In September 2016 I visited the Yasukuni Shrine, located in a pleasant Tokyo neighbourhood. Had I been a Japanese politician, this would have caused a commotion in some parts of the world.

The shrine was established in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration that is usually considered the foundation of the modern Japanese state. It is surrounded by a park where vendors of military memorabilia and various antiques often display their wares. Other people stroll through the park, walk their dogs or enjoy various kinds of exercise, as they do in most parks throughout the world.

Shinto, the traditional – although no longer the official – religion of Japan, is largely based on reverence for ancestors. Shinto shrines are found throughout the country, and Yasukuni is by no means the oldest of them, but it is probably the most famous. It would not be stretching a point very much to say that Yasukuni is to Japan what Westminster Abbey is to England, a place of worship but also a place to remember the honoured dead who served their country. The Yasukuni Shrine contains the ashes, and is dedicated to the memory, of almost two and a half million Japanese who died and were killed in military service between 1868 and 1945. They include not only human warriors but some of the dogs and horses employed by the Imperial Japanese Army, an idea that I find rather touching.

The reason why visits to Yasukuni bother some people (although more outside of Japan than within it) is that the two and half million (more or less) include 16 individuals who were condemned as major war criminals and hanged by the victorious Americans after the Pacific war. General Hideki Tojo, the most famous of these, was depicted by American wartime propaganda as a dictator comparable to Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini.

Obviously he was not one, since his forced resignation in 1944, unlike Mussolini’s the previous year, had little or no impact on his country’s conduct of the war. The Americans magnified his role because they needed someone to be a target of popular hatred and anger, like “Goldstein the enemy of the people” in George Orwell’s 1984. Hitler served that purpose very well in the European war, which is probably why the allies made no effort to assassinate him, but the Americans needed an Asian equivalent. They did not want that equivalent to be Emperor Hirohito, the obvious choice, because they had already decided that they would keep the Emperor in place as a constitutional monarch after the war ended.

Since I am an unconditional opponent of capital punishment, my own view on the fate of Tojo and his colleagues is essentially that expressed by Richard Dudgeon in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple: “You talk to me of Christianity when you are in the act of hanging your enemies. Was there ever such blasphemous nonsense?” Winston Churchill privately had misgivings about the practice of war crimes trials, although he deferred to his American and Soviet allies.1 For one thing, it is obvious that only the losers of wars are hanged, not the winners. George W. Bush started a war, but Saddam Hussein was hanged after it ended. The Nazis’ foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was hanged for plotting to wage an aggressive war, but his Soviet partner in crime, Vyacheslav Molotov, enjoyed a lengthy and peaceful retirement since his country ironically found itself on the winning side when the dust had settled.

The Tokyo trial at which Tojo was convicted was controversial even at the time it occurred. Like Nuremberg but even more so, it was essentially an American show, but in contrast to Nuremberg (where only the four occupying powers were represented) all the other countries that had been at war with Japan, large and small, were invited to appoint judges to the tribunal. The Australian judge was unhappy that the Emperor was not included among the defendants and there is some evidence that Tojo collaborated with the prosecution in his own trial to protect the Emperor’s reputation. The Indian judge complained that Asian imperialists were being judged by a different standard than European imperialists, a point that was not without merit. By the time the death sentences were carried out, in December 1948, the Pacific war was yesterday’s news and some of the victors were preparing to make war on one another instead.

Getting back to the shrine and my visit to it, I felt no discomfort about being there. In Paris I have visited the elaborate tomb at Les Invalides of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was certainly a major war criminal by any standard. The Arc de Triomphe, which commemorates Napoleon’s victories, is the centrepiece of the annual celebrations on November 11, one of which I attended during the reign of General de Gaulle. I have twice visited the embalmed remains of V.I. Lenin, also a mass murderer of considerable notoriety. In Tennessee I have driven past the state park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, who systematically massacred all the African-American soldiers captured by his Confederate forces and who later helped to found the Ku Klux Klan. In London I have seen the memorial to Air Marshall Arthur Harris, who admitted that his Bomber Command deliberately targeted residential areas of industrial cities so as to kill as many working-class Germans (the Germans least likely to have voted for the Nazis) as possible.2 There was some controversy in 1990 when the late Queen Mother dedicated the Harris memorial, but not much. More than a fifth of Bomber Command’s aircrews, incidentally, were Canadians.

In any event the Yasukuni Shrine, or at least the museum attached to it, is very interesting and well worth a visit. In it you can see a surviving example of the iconic Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft, and also a Japanese dive bomber. There are two impressive artillery pieces (both used in the Philippines, according to the captions) and even a steam locomotive from the railway in Thailand whose construction inspired The Bridge on the River Kwai. You can watch old newsreels of the Imperial Japanese Army on a movie screen, and you can read a rather poignant letter that Admiral Rinosuke Ichimaru, shortly before his death at Iwo Jima, addressed to President Roosevelt. (Roosevelt, who died two months later, almost certainly never had a chance to read it.) Japan’s earlier wars are represented by a large assortment of firearms, swords, helmets and other paraphernalia.

