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When discussing the subject of Sino-Japanese relationship, it is apparent that there are many aspects and events that contribute to either helping or hindering the bond between China and Japan. However, there have been several incidents that have proven to be obstacles in the pursuit of improving Sino-Japanese relations. One such obstacle has been the controversial topic of the Yasukuni Shrine visits, which has consistently caused public outcry from both China and Japan.

The Shrine itself, a Shinto shrine located in Tokyo, is dedicated to honour the soldiers who had died in the war between the years 1867 and 1951, and has come to play a highly symbolic role in domestic and international politics in East Asia1. As such, the shrine has seen visits from various people who wish to honour the fallen. The problem, however, is that out of the over two million names within the Shrine’s ‘Book of Souls’, fourteen of those names are Class A war criminals2.

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Therefore, the problem ultimately becomes whether or not the visits by important Japanese political figures, such as Koizumi and Abe, are deemed acceptable. To China, the Yasukuni Shrine visits are an utter disregard to their struggles throughout World War II and believe it to be Japan’s attempt at legitimizing its wartime aggression. Meanwhile, to Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine visits are an attempt to respect the fallen.

This essay will examine why the Yasukuni Shrine issue has been so controversial in Sino-Japanese relations, as well as whether or not the Yasukuni Shrine issue has had any effects on other Sino-Japanese policies, unintended or otherwise. Specifically, this essay will discuss the history and purpose of the Yasukuni shrine, as well as the controversy surrounding the visits to the shrine from influential figures such as Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, and then examine the potential effects that these controversial visits have had on other Sino-Japanese policies such as trade agreements or territorial disputes.


To understand the controversy surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine, it is important to understand the history and purpose of the Shrine itself. The Yasukuni Shrine was constructed in 1869 in order to honor the Japanese war dead. In an article by JongHwa Lee, he explains that ‘during times of war, soldiers were told that if they died fighting for their country, their spirits would find glory in the shrine3.’ It is believed that more than two million names have been recorded in the Book of Souls, a register of all the soldiers that have died from 1869 to 1951. Lee continues by saying it is not uncommon to encounter older Japanese citizens paying their respects to friends and families who perished in World War II4. Furthermore, in Shaun O’Dwer’s ‘The Yasukuni Shrine and the Competing Patriotic Pasts of East Asia’, he states how ‘the creation of the Yasukuni Shrine fulfilled a new spiritual need for a new nation-state: to provide for the propitiation and worship of the spirits of men who had died not just as members of some family or regional community, but also as soldiers defending a new nation5.’ Ultimately, the Yasukuni Shrine’s innocuous purpose has allowed the Japanese to honour their fallen friends and family.

However, it is because if this purpose that the Yasukuni has been the centre of controversy. Although several different Japanese Prime Ministers had visited the shrine before, it was only after 1978 did these visits begin to cause a disturbance in neighbouring countries. According to an article by Killmier and Chiba, official visits by Japanese Prime ministers have been considered problematic since they are seen to be embracing Japan’s military history by other countries6. Furthermore, around 1978, fourteen Class A war criminals were enshrined within the Yasukuni Shrine.

According to an article by Ako Inuzuka & Thomas Fuchs, it was this fact, coupled with continued visits to the shrine by later prime ministers such as Koizumi, that caused ‘increasing opposition in and outside of Japan7.’ Specifically, in China and South Korea, who suffered significantly under Japan during the Second World War. Ako explains that not only were these visits met with public protest in China and South Korea, but the governments of said countries officially protested against further visits. However, despite these protests. Koizumi, along with many other Japanese politicians, believe that ‘foreign countries have no right to interfere in Japan’s domestic affairs8′ Since then, the controversy around the Yasukuni Shrine, has developed into a long-lasting dispute in the Asia region.

With the Chinese outcry and the Japanese refusal to cease visitation to the shrine, it is not difficult to understand why the Yasukuni Shrine has generated a lot of commotion both domestic and internationally. However, the problem with the Yasukuni shrine does not end with public outcry. Due to the response that Japan has given towards China about the unwillingness to cease its visits to the shrine, it appears that the resentment between the two countries has bled into other areas of Sino-Japanese relations. Thus, it is clear that the Yasukuni Shrine issue has caused controversy not because of the issue itself, but because of its effect on other areas of Sino-Japanese relations.


            The Yasukuni Shrine incident has caused difficulties in other aspects of Sino-Japanese relations, as well as the relationship between Japan and its neighbours. In fact, in Phil Deans’ ‘The Yasukuni Shrine: Contested Politics’, he highlights how multiple papers have all commented on the complexity of the Yasukuni Shrine Issue and that:


‘Yasukuni is not a simple place or a simple issue, even though this is what the strongest supporters and opponents of Yasukuni want it to represent. Yasukuni exists in a complex tension with the Japanese state, a private venue with a public purpose. It provides a theatre in which politics at all levels from citizens’ movements, to intraparty conflict, to national debate and international controversy plays itself out9.’


