We had decided upon going to Yasukuni Shrine (靖国神社) because it’s one of those places that a lot of people have certainly strong feelings about, so we needed to experience it for ourselves. Being foreigners, we had an outside perspective on the very political nature of the shrine, which has actually stood in Tokyo since 1869. It originally stood as a memorial for the people who had lost their lives in the wake of the Boshin War, one of the last internal struggles in Japan’s long history and one which saw the Tokugawa Shoganate come to an end. Since then, it has expanded its scope, becoming a memorial to those who lost their lives in any conflict, especially those which occurred afterwards.
The first thing one notices entering the grounds of Yasukuni is how small it can make a person feel. The torii gates are massive; the avenues of trees lining the entrance are also big and imposing. A warrior statue is bigger than life. By the time you enter the main temple site, it feels like something solemn and ancient has struck you. Off to the side of the actual shrine is a beautiful koi pond with grounds covered in moss, one that looks even more beautiful as the rain falls.
Let’s not have any doubt; Yasukuni is definitely a controversial place and some opinions about it are justifiably strong. The thing that truly may cause questions is the Yushukan war museum (遊就館) located on the grounds of Yasukuni. Most of what is on display is described in Japanese, but there is also a large portion of it described in English.
The one thing you need to do if visiting Yushukan is to keep an open mind. A lot of the perspectives may seem controversial or unsettling to certain people, but so long as you understand the context and not take it at face value, it can be an interesting look at things. The narrative may or may not be agreeable, and some of the directions it takes might not lead to where accepted history may be, but it is a version of events, and it is something to take into account when going through the exhibitions.
Yushukan is, most of all, full of war memorabilia from the entirety of Japanese military history, from the days of the Samurai, including ancient weaponry and pieces of armor, and eras that range from the Heian and Muromachi periods, to the days of Tokugawa shogunate rule, the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry to open Japan’s ports to trade, and the Satsuma-Chosun rebellion that heralded the birth of the Meiji Restorate. Uniforms, medals, letters to home, official memorandums, and other pieces of history are on display.
There is a large exhibition of World War II, including original planes, armaments, and uniforms from that time. Pictures of the displays within the main exhibition area are prohibited, understandably as it is a museum, so we could not take many from inside. From the lobby, however, an intact Zero fighter plane and a train can be seen, and those are free to take pictures.
Overall, I would find the entire experience an interesting one, but knowledge of both sides of history is definitely essential when going into it. I certainly cannot say that the Yushukan swayed my opinion in any way, but it certainly lended more context to what I already knew. As for the grounds themselves, Yasukuni is both beautiful and intimidating, certainly something that keeps itself etched into memory. If you feel strongly against it, it is not an essential trip, but if you are interested in learning what other perspectives may be, it’s possible to take in the place.