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Commemorating and Othering: a Study of Japanese Public Opinion on Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 Yasukuni Pilgrimage


The Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, once the symbolic center of national commemoration of war dead in pre-War years, is now regarded as one of the critical conservative symbols of Japan’s imperial past. While the Yasukuni study is expanding, not much has been explored on the nature of public reactions to the controversy. This study explores Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s Yasukuni pilgrimage in 2013 and delves into Japanese public opinion on and around it. Overall, the Japanese public is relatively composed and prefers cautious approach; yet, at the same time, more people now support the official Yasukuni visits in general. This study also reveals discernible, yet nuanced, disagreements among PM Abe’s Yasukuni policies, the public perceptions of them, and the narratives of major newspaper editorials on this issue. The coverage of public opinion polls by the major national newspapers uncovers the public opinion on (1) the official Yasukuni visit, (2) the idea of building an alternative non-religious national memorial, and (3) the Japanese public’s decreasing sense of affinity toward China and South Korea (and their implications on understanding the Yasukuni issue and the sense of nation). The study will also examine the newspaper narratives on the controversy, which should help exemplify the overall public mood over the years.

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  1. Jeff Kingston, “Empire of the Setting Sun,” Foreign Policy, August 15, 2016,

  2. See, for example, The Wall Street Journal, “Tensions in Asia Stoke Rising Nationalism in Japan,” February 26, 2014,

  3. Fukuoka’s (2013) article is one of the most comprehensive studies on the changing public opinions on PM Koizumi’s Yasukuni pilgrimages [5] and the study provides important reference points for this research.

  4. In July 2006, Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine because of the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals in 1978 (cf. [22], p.186). A memoir by a former Grand Steward at the Imperial Household Agency, Tomohiko Tomita, was discovered and this so-called Tomita Memo revealed that the emperor was “dismayed” by the enshrinement of the Class-A war criminals ([28], p. 38).

  5. See also the Yasukuni Shrine Homepage,

  6. After Nakasone, two prime ministers made private visits. PM Miyazawa (1991–1993) made his “secret” visit in 1992. PM Hashimoto (1996–1998) visited the shrine on his birthday in 1996. Until 1975, the Emperor himself visited the Shrine seven times (since 1952), and even these occasions were explained in the Diet as private (!) visits ([30], pp. 21–36, 148–50).

  7. For South Korea’s delayed register of the Yasukuni controversy, see Koga [12].

  8. “Nakasone, Giving in, Will Shun Shrine,” New York Times, October 10, 1985. There is also a well-known inside story that Nakasone stopped the visits because he was concerned that further visits would jeopardize the domestic political position of pro-Japanese Chinese General Secretary, Hu Yaobang ([29], pp. 127–128; [23], p. 207). This is understandable because preserving his relationship with China had been one of the most important items on Nakasone’s foreign policy agenda ([34], p. 181), and, more importantly, the country was “a potential ally” in the Cold War in Asia to counter the Soviet Union ([23], p. 208). Also see Mochizuki [14].

  9. “Koizumi Exits Office as He Arrived: Defiant on War Shrine,” New York Times, August16, 2006.

  10. “Fukuda Enters Race, Vows to Avoid Yasukuni,” Japan Times, September 16, 2007

  11. “Aso Wants Yasukuni as Nonreligious War Memorial,” Japan Times, August 9, 2006

  12. “Aso Sparks Warnings with Gift to Yasukuni,” Japan Times, April 22, 2009

  13. During the short period of relatively quieter, yet still positive, bilateral relationships with China and South Korea in the post-Koizumi years, the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishery boat and Japan’s patrol vessels near the controversial Senkaku (in Japan)/Diaoyu (in China) islands occurred. There was also the construction of a comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in 2011. Along with the ongoing dispute over Liancourt Rocks (known as Takeshima in Japan and as Dokdo in South Korea) in the Sea of Japan, those events marked the beginning of the new vicious cycle in Northeast Asia’s memory politics.

  14. “Japanese PM Visits Controversial Yasukuni War Shrine,” FRANCE 24 (with AFP, AP and REUTERS), December 26, 2013

  15. “Abe Visit to Controversial Japanese Shrine Draws Rare U.S. Criticism,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2013

  16. See Nozaki [17]. The so-called neo-nationalist historiography typically opposes to the underlying general direction of history education in public schools in which official apologies had become more acceptable and more self-reflection was encouraged in the mid-1990s (cf. [33]). In their terminology, post-War Japanese history education became “masochistic (jigyakuteki)” and Japanese people lost the pride in nation.

  17. See, for example, his 2003 interview in a special edition of conservative magazine, Seiron. Seiron, 2003, Yasukuni to Nihonjin no Kokoro [Yasukuni and Japanese Mind] (Tokyo: Sankei).

  18. “Japan Leader’s First Diplomatic Bow Is to Asian Neighbors,” New York Times, October 4, 2006.