But perhaps just as interesting as the artifacts are the displays that present Japan’s impression of its own history. The story begins with a display about Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan in 1853. Like most North Americans, I always thought of this American exploit as a harmless expression of curiosity, or at worst an effort to open a new market for trade, but from Japan’s viewpoint it was an aggressive act and a wake-up call showing the country’s weakness. The conclusion drawn from it was that Japan must become an industrial state and develop a modern army and navy like those of the Western powers.

Over the next half century it did so, a more impressive achievement, and at far less cost in human suffering, than the much ballyhooed industrialization of Russia under Stalin. Perhaps inevitably, Japan imitated the Western powers (remember the Spanish-American War and the Boer War, among others) by adding Taiwan and Korea to its empire. It was rewarded with a seat at the high table, signing an equal treaty of alliance with the United Kingdom in 1902. Twenty years later the British renounced this alliance, which had served them well between 1914 and 1918, under pressure from a more important ally, the United States.

Thereafter the Japanese seem to have regarded the hostility of the Anglosphere as unavoidable. Whether this was true or not, Japan’s rapid conquest of Manchuria in 1931, its attempt to conquer the rest of China starting in 1937 and its fruitless alliance with Hitler (a white supremacist who secretly preferred the British to his Japanese allies) eventually made it so. By the time the Americans cut off their access to oil in 1941, the Japanese had run out of options. Any attempt to withdraw from China, as the Americans demanded, would have provoked a military coup and even endangered the life of the Emperor.

In contrast to Germany’s attack on the USSR, which matched roughly equal forces and had a reasonable chance of success, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a gambler’s last desperate roll of the dice rather than the opening move in a serious game plan. Japan could never have conquered the United States, which had half the world’s industrial capacity and produced two thirds of the world’s oil, and the Japanese knew it. At most they might have conquered Hawaii if they had won the battle of Midway, but what good would that have done them?

During the war Japanese propaganda claimed, as the displays at the Yasukuni museum do today, that they were fighting to free Asia from Western colonialism and racism. No doubt many Japanese sincerely believed this, and some still do. In any event it was quite widely believed in other parts of Asia, despite the atrocious behaviour of the Japanese army toward civilians in China and the Philippines. Even in those two countries the Japanese found many collaborators. Several hundred thousand Chinese migrated to Japanese-controlled Manchuria in the 1930s, suggesting that life was better there than under Chiang Kai-shek.3 An important faction of the Indian nationalist movement, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, supported Japan and provided some military assistance in its fight against the British in southeast Asia.

In 1935 an American diplomat, John V.A. MacMurray, had warned in a thoughtful memorandum that an American war against Japan, even if it resulted in total victory, “would be no blessing to the Far East or to the world” and would benefit only the Soviet Union, which would fill the vacuum created by Japan’s defeat.4 Sixteen years later, when George F. Kennan cited the MacMurray memorandum in his celebrated lectures on American diplomacy at the University of Chicago, MacMurray’s prophecy had been fulfilled.

The last military events described at the Yasukuni museum are the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they are mentioned only briefly and without much emotion. The question of whether they were necessary to end the war is not addressed at Yasukuni, nor is an even more delicate and controversial question: was Emperor Hirohito really a harmless figurehead, as the Americans maintained at the time, or had he actually planned and conducted the war, as some later American historians have alleged?

Atomic bombs or no, Japan was treated far better in 1945 than Germany. Harry Truman, an avid student of history who had fought in World War I and whose relatives had supported the Confederacy in the American Civil War, knew that today’s enemy can be tomorrow’s friend, and vice versa. He abandoned Roosevelt’s policy of unconditional surrender and ended the Pacific war before the Soviets could threaten the Japanese homeland, and before American troops had landed there. Japan was spared the horrors of invasion and partition, and the atrocities that the Soviet army inflicted on eastern Germany. The American occupation was peaceful, the Emperor kept his throne, a new parliament was promptly elected, and the peace treaty signed in 1951 made Japan a fully sovereign state again and an American ally, although a Soviet veto kept it out of the United Nations for another five years.

Looking at Tokyo today, when it is cleaner, safer, more efficient and more attractive than most American cities (which admittedly wouldn’t be difficult), it is hard to believe that it was virtually laid waste by incendiary bombs in March 1945. It is even harder to believe that when I was born Japan ruled an empire that briefly stretched from Myanmar to the Aleutian Islands.

“The War,” as my parents always called it (as though there had never been any other wars), is fast receding into the mists of time. Soon the people with actual memories of it will all have vanished from this world. Who knows what our descendants will think about it a few decades from now, if they think about it at all? Will it all seem too remote and exotic to be believable, or will it simply be forgotten? Or will their views resemble those the young Robert Southey expressed about the battle of Blenheim, in lines that he wrote less than a century after the event?

“And every body praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell” said he,
“But ‘twas a famous victory.” 


1 Winston S. Churchill. Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), pp. 529, 631.

2 Richard Overy. The Bombers and the Bombed (New York: Viking, 2013), pp. 90–92.

3 William Henry Chamberlin. America’s Last Crusade (Chicago: Regnery, 1950), p. 154.

4 Cited in George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy (expanded edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 51–52.