The Yasukuni Issue’s Disappearance from the East Asian Mass Media

Image Caption: The Yasukuni Shrine, originally erected to honor those who have fought for Japan, has been the center of a controversy with other East Asian countries, chiefly China, in regards to war crimes and other historical atrocities committed by Japan’s armed forces.

The Yasukuni Issue, a term referring to all Sino-Japanese controversies surrounding the Yasukuni Shrine, is largely considered as the bottleneck of Sino-Japanese relations. Many Chinese consider the Yasukuni Shrine a symbol of militarism and insist that it honors Japanese World War II war criminals. And as such, many argue that the Prime Minister of Japan should never visit it. Some Japanese, however, argue that every country has the right to show respect to those who died fighting for their country, especially given that the Japanese government has officially promised to honor the sacrificed in the Yasukuni Shrine.

To resolve this conflict, a number of solutions have been offered by Chinese and Japanese scholars and members of their mass media. However, starting in 2007, the Chinese and Japanese media slowly began losing interest in discussing the Yasukuni Issue. In 2017, no news article regarding the Yasukuni Issue was found on People’s Daily or Asahi Shimbun, two of the major news outlets in China and Japan, respectively. This essay therefore aims to reexamine the Yasukuni Issue and identify the underlying factors that caused it to lose Chinese and Japanese media’s attention.

The Chinese and Japanese media, and the number of articles regarding the Yasukuni Shrine in China and Japan are of paramount importance because they reflect the will of the Chinese and Japanese government. In this paper, People’s Daily is chosen to be analyzed because it is famous and is directly monitored by the Chinese government Asahi Shimbun is chosen because it was an important member of the Kisha Club in Japan, which is influenced by the Japanese government.

This paper assumes that when the number of articles regarding the Yasukuni Shrine is high, the public pays more attention to the issue. In contrast, when the number of articles is low, the public pays less attention to the issue. On top of that, many Chinese insist that the Yasukuni Shrine honors the war criminals in the WWII and consider it to be a symbol of militarism. The Chinese argument maintains that the Prime Minister of Japan should never visit the shrine. On the other hand, some Japanese argue that every country has the right to show respect to those who died for their country, not to mention when the government had officially promised to honor the sacrificed in the Yasukuni Shrine. The two ideas are doubtless contradicted. Thus, heightened attention to the Yasukuni Issue tends to worsen relations between Chinese people and Japanese people. As a result, it is better for Sino-Japanese relations to have low number of articles regarding the Yasukuni Issue even if consensus on resolving the issue has not yet been reached.

Screen Shot 2018 09 13 at 8.03.28 PM






Figure 1 : Numbers of articles related to the Yasukuni Shrine in People’s Daily and Asahi Shimbun

After reading all news articles regarding the Yasukuni Shrine from 2010 to 2017, they can be categorized them into three groups. The first group consists of articles that are related to visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. These articles are those which dissatisfy the Asian countries attacked by Japan in WWII. The second group is made up of articles regarding the (Sino-Japanese) Yasukuni Issue, similar to the discussion presented in this paper. The third group includes any articles regarding the Yasukuni Shrine.

Screen Shot 2018 09 13 at 8.03.34 PM






Figure 2 Categorization of articles related to the Yasukuni Shrine in Asahi Shimbun from 2010 to 2017

The number of articles on the Yasukuni Issue in Asahi Shimbun reached the first peak in 2001. This is likely because on 13th August, 2001, despite complaints from parts of Japanese society and China, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine for the first time. In that same year, the number of articles in People’s Daily was limited, as the Chinese government sought to avoid further damage to Sino-Japanese relations.

The second peak in news coverage of the issue came in 2005-2006. On 30th September, 2005, the Osaka High Court ruled that the Japanese Prime Minister should not visit the Yasukuni Shrine because doing so would go against the Constitution of Japan. Nonetheless, Junichiro continued to visit the shrine in 17th October, 2005, enraging many Japanese and Chinese citizens. Since then, the Chinese government has officially criticized PM Junichiro often. Unfortunately, PM Junichiro visited the shrine again on 15th August, 2006, affecting Sino-Japanese relations, and explaining the peak from 2005 to 2006.