Many historians have even used the term ‘economically hot and politically cold’ to describe the relationship between China and Japan post 1990’s. In Deans’ ‘Diminishing Returns? Prime Minister Koizumi’s Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in the Context of East Asian Nationalisms’, he explains that there is ‘clearly a tension between the strong, dynamic and growing economic relationship and the deep undercurrents of hostility and mistrust in Sino-Japanese relations10.’ This is relationship is even more important when acknowledging the rapid economic relationship between China and Japan. The problem lies in that, due to the ‘economically hot and politically cold’ relationship the two countries have, disputes such as the Yasukuni Shrine have led to complications in solving other disputes between China and Japan. In fact, in an article by Arpita Mathur, she explains that both China and Korea were adamant in their opposition against visitation to the Yasukuni Shrine and that they had warned the Japanese prime minister that visiting the shrine would be detrimental in the relation between Japan and its neighbours11. Furthermore, Chinese ambassador Wu Dawei even told Koizumi that ‘the interest of the Chinese government and the people is focused on the Yasukuni issue…A proper understanding of history is vital for the Japan-China relations’, whilst South Korean ambassador Choi Sang Yong stated: ‘I can only presume the Prime Minister does not understand what kind of impact his visit has on countries in Asia.”12

            It is apparent that the Yasukuni Shrine visits have had a negative effect on Sino-Japanese relations. However, it is important to understand why Japan feels so strongly about ceasing visitation to the Yasukuni Shrine. Although it is understood that the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are controversial, there are many people in Japan who believe that the visits are not only uncontroversial but also necessary. According to Killmeier and Chiba, Yasukuni officials believe that there are no such thing as Japanese war crimes, let alone war criminals. They continue by stating that Yasukuni officials and Japanese neo-nationalists claim that ‘the Second World War, known as the Greater East Asian War was waged for ‘survival and self-defence13.’ In fact, located next to the Yasukuni Shrine is a war museum which ‘beautifies militaristic self-sacrifice and maintains that the emperor is the central figure in Japan14.’ Many people even view the Yasukuni Shrine, with its display of Zero airplane fighters, weapons, and relics, as a history of how Japan fought the war, as opposed to a history of crime and injustice. Even Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister of Japan between the years 2001 to 2006, quotes:


‘Foreign countries are trying to intervene in an issue of my heart and are attempting to make it a diplomatic issue. I cannot understand such an attitude. We must never bring on a war again. Today’s society is based on people who lost their valuable lives in the war. When I visit the shrine, I always show my respect and gratitude to them. I visit not to mourn for certain people Class-A war criminals, but to mourn for the many people who died in the war. This is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture15.’


In addition, Koizumi has even stated he has gone to the shrine not as the prime minister of Japan, but as a person, when he explained that on his visits, the ‘gift of flowers he had sent to the shrine was paid for with his own money16.’ Unfortunately, the People’s Daily, China’s leading newspaper, has gone on to state that ‘the shrine was being used as a tool to stir up nationalism, even as it comprised a symbol and reminder of Japan’s overseas aggression17,’ and that the visit was a provocative move which would ‘inevitably cast a shadow over future relations with Japan18.’

From here, we have seen that the Yasukuni Shrine issue is not only a controversial problem, but also a problem that cannot be solved quite as easily as one would believe. On one hand, Japan believes that the visits to the shrine are a necessity to both honour those fallen in the war and to pave Japan’s way to a more peaceful future. Whereas to Japan’s neighbours such as China believe that the prime minister’s visits are a glorification and commemoration of Japan’s militarist past. This view of ‘cold politics’ has cause both countries to take a more cautious and guarded approach with the other and has made the solving of other Sino-Japanese problems more difficult to conclude. As the Yasukuni Shrine Issue continues to be a controversial problem in Sino-Japanese relations, it is ultimately important to understand exactly why Japan does not wish to cease their visits to the shrine.


The Yasukuni Shrine visits are a tradition that Japan is not willing to give up, nor is China willing to let go. As stated before, the Yasukuni Shrine visits have generated negative reactions between Japan and its neighbours, but it is not an event that began recently. In fact, the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine went as far back as 1945, starting from Japanese prime minister Shidehara Kijuro.

Although, returning to Deans’ essay on Koizumi’s visit to the shrine and subsequent visits thereafter, he discovers that the visits from Japanese prime ministers have little to no relation with key events in Sino-Japanese relations. In fact, he points out that, ‘as discussed, Class B and Class C war criminals were enshrined from 1959 onwards, but this had no obvious direct relationship with the frequency of PM visits’ and that this was ‘also true for the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in 1978 to 197919.’ However, it was in the recent years during Junichiro Koizumi term did the complaints about visits to the shrine began to regain traction.

