Oh boy… I can already anticipate the negative backlash I am going to get from this one. You see, at least when it comes to international relations, Yasukuni Shrine is about as touchy of a subject as they come. For those not already in the know, understand that this extremely controversial sanctuary enshrines the spirits of over 2.5 million individuals who lost their lives in the service of Imperial Japan. That said, what makes Yasukuni Shrine such a piping hot political potato is the fact that among the souls revered here are fourteen Class A war criminals (as well as a number of class B too). As you may imagine, whenever a high ranking Japanese politician visits the shrine, you can be sure that an international media firestorm is to ensue.
Nevertheless, despite all the chatter surrounding Yasukuni Shrine, the sanctums’s grounds are actually some of the most tranquil that I’ve come across. Originally built in the year 1868 at the behest of Emperor Meiji, the shrine was first erected to honor those who died in the Boshin War. Over the years, as more and more spirits were added, Yasukuni Shrine was further beautified to evoke a sense of calming peace. Dotted about the precinct you’ll find a host of cherry trees that are nothing short of breathtaking in springtime. Moreover, Yasukuni Shrine is also home to a traditional garden that boasts a stunning troop of brightly colored koi fish. Indeed, were you to have no context about who was being enshrined inside, there is simply little reason to really detest this place.
Still, despite the many charms of Yasukuni Shrine itself, one cannot entirely ignore the fact that there are war criminals enshrined here who committed horrific acts. Among these spirits are none other than the egregious General Tojo Hideki as well as 13 other Class-A war criminals who were all found guilty by the victorious allied forces after World War II. With this knowledge, many of the shrine’s trappings take on a bit of a hauntingly ominous aura. For example, Yasukuni Shrine’s iconic metal torii gate almost looks as if it were forged from the broken husks of Japan’s ravaged battleships. Standing at a towering 22 meters, this torii is one of the biggest in the country and casts a rather long shadow. Honestly, it’s quite a sight to behold!
Of course, no discussion of Yasukuni Shrine and the controversy around it would be complete without mentioning the infamous Yusukan. This facility is located adjacent to the main hall of Yasukuni Shrine and is almost as old as the sepulcher itself. Originally created in 1882, the Yushukan bills itself as the first and oldest war and military museum in Japan. Inside, you’ll find a number of exhibits that showcase artifacts and documents relating to Japan’s military activity. The Yushukan’s halls begin with curations from Japan’s earliest eras and run the gamut through the end of World War II. Glorification of past wars aside, the museum is nothing short of a treasure trove of artifacts and many of these are what I’d consider must sees for my fellow history buffs.
Though the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine are themselves impressive and worth seeing, especially for my western readers, the real justification for stopping by is the Yushukan. The reason for this is simple. You see, history is often mistakenly thought of as something that is “factual” but actually there is always an inherent narrative being told. With just a simple shift in how the facts are presented, an entirely different story can emerge. For example, most western readers probably view Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as an act of aggression yet the Yushukan shows that this isn’t the full picture. In fact, depending on how you’re inclined to interpret such historical events, an argument can be made that Japan was forced to make a dangerous all in gambit or be bled dry by embargoes. Alas, history is just never as simple as it first seems is it?
Now, before I get crucified on social media and dragged over the coals, note that by no means am I defending the acts of Imperial Japan. Like with all wars, some heinous things occurred on both sides and these shouldn’t be easily forgiven. While Japan is certainly guilty as charged, we also dropped two atomic bombs on heavily populated civilian centers and should share some of the culpability. That said though, if we are ever to escape the shadow of World War II, I’m of the mind that it is important to understand how the other side sees things. In the west, we’ve been brought up on an interpretation of what happened that can only be called victor’s justice. By visiting the Yushukan and really taking it all in with an open mind, you’ll be able to grasp a perspective on wartime matters that even few historians hold.
In short, there’s already a strong precedent of foreign tourists visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. In my eyes, this facility tells the tale that war is never justifiable and is something we should seek to eradicate from the face of the earth. To wholly accept this position and put the past to rest though, I think it’s also important for westerners to visit the Yushukan and understand why Imperial Japan acted as it did. Though you need not agree with the storyline presented, the insights gained will allow you, the reader, to put yourself in the shoes of the other. In doing so, it’s my hope that you’ll be able to understand that we are all just human beings who are simply trying to do what we can with the circumstances given to us.
Getting to Yasukuni Shrine
Those interested in taking up my challenge of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine should know that they’ll find it located near Kitanomaru Park on the northwest side of the Imperial Palace. To get there, you can either go directly to the shrine from Ichigaya or Kudanshita Station or alternatively first hit up the Imperial Palace itself. Regardless, refer as always to Hyperdia to help you navigate Tokyo’s complex network of trains. This ever-helpful tool will do the heavy lifting in calculating the best root from wherever you’re coming from. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without it.
Note that while it’s free to explore Yasukuni Shrine, the Yushukan will run you 1,000 yen. Though this does seem a little pricey at first, the museum is more than worth it in my opinion. While the official site suggests budgeting for around two hours, you could easily spend the better part of a day strolling around and reading all of the informative placards which have been meticulously translated into English. Just be sure to get a relatively early start as the Yushukan is only open until around 5:00 PM or so. Though I’ve now been to Yasukuni Shrine a number of times, I usually stop by in the morning and then explore the Imperial Palace grounds after.
Attractions Near Yasukuni Shrine
If you’re making a commitment to visit Yasukuni Shrine, it would behoove you to check out some of Tokyo’s other attractions that are nearby too. In addition to the aforementioned option of the Imperial Palace, you’ll also find all of the following in the vicinity of the shrine…
- Koishikawa Korakuen
Pictured above, this traditional Japanese garden is only a short taxi ride away from Yasukuni Shrine. Modeled on the legendary garden in Okayama Prefecture, this hidden sanctuary is a welcomed slice of nature in the bustling megalopolis that is Tokyo.
- Tokyo Dome City
Located right next to Koishikawa Korakuen, this entertainment complex sprung up to serve those visiting the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium. It has since taken on a life of its own and is worth considering following a somber visit to Yasukuni shrine.
- Kanda Myojin Shrine
This shrine is home to a total of three deities (Daikokuten, Ebisu, and the 10th century local feudal lord Taira Masakado). While people regularly visit the shrine to pray for prosperity, its real claim to fame is that it hosts one of Japan’s three great festivals, the Kanda festival.
Lastly, know that if you’re visiting during the middle of July, you should also consider hitting up the Mitama Festival that takes place at Yasukuni Shrine. It’s an unforgettable experience that is perfect for Instagram. Trust me on this one!