Jinja-Honcho -The Association of Shinto Shrines-

The Japanese View on Ancestral Spirits
The Undercurrent of the Faith of the Yasukuni Jinja

Japanese in New Window#

Concerning the Yasukuni Jinja (or the Yasukuni Shrine), a great deal of heated argument is made every year, especially in summer, including the discussion on the propriety of the Prime Minister's official visit to this shrine. This leaflet, however, is not to take a stand on the problematic issues, which have become extremely complicated now. It is to briefly look at the nature of the Yasukuni Jinja and to examine the undercurrent flowing through its faith fostered by the Japanese religious climate, which are often overlooked being shadowed by the interminable argument.

Japanese in New WindowThe Bon Festival, the New Year's Day, the Ancestral Worship, and the Japanese life:

The 'Bon festival' and the 'New Year's day' have a particular significance in the Japnese life. Before and after the Bon and the New Year's Day, a big wave of national migration occurs throughout the Japanese archipelago. People go back to their hometown in order to observe these days together with family there.

The 'New Year's Day' is to pray Kami (a deity or deities of Shinto) for a year's good fortune at the beginning of the year, welcoming the spirits of ancestors as well as the spirit of grains who are called 'Toshigami', or the Kami of the year. The 'Bon festival' is to console ancestors' spirits at each home on or around the 15th of July or August. According to Kunio Yanagita (a scholar specialized the Japanese Folklore) and his group, who studied Japanese customs from the viewpoint of Shinto, the both festivals were to console the ancestral spirits. They are related to the Japanese view on the ancestral spirits that has always been in the depth of their mind in spite of a fact that Japan proceeded civilization and secularization of the country after the Meiji Restoration.

We say that this is the religious consciousness of the Japanese to revere the ancestral spirits as Kami (a deity or deities of Shinto) on one occasion or as Hotoke (the soul of the deceased) on another occasion (there is a custom in Japan to have both Shinto and Buddhist altars in one family). The Japanese have believed that the ancestral spirits who were sublimated to Kami or Hotoke in a certain period after the death would stay forever in this land in order to watch over the life of descendants.

The ancestral spirits stay in various places: in the place where they deceased, in the graveyard, and also in the home alter or in shrines being enshrined as ancestral deities. This particular view of the Japanese on the ancestral spirits was explained figuratively by Motoori Norinaga, a famed scholar of National Learning of Japan in the 18th century, as 'Mitama-no fuyu' that the ancestral spirit was omnipresent or separated like the candle flame that could be carried from one to another. In this attitude toward the ancestral spirits, it was quite natural to the Japanese that a certain spirit was revered by people in different localities according to their customs.

The beloved deceased watches over the life of their descendants from somewhere on this land. This is the very idea of the Japanese on the ancestors, which is still embedded deep in their mind and, thus, the ground for the ancestral worship. This view is still reflected in a Japanese custom that puts more importance on the memorial day of ancestors rather than their birthday.

This ancestral worship fostered by the ancient Japanese flows as the undercurrent through the reverence of the Yasukuni Jinja, where the souls of the war dead are enshrined.

To understand this ancestral worship would help to grasp the core of religious consciousness of the Japanese.

Japanese in New WindowThe Custom of Human Deification in the Pre-Modern Era:

It is considered that the Japanese are people of nature worship who believe in various Kami deities dwelling in nature. Meanwhile, the Japanese found the divinity not only in nature but also in something to show 'unusually superb virtue (or a work)' (cf. Motoori Norinaga), especially in human beings. It was quite natural for them to find the divinity both in nature and human beings, since the Shinto faith does not see any difference or discontinuation between Kami (the divine beings) and nature including human beings.

The Kojiki (or Records of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon-shoki (or The Chronicles of Japan) d3escribe the mythical story of a nation-building by humanlike activities of the ancestral deities of the Imperial Family such as Hiding of Amaterasu Ohmikami (the Sun Goddess) in the Heavenly Rock-Cave or Dragon Slaying by Susa-no-o no Mikoto.