In 2007 and following years, the number of articles dropped dramatically, mainly because PM Junichiro resigned in 2006, followed by a visit by PM Abe to China in order to improve Sino-Japanese relations on the 8th of October.[1] In return, on 11th April, 2017, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao then visited Japan.[2]

The third peak can be observed in 2013 in Asahi Shimbun and 2014 in People’s Daily. This peak is most likely because Liu Qiang, a Chinese civilian who started a fire in the Yasukuni Shrine in 2011 and Japanese Embassy in South Korea in 2012, was not extradited to Japan and was instead released by the Seoul High Court in 2013.[3] Many Japanese people expressed their dissatisfaction regarding it. In addition, PM Abe’s visited the Yasukuni Shrine on 16th December, 2013, again angering many Chinese critics. The third peak is insignificant when it is compared with the first and the second peak. At that time, Chinese and Japanese media’s attention had already lost much of their interest in the Yasukuni Issue.

The number of articles regarding the Yasukuni Issue have dropped to 0 in People’s Daily since 2015 because President Xi has stressed the importance of Sino-Japanese people-to-people diplomacy in the public, attempting to improve Sino-Japanese relations.[4] As a result, although the “Abe Talk” in August, 2015 was criticized as a worthless dialogue by a number of Chinese scholars, the Yasukuni Issue was not mentioned by the Chinese government.

It is important to understand how the media has lost interest in the Yasukuni Issue. But before doing so, we must reexamine the history and implications of the Yasukuni Issue itself.

Nature of the Yasukuni Shrine

The Yasukuni Shrine was built to promote the idea of the “Yasukuni Spirit”. Takahashi Tetsuya came up with the term  “Alchemy of Emotion,” emphasizing that the Yasukuni Shrine was not purely a religious facility, but indeed a tool that helped military hardliners and the emperor control soldiers, citizens, and bereaved families. According to the Japanese Shintoism, those who were killed during wars cannot became gods, but “avenging spirits” instead. Traditionally, these “avenging spirits” can bring troubles to the world. It will doubtlessly harm the glorious image of the emperor if these deceased patriots end up as “avenging spirits”. The Yasukuni Shrine was therefore built as a way of calming the patriotic “avenging spirits” down.[5]

After 1931, the Japanese nation became actively engaged in WWII, resulting in the death of many Japanese soldiers. As a result, it was essential to recruit more soldiers for the sake of the country. In order to stress the importance of unity, the military government controlled public opinion by promoting the idea of the “Yasukuni Spirit”. Know Your Enemy: Japan, a WWII Propaganda Documentary, states that “(Being a solider) was the greatest honor that man can achieve in Japan, to die in battle and be in the shrine of Yasukuni, where even the emperor comes to bow to you.” Thus, more Japanese soldiers were willing to die for their countries. Such cycle further promoted the idea of “Yasukuni Spirit.”[6] Nakumura, a member of a bereaved family, claimed that he “felt sad when he noticed that his son would never come back home. However, when he recalled that his son had died for the country, and was praised and blessed by the Japanese emperor, he did not only forget about his son’s death, but also became delighted and energetic.”[7] This testament serves as proof of how powerful such an “Alchemy of Emotion” was.

To this day, the Yasukuni Shrine can still be considered a political tool. In 2001, facing criticism from the Chinese government for their war crimes, many Japanese, especially those who did not engage in WWII, started to question how far Japan should go in apologizing for their past. As a result, some aggravated Japanese critics began arguing that Japan should no longer grovel to China. At that particular moment, politicians who appeared revolutionary and resolute were eye-catching in the Japanese political sphere. Koizumi Junichiro, by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and ignoring China’s complains, did appear to be precisely as revolutionary and resolute. He had shown that he was strong enough to say no to China,[8] and in doing so he also successfully dampened any criticism from extreme right-wing Japanese critics.

