Why was Hideki Tojo sent to prison?

Japan and its shrine of contention

Testimonies of honor for war criminals and starved soldiers by Tetsuya Takahashi

On July 20, 2006, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper posthumously published Tomohiko Tomita's diary. The former Grand Chamberlain of the Imperial Court Office had noted in it that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1978 decided not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a kind of military memorial. The trigger was the decision of the management of the shrine to include fourteen "Class A" war criminals in the hero worship. The men had been sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East - the "Tokyo Trials" ran from May 1946 to November 1948. Seven of them were executed, including the Prime Minister and former General Hideki Tojo. The others died in prison.

The Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 on the "sacred ordinance" of Emperor Meiji in the new capital Tokyo to venerate the fallen soldiers who fought on his side in the power struggles between the Tokugawa Shugonat and Emperor Meiji. During the Meiji era (1868–1912) Japan developed from a feudal state into a modern imperial great power.

In this unique shrine, which is subordinate to the army, all members and helpers of the former Japanese army who fell abroad have been kept in lists since then, a "soul register" of a total of around 2,460,000 dead: It begins with the names of the deceased from the first foreign campaign of the modern Japan - the Taiwan expedition of 1874 - and ends with the surrender after the 1941-1945 Pacific War.1

In the era of "Greater Japan" the Tenno, whose "divine origin" could not be doubted, was the ceremonial head of the state and commander in chief of the army. His Japanese subjects and the population in the colonies were considered his servants. The “national morality” consisted in “devoting oneself to the emperor and the state in times of national crisis, disregarding one's own life”. So each of the soldiers who died in the “holy war” became a role model for the nation. As a result, the Yasukuni Shrine should also serve to raise the morale of the troops and promote the spiritual mobilization of the entire nation.

After the surrender, the shrine was considered a “symbol of Japanese militarism” and a “war sanctuary”. In December 1945, following the "Shinto Decree" of the Allied headquarters, it was withdrawn from state control. To this day it is run by a religious organization and, like the Catholic churches or Buddhist temples, is a private institution, according to the principle of the separation of state and religion according to the constitution of 1946.

A diplomatic problem for China and Korea

From his appointment in 2001 to his release in 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Yasukuni Shrine every August 15 - Surrender Day in Japan, Victory Day in China, and Liberation Day in Korea of Japanese colonial rule. These visits became Tokyo’s biggest diplomatic problem versus Beijing and Seoul. However, Koizumi presented himself as an indomitable advocate of Japan's position and rejected foreign criticism.

Many politicians and journalists have pondered aloud whether the names of war criminals could be removed from the shrine. They cited Tomita's diaries and stated that "if even Emperor Hirohito refused to visit the shrine (...) because war criminals are venerated there, Prime Minister Koizumi must also stop". In doing so, Tomita's diaries conceal many details from the past.

Even if the prime ministers who visited the shrine after the war never openly denied the Japanese war guilt, their official visits there are an unmistakably symbolic gesture. On behalf of the Japanese government, Koizumi explicitly confirmed Prime Minister Murayama's 1995 statement in which he expressed his "deep regrets" and "wholeheartedly apologized for the immeasurable suffering and damage" that Japan had inflicted on its neighbors .

However, the management of the Yasukuni Shrine continues to claim that it was a "war for the defense and survival" of Japan and the liberation of Asia from Western colonial rule; consequently all so-called war criminals, whether class A, B or C, are "wrongly accused". They were only made "war criminals" by a unilateral judgment by the victorious powers.

That the only problem is that the Class A war criminals were included in the shrine's memorial services is a shortening of the debate. Then just remove their names and the problem would be solved. But that's not enough. The term "Class A War Criminals" has been used to refer to the convictions of members of the Japanese government. The crimes on trial fell between the Manchurian Crisis in 1931 (and its preparation since 1928) and the Pacific War, that is, from January 1928 to August 1945. In other words: the prehistory of Japanese aggression in Asia, the building of an empire with numerous colonies, including Korea and Taiwan, was not questioned.

It certainly plays a role that of the allies who sat in judgment on Japan shortly after the war, the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and France were themselves colonial powers. They were neither willing nor able to condemn Japan for its colonial rule.

In Taiwan, the Japanese colonial rule initially suppressed the Chinese-born Taiwanese who had called for armed uprisings against the occupiers. Then the indigenous Taiwanese who resisted were fought.

Korea was under military attack from 1876 onwards. Any rebellion in this colony was also nipped in the bud. The Japanese officers and everyone who died in the battle were taken under the deities of the Yasukuni shrine. By revering them as heroes to this day, one denies the Japanese colonial rule.

