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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Why It Is Okay To Pray At The Yasukuni Shrine

In recent blogs we looked at the hub-bub surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine (photo above by Iain Masterton / Alamy) as a war memorial, namely Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (surname first) visit to it HERE, and the fact that the shrine commemorates 14 souls who were branded as Class A War Crime criminals HERE, a fact that pisses off a lot of people and countries, namely China and South Korea.

So... let's look at the reverse of things: Why it is perfectly fine to go and worship at the Yasukuni Shrine because people don't understand.

What do we need to understand?

Well, we have to understand that the Yasukuni Shrine is first and foremost a shinto shrine.

What is shinto? Well, shinto (神道), also kami-no-michi, is the indigenous spirituality of Japan and the people of Japan. It's like the whole world, man. Far-out. Mother earth is everywhere, man.

Basically, there are spirits known as kami in every living thing... which according to shinto beliefs is everything from the oceans, forests, rocks, air, fire... and the few places where one can commune - IE talk or interface with the kami is only done at places like a shrine (there's a few other places - but we'll leave that for a more comprehensive look at Shintosim later).

As a shinto shrine, there are NO bodies interned there. It is a shrine that commemorates the souls of the dead.

The Yasukuni Shrine is one created for the war dead... specifically those who have died fighting in the service of the Emperor from 1867 on up through World War II... and yes, that includes those who were either executed after the war as war criminals, those who died in prison as war criminals, and those who were on trial for war crimes.

There is another shrine contained within the Tokyo Yasukuni Shrine area - the Chinreisha Shrine that is dedicated to ALL the Japanese people who have died in battle throughout the history of Japan.

Family plots at the Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken cemetery. Photo by Andrew Joseph. Use as you will.
At this time I should point out that the dead are actually "interned" at their own family graves... all over Japan. That would be in the cemeteries where family members go to pray for the souls of their ancestors... where they clean the grave site and markers and lay out food and drink offerings to make them more comfortable. It is also where, during the Obon Matsuri... the festival of the dead, that the living go and entice the spirits from Hell - there is no Heaven in Shinto beliefs - to exit and follow them back to the homes of their descendents for a three-day party, where table settings are put out, food and drink are served for them... and are basically welcomed as part of the family.

You can read a somewhat comedic episode of mine HERE. It all really happened... which is why I think you'll get a kick out of it.
How to pray at a shinto shrine. Apparently it can change the color of your skirt.
Now, as a shinto shrine, the Yasukuni Shrine does not care about what you did or didn't do as a living soldier... only that you served.

That is because according to Shinto beliefs, when enshrined - and that happens first at the family grave site - the soul is automatically absolved of all its Earthly sins.

Yes... when you are dead, according to Shinto beliefs, you get a fresh start.

That means that even if you were a wife beater, child molester or murder, Shinto gives your soul a pass. The same holds true for war criminals. You get a pass.

It's kind of like in the Catholic Church and being on your deathbed... seeking absolution of your sins to try and get a fresh start in wherever the hell you are going when you die.

Now... I did state earlier that according to Shinto beliefs that there was no Heaven... only a Hell, right?

Well... there's no fiery pit or demons and devils poking you with pitchforks... those are all created by the Christian Church to scare people into being good to get to Heaven. There are no Japanese virgins awaiting the souls for being a good person in life like in some other religions.

There is just a so-called existence as a kami... a spirit... that supposedly helps look after the living... which is why the living pray and make offerings to the spirits. The kami help keep the universe in decent shape.

Now... according to old Japanese myths, the dead go to yomi (黄泉), an underground realm with a river separating the living from the dead mentioned in the legend of Izanami and Izanagi. Does that sound familiar to anyone with an understanding of ancient myths? River Styx? Hell? Don't pay the Ferryman until he gets you to the other side. You pay him with the pennies on your eyes (Taxmannnnn!) (Sorry... I mixed in two songs there!)

Shinto is pretty down on the whole death and corpses thing, noting that they are a source of pollution called kegare.

But... death is also a way to achieve deification... while that can mean to become like a god - and it does for people like the Emperor - for the average To-joe, it's a way of becoming a kami... a spirit... and all spirits are one with the universe.

A shinto priest in Nikko, Tochigi-ken. Photo: Andrew Joseph. Help yourself.
Shinto is pretty cool in the fact that you don't NEED to profess you are a follower of Shinto to be considered a believer.

When born, the name of the Japanese child's name is added to a list at the local shinto shrine (I'm pretty sure the parents go there and tell the shinto priests that bit of information). It is at this time that the shinto shrine names the child to be an ujiko (氏子 family child).

Hopefully much later when the child dies an old, old man or woman, the ujiko becomes an ujigami (氏神) which is a family spirit... also known as a family kami.

Nowadays, since it is rare for people to stay in one place, people can add their names to a list at another shrine... and can thus be named at two or more shinto shrines.

Here's the kicker: names can be added to the list without consent and regardless of the beliefs of the person added to the list. This is not considered an imposition of belief, but a sign of being welcomed by the local kami, with the promise of addition to the pantheon of kami after death.

That sounds pretty welcoming.

Praying and making offerings helps stop grandma's kami from coming back and killing you.
So... having read all this... just what exactly did Japan Prime Minister do wrong by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine a week ago?

Nothing, really.

Why are China and South Korea, and the U.S. and much of Japan so upset? Yes, they all believe that Prime Minister Abe was paying homage to the spirits of war criminals... but... that is simply not true. As shinto spirits, regardless of what they may have done or have been charged with, they are simply kami - shinto spirits - of those who served the Emperor of Japan and thus, its people... fighting in wars.

Yes, Abe should have known that his visit to the shrine would cause other countries to think he's a dick... but perhaps what he needs to do... or someone more important than I needs to do, is play the role of teacher... and teach people that he's not there at the Yasukuni Shrine to honor war criminals.

He's there to pray for the kami. And you should thank him...


For all of those souls who died and are now kami... if people fail to come to the shrine to show gratitude for their sacrifice in death... well... then the kami go all evil... and hold a grudge known as urami (怨み)... and then... then they become very powerful and evil... and seek revenge on the living by poisoning the universe with their evilness...

Prime Minister Abe is simply keeping the spirits at bay by honoring the sacrifice of the kami. He does not honor their life...

... he honors their death.

Andrew Joseph
I used to pray every week at my Ohtawara Kyudo (Japanese archery) Club before I practiced shooting and missing at my intended targets. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be thinking, so after the bowing and clapping et al, I would offer a silent prayer to hit the target at least once before I left Japan. The kyudo kami literally granted that prayer. I hit my target once. And then perhaps because the kyudo kami have a sense of humor, my bosses entered me in a competition in Utsunomiya-shi where I became the first foreigner to take part. My first of three shots hit a target... only it wasn't my own. It's like getting a bowling strike in the wrong alley. Lots of oohs and ahhs and realizations of why a gaijin with astigmatism should not be allowed near pointy sticks. Fortunately, I was pointed in the correct direction of MY target and missed my next two shots without incident.
Let me tell you... even though I did the shinto prayer ritual before I shot at the competition... I think it's a far better story to have hit the wrong target than to have hit the correct target and still lost the competition. Thank-you, kami.


  1. Did you pray at Yasukuni-Jinja when we visited oh, so maaaaany years ago? ;-)

    1. Probably... but I probably didn't KNOW what I was praying for. I do now. No one told me about the kami as being spirits of former humans... I thought it was all just nature!