  19. The similar account was repeated at the Upper House plenary session on October 4, 2006. Parliamentary accounts were obtained through Full-text Database System for the Minutes of the Diet of the National Diet Library of Japan. The National Diet Library of Japan is Japan’s national library and owns copies of all the publications published in Japan. See

  20. The similar view was repeated at the Upper House plenary session on January 30, 2007, and at the Lower House Special Committee on Education Reform on May 17, 2007.

  21. Asahi Shimbun, August 29, 2006, p. 1, 4. Asahi also reported PM Abe’s perceived pressure from the USA for Japan’s better relationship with Asian neighbors.

  22. New York Times, “Japan Stands by Declaration on ‘Comfort Women,’ ” March 16, 2007.

  23. In the statement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei states that “Undeniably, this was an act, with the involvement of the military authorities of the day” and “in many cases” those people were seized “against their will, through coaxing coercion.” Kono “extended …[the Japanese Government’s] sincere apologies and remorse” for the victims. For Kono’s Statement, see

  24. Asahi Shimbun, August 29, 2006.

  25. BBC News, “Japan PM Shinzo Abe Visits Yasukuni WW2 Shrine,” December 26, 2013.

  26. Asahi Shimbun, December 26, 2013.

  27. TIME, “The Patriot: Shinzo Abe Speaks to TIME,” April 17, 2014.

  28. Asahi is the 2nd largest newspaper and is considered “liberal,” enjoying about 8.3 million of the total newspaper circulation of 50 million. Yomiuri, with the largest circulation of about 10 million, is considered “conservative.” Mainichi is “centrist” with the 3rd largest circulation of 4.0 million. Also, as a national newspaper, Nihon Keizai Shimbu n(specialized in business) has a circulation of about 3.7 million. Finally, NHK (Nihon Hosō Kyōkai) is Japan’s public broadcasting company (several TV channels and radios), financed through a “viewer fee.”

  29. PM Koizumi’s 6th (and final) visit was the most symbolic as it took place on August 15.

  30. In the same survey, 42% agreed that the Kono Statement should be revised (minaosu beki) (with 35% for “do not need to revise”).

  31. As for the above Mainichi polls, 41% in 2005 and 36% in 2006 supported the visit. In the Asahi poll in 2006, 29% were for the pilgrimage ([5], p. 38),

  32. Mainichi found 33% (July), 42% (August), and 39% (September) supporting the visit by the next prime minister (See Table 5 in [5], p. 39).

  33. In the Asahi polls, 28% (January), 20% (July) and 31% (August) supported the pilgrimage (see Table 5 in [5], p. 39).

  34. The Yomiuri survey found 40.4% of the respondents supporting the visit (See Table 5 in [5], p. 39).

  35. Prime Minister’s Office of Japan, Opinion Polls on Foreign Policy (Gaikō ni kansuru Yoronchōsa)

  36. In the same survey, at the same time, 65% of the respondents realized that Japan’s colonization of Korea has hampered the relationship between Japan and South Korea (with 25% who do not agree with it).

  37. I appreciate one of Anonymous Reviewers on this point.

  38. To be noted, in the same Asahi survey, however, 41% maintained that the August 15 visit by three ministers was “appropriate” (as opposed to 37% for “inappropriate”).

  39. Also interestingly, 67% of the respondents feel disgusted (fukai) by the growing incidents of hate speech against Korean-Japanese in Japan.

  40. Nikkei, October 27, 2013.

  41. By emphasizing a “non-religious” aspect of a new national memorial, the Fukuda panel tried to solve the constitutional question of the separation of state and religion, which had long problematized the official Yasukuni visits. For further discussion on the pros and cons of a new non-religious memorial, see Takahashi [25].

  42. Before Mr. Abe’s parliamentary statement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, following PM Abe’s Yasukuni pilgrimage, also denied the alternative options (Asahi, December 27, 2013, Evening Edition).

  43. The above polls suggest that the Japanese public does not necessarily dismiss the Yasukuni Shrine. In this context, as two Yomiuri polls in 2014 indicate, when survey questions indicate the possibility that this new facility would replace the Yasukuni Shrine as the site for national commemoration of war dead, more people seem to oppose to the idea. Fifty percent in the January poll opposed to the idea to build a new non-religious facility (Yomiuri, January 13, 2014). The June poll also found the plurality opposition to the idea (47%) (Yomiuri, June 7, 2014).

  44. In 2005, PM Koizumi asserted that his Yasukuni pilgrimage was the matter of “individual’s private conscience (“kokoro no mondai”)” ([5], p. 36).

  45. Yomiuri discussed the idea three times in its editorials in 2013. There was no reference to the idea in the 2014 editorials.


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Correspondence to Kazuya Fukuoka.

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Fukuoka, K. Commemorating and Othering: a Study of Japanese Public Opinion on Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 Yasukuni Pilgrimage. East Asia 36, 349–368 (2019).

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  • Commemoration of War Dead
  • Yasukuni Shrine
  • Abe Shinzo
  • Public opinion
  • Othering