This affects not only right-wing revisionists, but also “progressive intellectuals” who otherwise acknowledge the guilt of class A war criminals. In their view, Japan managed to catch up with the western powers during the Meiji era and achieve remarkable successes. Only later, in the 1920s, did Japan succumb to evil. In other words, until the First Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, that is, until the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese army was in order. It was only after the start of the second attack on China, i.e. after 1930, that it degenerated.

When Tomita's diary was presented to the press, it was emphasized that "the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) had stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine because he was uncomfortable that Class A war criminals were worshiped there." Suddenly only these war criminals appeared to be guilty, and the responsibility of the emperor was no longer an issue.

The Tokyo trials had worked in a similar way: Emperor Hirohito was not charged, although he was the highest ruler in Japan and commander in chief of the armed forces. After the war he remained on the throne and was named the “symbol of Japan and the unity of the Japanese nation” (Article 1 of the Constitution) because the USA wanted to use him for their own purposes out of fear that the Japanese might switch to the communist camp. The emperor's guilt, which was hidden and denied at the time, is once again suppressed with the current debate.

The Yasukuni Shrine also falsifies the real origin of the dead soldiers of the Japanese army: 20,000 Koreans and almost as many Taiwanese died in the fight - a total of almost 50,000 dead. In the course of its policy of integration into the empire, which was in fact a policy of assimilation, Japan demanded of Koreans and Taiwanese "to serve the emperor and the state and to die for him". Even the "volunteers" should have been primarily concerned with evading ethnic persecution - it does not mean that they had adopted the Shinto belief.

In 1978 it was the relatives of a Taiwanese soldier who first demanded that his name be removed from collective memory. After that, Korean families filed the same request and there were lawsuits. The families declared that the celebration of the deceased "in the heart of [this] symbol of the militarism of the attacking people, on the sides of the attackers who attacked us and ruled us during the colonial days, is an utterly unacceptable disgrace." To date, the management of the shrine has refused to comply with these demands, arguing: "Since they were Japanese when they died, it is impossible that they should no longer be after their death."2

At this point one must also remember the civilian casualties in the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. The formerly independent island kingdom of Riukiu, located between Japan and China, was destroyed in 1879 during the first period of modern Japanese colonial expansion. In the final phase of the Pacific War, the Japanese army mobilized the civilian population in the name of an alleged "unity between people and army". Around 100,000 civilians were killed in the tragic Battle of Okinawa, many of whom were executed as spies or forced to commit "collective suicides" by the army. Much of these dead are venerated in the Yasukuni Shrine.3

This is how the war victims of the Japanese army are made collaborators. Of the 2,460,000 dead, 2 million perished in the Pacific War, more than half of them not in combat, but because they starved to death. Most of the soldiers Japan sent to New Guinea, for example, got lost in the jungle and starved to death after running out of food supplies; their corpses are rotting in the tropical jungle.

Tomita's diaries have been used to call for an end to official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. In the medium and long term, however, they could also have the opposite effect. Several influential politicians, including former Foreign Minister Taro Aso, have called for the shrine to be nationalized so that the emperor can visit it again.

In 1968 and between 1970 and 1973 the ruling liberal democratic party LPD had repeatedly submitted a “legislative proposal for state patronage over the Yasukuni Shrine” to parliament. Opposition had always prevailed and feared “the danger of a return to militarism”.

Today, thirty years later, influential LPD politicians declare: "The only possible way to remove the class A war criminals by state decision is to obtain the consent of China and South Korea and finally to allow the prime minister and, above all, the emperor to visit. is to nationalize the Yasukuni Shrine. "

This fits in with the currently proposed constitutional amendment, with which one wants to amend Article 9 [warfare prohibited] and clearly establish the existence of a "defense army". This would lift the ban on the use of armed force "in order to secure peace in the world". The current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already expressed his willingness to implement this constitutional amendment during his term of office. On the occasion of the dispatch of troops of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, an internal debate promptly broke out in the army as to whether it would be possible to honor the fallen in the Yasukuni Shrine.

It looks as if the Japanese government intends to re-establish a “Japanese army” at the beginning of the 21st century, supported by the Yasukuni Shrine as a national shrine.


1 The dead are not buried in the Yasukuni Shrine, but the souls of the fallen are worshiped as "kami" (divine beings). 2 Declaration by the second chief priest of Yasukuni in 1978. 3 Their families were promised pension payments in 1985 as compensation.

Translated from the French by Sabine Jainski

Tetsuya Takahashi is a professor at Tokyo University. This text is the short version of a lecture at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes - Saint-Denis) on December 2, 2006. The long version will appear soon in: Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, Bibliothèque de documentation internationale contemporaine.

Le Monde diplomatique, March 9th, 2007, by Tetsuya Takahashi