Therefore, the question as to why the Yasukuni Shrine issue is so controversial in Sino-Japanese relations lies in the question as to why controversy around the Yasukuni Shrine has resurfaced and why Japan is unwilling to compromise with China on this point. Many historians claim that the problem resurfaced when Koizumi promised that he had made to the Izokukai, or the Japanese War-Bereaved Family Association, back in 2001 during his campaign to become the president of the Japanese liberal democratic party20, stating “If I assume the post of prime minister, I will visit Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 without fail even if strong criticisms are levelled against me.”  Prior to this, it is believed that the previous ministerial visits were of personal reasons and represented a clear separation between state and religion. Thusly, it is not hard to understand why China would look unkindly upon Japan’s government beginning to merge its government with the history behind the Yasukuni Shrine.

Nevertheless, regardless of the impact that Koizumi’s visits had on Japan’s neighbours, Koizumi did manage to achieve several things. According to Deans, Koizumi’s visits to the shrine ‘brought him a number of benefits with regard to his position within the Liberal Democratic Party and also demonstrated the significance and importance of the ‘revisionist’ strand within Japanese nationalist thinking21.’

Koizumi even went so far as to exclaim ‘Those who would say “you should not visit Yasukuni” are those who say that we should follow what China says…I wonder if that is the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter how many times I visit there. It is a matter of individual freedom.22’

True to his word, Koizumi managed to visit the Yasukuni Shrine every year from 2001 to 2006. However, with growing discontent from both China and Korea, Koizumi managed to prove that he was still able to take international criticism into consideration by visiting the shrine on August 13th, two days before Japan’s national Victory over Japan day, which is usually when the prime ministers visit the shrine. In addition, it is important to note that even though Koizumi has called this a matter of individual freedom, his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine has managed to send a clear message both nationally and internationally. Domestically, Koizumi’s visit to the shrine was a message that Japan was moving towards a diplomatic future, regardless of what Japan’s neighbours thought. Mathur even goes so far as to state; ‘he has, undoubtedly, emerged on Japan’s political stage as a ‘maverick’, but it might be too early to tick him off as a radical. There is little doubt that Koizumi’s visit sent the message of the resurgence of nationalism in Japan, considering the assertive stand he took on the issue.23.


            In conclusion, the Yasukuni Shrine Problem has proved to be an issue marred with controversy and political backlash, both within the country and without. It is important to understand that the purpose of the Yasukuni shrine was originally to honour the fallen from the Second World War and allow grieving families and friends to pay their respects. However, it was this seemingly innocuous reason that allowed the enshrinement of several war criminals and caused complaints from Japan’s neighbours. The animosity between Japan and China has led to increasing difficulty in solving yet more problems that have arisen in Sino-Japanese relations, as the relation between Japan and its neighbours were slowly eroded. However, it is not a problem that can be solved simply through compromise. On China’s side, the Yasukuni shrine visits represent a merge of state and religion, a commemoration of Japan’s militarist past, and ultimately, a disregarded to Chinese suffering. Meanwhile, Japan views the Yasukuni Shrine visits as an essential part of understand where Japan has been and where it is going, as well as bringing about a renewed sense of nationality. Ultimately, with both countries having their own perceptions on what the Yasukuni Shrine means to them, as well as the other events such as the 2010 Chinese Trawler incident, and other disputes such as the Diaoy/Senkaku Island dispute and the History Book problem; The Yasukuni Shrine issue has become a controversial key point in Sino-Japanese relations, interlinked and deeply entrenched with various other disputes that neither China or Japan is willing to back down on.


1 Diminishing Returns? Prime Minister Koizumi’s Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in the Context of East Asian Nationalisms

Aun 2

3 The “sacred” standing for the “fallen” spirits: Yasukuni Shrine and memory of war

4 The “sacred” standing for the “fallen” spirits: Yasukuni Shrine and memory of war


6 Neo-nationalism seeks strength from the gods: Yasukuni Shrine, collective memory and the Japanese press

7 Memories of Japanese militarism: The Yasukuni Shrine as a commemorative site

8 Memories of Japanese militarism: The Yasukuni Shrine as a commemorative site

9 Contested Politics

10 Diminishing returns

11 Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

12 Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

13 Neo-nationalism seeks strength from the gods: Yasukuni Shrine, collective memory and the Japanese press

14 Breen, J. (2008) ‘Yasukuni and the Loss of Historical Memory’, in J. Breen (ed.) Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past, pp. 143–62. New York: Columbia University Press

15 Diminishing returns

16 Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine

17 Koizumi’s visit

18 Koizumi’s visit

19 Diminishing returns

20 Diminishing returns

21 Diminishing returns

22 Diminishing returns

23 Koizumi’s visit

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