Andrew M. McGreevy: Arlington National Cemetery and Yasukuni Jinja ... History, Memory, and the Sacred

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrew M. McGreevy teaches East Asian and non-Western history courses at Ohio University-Lancaster. His interest in this article was prompted by visits to American, Japanese and Russian military memorials and museums. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Correspondence is invited at:]

Arlington National Cemetery and Yasukuni Jinja (The Shrine of the Peaceful Land) are symbols of the histories of the United States of America and Japan. Arlington National Cemetery and Yasukuni Jinja have a common purpose--to honor the war dead--but the two are very different. Arlington National Cemetery, which was created in controversy, is today is a place of peaceful repose. Yasukuni Jinja had very dignified origins, yet now is embroiled in disputes.

The “Yasukuni Problem” (Japanese remorse for its actions in World War II and the survival of militarism), continuing war-related litigation, and territorial conflicts with China and Korea whose roots also lie in earlier wars all remain issues in 2005. In the U.S., World War II, but not Arlington National Cemetery, was the subject of intense debate in 1995 and 2003 over the “Enola Gay” exhibit at the Smithsonian on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II. However, American debates hardly compare to the ferocity and protracted character of the war-related issues that continue to stalk Japan.

Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., grew from the bitter circumstances of the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Some of the early fighting of the war was very close to Washington, D.C., and Arlington, an estate owned by Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was near the battle sites. Union Army officials confiscated the estate and used the land as a hastily improvised military graveyard, in effect punishing Lee for his role in the Civil War. After the war, Custis Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son, successfully sued the federal government for the loss of the family estate. The federal government established Arlington National Cemetery in 1883.

Yasukuni Jinja, located on Kudan Hill in Tokyo, was created as a Shinto religious shrine in 1869 to honor soldiers who fought in a civil war to bring the Emperor Meiji to power in 1868. The formal title of “Yasukuni Jinja (The Shrine of the Peaceful Land) was bestowed in 1879 to proclaim that Japan was at peace because of the sacrifice of its war dead. Those enshrined are revered as deities, i.e. kami, “noble gods.” Honors were extended beyond military personnel to include civilians who worked for the military and women and children who died in certain war-related circumstances.

Established with elaborate imperial and Shinto ceremonies, Yasukuni Jinja became a major national institution as Japan fought in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War I , the Manchurian Incident (1931) and then the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, known in Japan as the Greater East Asian War (1937-45). Yasukuni Jinja was revered as the site honoring Japan’s military who gave their lives in the service of the emperor. The names, rank and places of death of fallen veterans and others to be honored were preserved for veneration. Yasukuni Jinja today is controversial because of its close association with the monarchy, and particularly with the wars fought in the name of the emperor. Above all, the fact that fourteen Class A war criminals, and numerous Class B and C war criminals, have been enshrined as gods at Yasukuni Jinja is a source of anger to Chinese and Koreans. Chinese casualties in the Fifteen Year War (1931-45), are estimated to be ten to twenty million or more, while Korea experienced half a century of harsh Japanese colonial rule.

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