Although he enraged China and received criticism by many mainstream scholars and mass media in Japan, Koizumi maintained high popularity ratings.[9] And he lost nothing except for some criticism by some Asian countries when he visited the shrine. Clearly, visiting the shrine brought many benefits but almost no harm to him.

It is worth noting that there was also an educational crisis when Koizumi was the Prime Minister. Koizumi and some of right-wing critics suggested that Japanese history textbooks had been hindering the socio-political participation of Japanese teenagers. He would therefore like to encourage teenagers to engage in socio-political activities by visiting the shrine and editing Japanese history textbooks. His plan had raised the Japanese History Textbook Controversies once again and worsened Sino-Japanese relations. At that time, the Yasukuni Shrine was both the symbol of patriotism and a political tool.

Why is the Yasukuni Issue Losing the Media’s Interest?

It is clear that President Xi would like to improve Sino-Japanese relations through People-to-people Diplomacy in 2015, and Abe was prevented from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine under pressure from the United States starting from 2014.[10] However, President Obama has now been replaced by President Trump. Besides, China has been focusing on “One Belt, One Road” and stressing “A Community of Common Destiny,”[11] and China has paid much less attention to Japan. The political environment had doubtlessly changed since then, and heavily influenced the Yasukuni Issue.

According to Mike Mochizuki, because Sino-Japanese relations have worsened, the theoretical expectations of offensive realism on Japan’s response were mainly internal balancing, external balancing with the United States or ‘buck-passing’ to the United States.[12]

Regarding internal balancing, it is believed that the best way to insure Japan’s security in this case would be through a combination of missile defense and her own nuclear forces in order to counterbalance China’s power, because the nation could be vulnerable to China’s nuclear weapon.[13] As a result, China will definitely try its very best to prevent a nuclear Japan.[14] The cost of internal balancing is always extremely high because a large amount of money must be spent on military purposes. Unfortunately, Japan does not have the population nor wealth to fully replace American power, so it is risky for Japan to internally balance China.[15]

Also, the historic atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has raised the anti-nuclear sentiments in Japan. The Cabinet decision on the Development Cooperation Charter in 2015 stated that, in order to “secure Japan’s national interests, it is essential for Japan to work together with the international community including developing countries to address global challenges.”[16] For much of recent history, “Proactive Contributor to Peace” has been the Japan’s international identity. In this case, extending her military power and building her own nuclear weapons might lead to national identity crisis.

Regarding external balancing and ‘buck-passing’, Japan’s national security heavily depends on United States support since WWII. Modern Japan has always been the United States’ ally and has been protected by America’s extended nuclear deterrence. With reference to the Thucydides Trap, when a rising power, which is China, threatens to displace the ruling one (the United States) the ruling power will doubtlessly suppress the rising power. This may foretell a situation in which the United States must deter or possibly fight China for Japan. Japan will inevitably face an alliance dilemma between entrapment and abandonment.[17] In 2016, the Japanese government did not expect that Donald Trump would become the President of United States. His “America First” policy seemed to include a plan to withdraw military support from Japan.

At the same time, North Korea has also threatened Japan with its nuclear weapons. These national security threats were pinpointed by the Japanese mass media; thus, the threat from China and the Yasukuni Issue is relatively insignificant now.

The latest alliance dilemma also motivates the Japan government to become a more independent ally and improve its relations with the Chinese government. Hence, the Japanese government tends not to talk about the Yasukuni Issue, so that defensive realism can be demonstrated by maintaining the balance of power between Asian countries.[18] Japan would like to actively cooperate with China in order to gain economic benefits. Even if China becomes aggressive in the future, it is believed that the United States and other Asian countries will encircle China in order to protect their national interests by stopping Chinese expansion.[19] Japanese media, in this case, does not have any motivation to talk about the Yasukuni Issue too.