Also, there is an official document of deifying a man in Shoku Nihongi (The Chronicles of Japan, the second series), which describesthe case of Michi-no-kimi-obiona. He was the governor of the province of Chikugo and was deified after the death in 718 AD as his village people deeply appreciated his benevolent governorship. This is the first document of the human deification. In the Heian period, with a rise of Goryo Shinko (a brief that a series of disasters are caused by unquiet spirits), the unsettled spirit of Sugawara Michizane (845-903, a courtier-scholar) was enshrined in the Kitano Tenmangu. This is the first case that the unquiet and disturbed spirit of a man was enshrined as a deity. It is the origin of the faith in the Tenjinwho has been long revered as the patron saint of scholarship.

In the Edo period, the human deification extricated itself from the Goryo Shinko, and rose as the faith of the guardian spirit. A human being who offered distinguished services to the public was enshrined posthumously and revered as the guardian spirit to protect people of this world.

The first shrine established in this sense was the Toyokuni Jinja which was dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Kanpaku or the chief advisor to the emperor (1536-1598). He had a long cherished wish, while alive, to stay in this world after the death as a Kami in order to guard his descendants. Later, this faith was succeeded to the Tokugawa family in the form of the Toshogu which enshrines the spirit of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Following this, the other feudal clans also started to deify the first lord of the clan and revered him as a guardian spirit under a particular divine title.

Following such a trend among the Shogun families and feudal clans, the human deification was spread out among local communities in the Edo period. They deified such people: a wealthy farmer who well contributed in local development, a village headman, for instance, who dedicated his whole life in irrigation works, a chief magistrate who did a good and just administration, and farmers who sacrificed their life in peasant uprisings in order to save villages. The reverence for those people occurred quite spontaneously among ordinary people.

In this way, it was spread in the Edo period to revere those who contributed a lot in the public services, or who sacrificed their life for public welfare. It can be said that development of a custom of deifying a man in the Edo era together with the long existed ancestral worship, worked later as the backbone for the faith of the Yasukuni Jinja.

Japanese in New WindowThe Upheaval of the Meiji Restoration and the Establishment of the Tokyo Shokonsha:

At the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was confronted by the gravest national crisis since the establishment of the nation, that is, a danger of colonization of Japan by the West.

Facing this life-or-death crisis of the nation, noble-minded patriots gathered and devoted themselves to the cause of the country at the risk of their life. There were also many who were killed in the fights against the old order of the Tokugawa regime. In order to console them, their souls were enshrined in each locality. That is the origin of establishment of the Shokonsha throughout Japan.

When the upheaval at the time of the Meiji Restoration was settled down and the wok o f a new state-building started in Tokyo, the new capital, the Meiji government established the Tokyo Shokonsha, as the first thing to do, in order to enshrine the souls of the war dead, especially those of the Boshin War(1868-1869). The Tokyo Shokonsha was later ranked Bekkaku-kanpeisha or a special national shrine in the 12th year of the meiji(1880), being renamed the Yasukuni Jinja"

The Yasukuni Jinja enshrined the souls of fallen war heroes in both civil was and in world was that the modern Japan experienced, a well as the souls of those who consecrated their life to the country in its difficult times since the visit of Commodore Perry who urged Japan to open the port(1853). They left a large number of notes written at the last moment of their life, in which the Japanese view on life and death, we well as the view on the eternal life, were clearly shown.

In these notes, we can see some common elements: the determination that is seen in such an expression, 'We must die for the country, for our parents, for our brothers and sisters', the sincere wish to contribute in creating a better future for their descendants at the risk of their own life, and the crave for staying in this world in the form of the spirit in order to watch over the future of the descendants. It is the most sacred task of the Yasukuni Jinja to hold religious services in memory of these enshrined spirits and with deep respect for their wishes.

