There is one place in Japan where the emperor dare not go. It is a supreme irony, because it is the place where he would be most welcomed and his prime ministers and members of the cabinet often visit.
Neither is distance or geography a factor. His imperial home is close by, and on August 15 he as 600m meters from it across the road at the Nihon Budokan hall in Tokyo, at the official ceremony marking the surrender of WWII But that small distance represents conflicting views of Japan's past and future.
The place he dare not go is Yasukuni shrine, a toxic mix of myth and militarism that acts like a canker gnawing the vitals of the Japanese body politic. Even the name is strangely at odds with its function. Yasukuni means peaceful nation.
Emperors have visited. Hirohito paid his respects at Yasukuni eight times after the war but made his final visit in 1975, three years before the souls of war criminals were enshrined.
Akihito has not visited Yasukuni since succeeding his father as emperor in 1989.
Every nation has a right to honor its war dead. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier holds a special place in the hearts of people regardless of nationality. But this is not Yasukuni's role. There are no bodies in the shrine. There is, just two kilometers up the road, Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, where the remains of the WWII dead are buried. It has a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The shrine's post-1945 association with wartime state Shinto, a fundamentalist version of the creed, was once considered a joke. A quixotic display of people dressed in funny uniforms who made the Flat Earth Society seem like visionaries. They had no place in modern camera-producing, car-making, salary-man Japan. They were an embarrassing remnant of history, a mutant political gene, followers of another Sun. Or so the story went. .
But in 1978 the souls of 14 Class-A War Criminals (those who plan and conduct wars of aggression) seven of whom were hanged after the Tokyo trials, were enshrined.
This was was an incredible victory for the militarists but it had to be kept quiet, at least initially. The news was not publicized until 1979.
Because Yasukuni is privately funded (by the Association of Wartime Bereaved Families) the government was able to deny any official role. But in a country where one party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been in power for all but four years of the past sixty, their deniability has been as audacious as it is breathtaking.
The shrine occupies prime real estate in the heart of Tokyo. Its existence and manicured grass, elaborate 19th century architecture, multi-million dollar museum annex, its cherry-tree lined avenue, bears audacious testimony to the power of its patrons.
Its Book of Souls record the names, origins and places of death of approximately 2.5 million mostly Japanese men, and some women, who died in wars since the shrine was built in 1869.
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