Other social and internal political concerns have also taken precedence over the Yasukuni issue. In Japan, gender equality is not upheld. According to the Women and Men in Japan 2017, less than 30% of women take a senior or decision-making role.[20] Nowadays, more and more Japanese have focused on the dilemma of gender inequality. The Abe government, in order to gain support from the public, started to promote gender equality through free day care and kindergarten. PM Abe himself urged women to work at home. These gender-related issues had raised intense discussions among the Japanese mass media.[21] After all, what the Japanese want now is a PM who can promote gender equality, instead of a PM who is brave enough to say no to China. And Japanese mass media, on one hand, has an incentive to help promote the government agenda, and, on the other hand, writes only what the readers want to read in order to attract them. Given these priorities, it is unreasonable for it to focus on the Yasukuni Issue now.

The social stability of China was challenged too. To cite examples, on 22nd November, 2017. News articles titled “International Kindergarten’s Students in Peking Suspected Sexually Abused for One Year” shocked many Chinese.[22] The parents claimed that the students were sexually abused in front of the other students, so that they misbelieved that such sexually abuse was a normal and essential health check. A few days after the incident, the police claimed the parents and kids were lying. Suspiciously, they also stated that all surveillance cameras in RYB Education, the kindergarten at the centre of the scandal, were broken down. As a result, many of the Chinese do not trust investigative journalistic reports and news articles in the People’s Daily. It is clear that the Chinese government has fallen into the Tacitus Trap: no matter whether the news is fake or not, many people deeply believe that the government is guilty. In such case, human security is not guaranteed by the untrustworthy Chinese government.

A day before the RYB Education Incident, a fire broke out at the XiHongMen Housing Block.[23] More than ten thousand poor people lost their home because the government decided to destroy all dangerous apartments after the accident, and so they shivered and suffered. The online news related to the RYB Education and XiHongMen were quickly censored in the name of maintaining social stability. Journalists and activist who went to XiHongmen after the incident were actually expelled by the plainclothes police. Clearly, the Chinese government and its People’s Daily were getting busier and busier to withdraw from the Tacitus Trap; hence, they can hardly care about the Yasukuni Issue. The other online medias which were frequently censored tend to talk about the social instability in China instead of Yasukuni Issue, too.

Furthermore, the Chinese government and its People’s Daily have been focusing on promoting political agendas such as “One Belt, One Road” and “a Community of Common Destiny”[24]. The “One Belt, One Road” was considered as a great opportunity to build a new international order under China as a hegemon. To success, China would try her very best to improve her relations with surrounding countries, including Japan. Therefore, the Yasukuni Issue no longer has high priority in Chinese government agenda.


The Yasukuni Shrine was used as a political tool to gain votes by the Japanese politicians, and the Yasukuni Issue was raised without hesitation by both governments because China has risen and the mutual interests between China and Japan have diminished. It was a dilemma because there were promises that the Japanese government had made, the uniqueness and characteristics of Shintoism, conflicts between bereaved families and loopholes in the Constitution of Japan and International Law.

However, the Yasukuni Issue lost Chinese’s and Japanese’s media attention because Japan’s national security is threatened by an alliance dilemma in the “Age of Trump.” In addition, in the international level, Japan is threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons. While in the domestic level, Japan is challenged by social problems regarding gender inequality. The priority of the Yasukuni Issue has therefore dropped drastically.

In China, the Chinese government tended to spend more time on developing the “One Belt, One Road”. In addition, it has also fallen into the Tacitus Trap due to XiHongMen Housing Block Fire and RYB Education Incident. To sum up, both the Japanese government and Chinese government has to deal with these other important political agendas and troubles first, and they do not have motivations and time to pay attention to the Yasukuni Issue.

About the Author

Li Charles Kwun Yu is a Hong Kong undergraduate at the School of International Studies within Peking University. He enjoys reading books regarding Sino-Japanese relations and has taken a double degree program at School of International Liberal Studies, Waseda University.


[1] Justin McCurry. “Japanese PM to Visit China and South Korea.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Last modified October 4, 2006.

[2] Justin McCurry. “Wen Jiabao’s Visit to Japan Could Signal a Genuine Thaw in Sino-Japanese Relations.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Last modified April 11, 2007.

