well? In any case, how can such rites be justified under the principle of the separation of religion and state? And if justifiable, should a new institution other than Yasukuni Shrine be set up for the purpose?[9]

My tentative answer to the first question is that people outside of Yasukuni Shrine cannot and should not interfere in shrine’s activities that are constitutionally guaranteed under the rubric of the freedom of religion. As to the second question, it seems to me that at the very least high-ranking officials should refrain from visits to a place like Yasukuni where Class A war criminals are enshrined. This seems to be the solution that the Chinese government favors. But this only partially tackles the problem and additional public discussions are called for. The same is true of the third point.

As it happens, the recent storms of protest in China and Korea oblige the Japanese to take the whole question more seriously than before. A final solution will not come easily, but at least the effort to come to grips with it should be broadened beyond the confines of a diplomatic dispute to engage the population at large in reflection on the past, the present, and the future they aspire to.


Lawrence W. Beer and John M. Maki, From Imperial Myth to Democracy: Japan’s Two Constitutions, 1889-2002 (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002).

Helen Hardacre, Shitō and the State 1868-1988 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

KATO Genchi, Honpō seishi no kenkyū [Study of shrines that enshrin the living in Japan](Tokyo: Kokusho kankō kai, 1985 [originally published in 1931]).

KOMATSU Kazuhiko, Kami ni natta hitobito [People who became deities] (Kyoto: Tanko¯ sha, 2001).

MIYATA Noboru, Ikigami shinkō [Living god cult] (Tokyo: Hanawa shobō, 1970).

MURAKAMI Shigeyoshi, Irei to shōkon: Yasukuni no shisō [Consolation of spirits and departed souls: the idea of Yasukuni] (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1974).

Mark R. Mullins, Shimazono Susumu, and Paul L. Swanson eds., Religion and Society in Modern Japan (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1993).

OKUYAMA Michiaki, “Religious Nationalism in the Modernization Process: State Shinto and Nichirenism in Meiji Japan,” Comparative Civilizations Review 48 (Spring 2003): pp. 21–37.

SHIMAZONO Susumu, “State Shinto and the Structure of Religions in Modern Japan,” Journal of Religious Studies 329 (2001): pp. 319–44.

_____. “Jūkyū seiki nihon no shūkyō kōzō no hen-yō” [The shift of religious structure in nineteenth-century Japan], Iwanami kōza, Kindai nihon no bunkashi, vol. 2, Kosumorojii no “kinsei” [The “early modern period” in cosmology] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2001), pp. 1–53.

TANAKA Nobumasa, Yasukuni no sengoshi [Postwar history of Yasukuni] (Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 2002).

William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan 1945-1952 and Japanese Religions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972

[1] For the articles of the “Meiji Constitution” and “the Constitution of Japan,” see Beer and Maki, From Imperial Myth to Democracy, pp. 185ff.

[2] The concept of “State Shinto” has also come under critical scrutiny. See Shimazono’s essays on “The Shift of Religious Structure” and “State Shinto,” as well as my own essay on “Religious Nationalism.”

[3] For the text of this rescript, see Mullins, Religion and Society in Modern Japan, pp. 102–3.

[4] The citation is taken from Mark R. Mullins et al. eds., Religion and Society in Modern Japan, pp. 81, 104.

[5] For recent scholarship on this question, see, for example, Komatsu Kazuhiko, Kami ni natta hitobito [People who became deities], which treats 16 shrines that honor historical figures.

[6] The point is discussed in Miyata Noboru, Ikigami shinkō [Living god cult]. Historical examples of enshrinement of living people (not after their death) was studied by Kato Genchi in his Honpo seishi no kenkyu [Study of shrines that enshrin the living in Japan].

[7] This summary is based in large part on Murakami, Irei to shōkon: Yasukuni no shisō [Consolation of spirits and departed souls: The idea of Yasukuni] and Tanaka, Yasukuni no sengoshi [A postwar history of Yasukuni].

[8] As we saw, the Ministry of Health and Welfare cooperated in this decision, in direct violation of the principle of the separation of state and religion. In addition, enshrinement is decided without any reference to the wishes of the bereaved family, and as such has become the subject of lawsuits brought by Christians and Koreans against Yasukuni.

[9] This last point was the subject of nearly a year-long discussion, beginning in December 2001, by a committee convened by the Director of the Minister’s Secretariat. The final report of the committee, issued in December 2002, stresses the need for a new national institution, areligious in character, to remember those who have fallen in battle and to pray for peace. One such national institution, as indicated above, already exists in the form of the Chidorigafuchi cemetery.