Accordingly, solemn services are continuously performed everyday since the establishment of the shrine in the early Meiji era until today, by Shinto priests, by the bereaved families, by representatives of all levels of the Japanese, in addition to the reverence by the Imperial family in the form of presenting offerings on the occasion of grand rituals in Spring and Autumn.

Japanese in New WindowThe Shinto Shrines dedicate to Deified Humans:

The Yasukuni Jinja is not the only shrine that was dedicated to the spirit of those who did distinguished services for the locality.

The Meiji Jingu situated in the center of Tokyo surrouonded by the dense sacred forest is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken who led the modern Japan in the Meiji era. The shrine receives a great number of visitors throughout a year.

In Kyoto, the Heian Jingu is well known as the shrine dedicated to both Emperor Kanmu who built the capital of Heian, and Emperor Komei who was the last emperor before the Meiji Restoration.

There are shrines that enshrine the spirit of loyal subjects to the emperor, vi. Minatogawa Jinja in Kobe enshrines the spirit of Kusunoki Masashige, a loyal warrior, the Nawa Jinja in Tottori prefecture enshrines the spirit of Nawa nagatoshi.

There are many shrines that enshrine the spirit of feudal lords such as the Oyama Jinja in Kanazawa which enshrines Maeda Toshiie, the Terukuni Jinja in Kagoshima prefecture which enshrines the spirit of Shimazu Nariakira. Those shrines are highly revered by each local people.

The Nogi Jinja in Tokyo which enshrines the spirit of General Nogi, the war hero in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Togo Jinja in Tokyo which enshrines the spirit of Admiral Togo, another war hero in the same war, the Hotoku Ninomiya Jinja in Odawara which enshrines Ninomiya Sontoku who was the agri-economist, are alsowell-known for enshrinement of deified men.

We can say that, on the background of the custom of the human deification, there lies profound reverence for people who have done great services for the public cause at the risk of their own life. It has existed long before the modernization of Japan. There is a long history of the worship of these spirits as awesome Kami deities.

Japanese in New WindowThe Japanese View on the Ancestral Spirits and the Yasukuni Jinja:

Seeing the historical background of these shrines, we realize that the ancient Japanese vie on life and death lies in the faith of the Yasukuni Jinja as its backbone, though its establishment was rather recent (1870).

The idea of enshrinement of these people of great virtune and to observe solemn services Is considered to be a flower bloomed in the nation building of the modern Japan. This idea could be the crystallization of the ancestral worship fostered by the Japanese culture since the ancient times.

As to the wars that the modern Japan experienced, including the Second World War, much has been said for them and against, both at home and abroad. However, there remains an undeniable fact, beyond relevance of these arguments, that many people sacrificed their life for the public cause, and their souls were enshrined in the Yasukuni Jinja.

To revere ancestors' spirits is the source of religious consciousness of the Japanese, and the reverence of the spirits of those who sacrificed their life for the public cause and for their descendants is derived from religious emotion of the Japanese. If this long cherished reverence is clashed to death on purpose, it might lead to a dry up of the fountainhead of religious emotion of the Japanese people.

The Yasukuni Jinja is, as we have seen, the place where the souls of the war dead are enshrined. It is a place not only for the bereaved family but also for the majority of the Japanese to depend on in order to keep their religious integrity. It is also a place of communication between ancestors and descendants.

In these days, the ties between an individual and a locality have become extremely loose, and the nuclear family has been rapidly increasing in the Japanese society. Under such circumstance, the Yasukuni Jinja would serve as the place where the history of the deceased and the future of their descendants are to meet.

As mentioned at the beginning, this leaflet is not to assert some political opinion on the Yasukuni Jinja. Yet, it is our sincere hope that his article could serve as a handhold to see the Yasukuni Jinja as it is and to reflect on the undercurrent of the faith of the Yasukuni Jinja, which is often overlooked.