[3] Sang-Hun Choe. “South Korean Court Rejects Extradition In Attack On Japanese War Shrine”. Nytimes.Com. Last modified Jan 3,2013.

[4] Tao Jiang 蔣濤. “Xi Jingping zhi zhong ri you hao zai min jian liang bu da ying hui ji ri you yi”《習近平指中日友好“根基在民間” 兩“不答應”回擊日右翼》[Xi Jingping point out that the foundation of Sino-Japanese friendship lies in people-to-people, using two no’s to counter Japanese right wing’s argument]. Zhongguo xin wen wang中國新聞網. Last modified May 23, 2015.

[5] Ping Bu 步平. “Reben Jing guo wen ti de li shi kao cha”《日本靖國問題的歷史考察》[Historical Review of Japanese the Yasukuni Issue]. Kang ri zhan zhen yan jiu《抗日戰爭研究》, no.4 (2001):164.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bunzo Hashikawa 橋川文三.“Jing guo si xiang de xing cheng yu bian qian”《靖國思想的形成與變遷》[The formation and change of the Yasukuni ideology],Zhong yao gong lun《中央公論》no.10 (1974):12.

[8] Chunying Kou and Hua Wei 寇春瑩、魏樺. “Jing guo shen she: zhong ri guan xi de yi ge ping jing”《靖國神社——中日關係的一個瓶頸》 [The Yasukuni Shrine: the bottleneck of Sino-Japanese relations], 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Justin McCurry. “Japan’s Shinzo Abe Angers Neighbours and US by Visiting War Dead Shrine.” The Guardian, Last modified December 26, 2013.

[11] Bingchen Han韓秉宸. “Yi dai yi lu wei quan qiu qi ye dai lai zhong da ji yu”《一帶一路為全球企業帶來重大機遇》 [One Belt, One Road brought great opportunities for global enterprises], People’s Daily 《人民日報》, 20 April, 2015.

[12] Mike Mochizuki. “Japan’s Shifting Strategy toward the Rise of China.” Managing the China Challenge Asian Security Studies, 2007. doi: 10.1080/01402390701431832.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mike Mochizuki. “Japan’s Shifting Strategy toward the Rise of China.” Managing the China Challenge Asian Security Studies, 2007. doi: 10.1080/01402390701431832.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Cabinet decision on the Development Cooperation Charter”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan. Last modified 10 February, 2015.

[17] Mike Mochizuki. “Japan’s Shifting Strategy toward the Rise of China.” Managing the China Challenge Asian Security Studies, 2007. doi: 10.1080/01402390701431832.

[18] “Koku nan na ze sen kyo”「国難」なぜ選挙 [Why should we vote when we are facing national disaster (nuclear threats from North Korea). Mainichi Shimbun. October 15, 2017.

[19] Mike Mochizuki. “Japan’s Shifting Strategy toward the Rise of China.” Managing the China Challenge Asian Security Studies, 2007. doi: 10.1080/01402390701431832.

[20] “Women and Men in Japan 2017”. Gender Equality Bureau Cabinet Office. Accessed January 28, 2018.

[21] Reiji Yoshida. “Is Abe’s Free Day Care and Kindergarten Worth the Cost? “. The Japan Times. Last modified 24 October, 2017.

[22] Benjamin Haas. “China: Kindergarten Teacher Arrested In Abuse Scandal”. The Guardian. Last modified 26 November, 2017.

[23] Chris Buckley. 2018. “Fire Kills At Least 19 In Beijing Apartment Building”. Nytimes.Com. Last modified 19 November, 2017.

[24] Zhang Huizhong 張慧中. “Wanlong jing shen dai dai xiang chuan, Zhongguo zuo yong bei shou qi dai”《萬隆精神代代相傳 中國作用廣受期待》 [The Bandung Spirit (seek common ground while reserving differences, peacefully coexist) The utilities of China are anticipated],People’s Daily 《人民日報》, 20 April, 2015. 2015年4月20日版。