Education About Asia: Online Archives

Spirits of the State: Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine

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One of the most difficult issues to teach and explain, whether in the classroom, in public forums, or in friendly conversations, is the seemingly implacable rift between Japan and its neighbors. Sixty years after a catastrophic war in the region, when one would think time would have healed at least some of the wounds, the divisions between the countries in East Asia appear to be growing wider rather than narrowing. Political concerns go a long way to explicate these divisions—the rise of China, rising nationalism as national borders are reified rather than erased, the calculation that Japan needs to hew closely to the US to counter the growing power of China, and the unpredictable outcome of the Korean mess next door—but they are not enough.

The 2005 film, Spirits of the State, by John Nelson, an anthropologist of Japanese religion at the University of San Francisco (whose Center for the Pacific Rim produced the film), is a welcome—if flawed—addition to our teaching toolbox. I look forward to using it in the classroom, in public discussions, and in teacher training, but a number of caveats are in order. This film has inexplicably uneven “production values” (its unlevel sound and jumpy film action are acknowledged in an unusual apologetic note by Films for the Humanities and Sciences packaged inside the DVD cover), along with often jarring and unexpected lapses in content and interpretation. Thus it must be used carefully and, I would suggest, only in conjunction with other resources. I will certainly use this film, but I will also continue to have students read Bix and Breen on Yasukuni, as well as Hardacre’s work on Shinto and Nelson’s own work on shrines. (note 1)


1. Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Perennial Books, 2001); John Breen, “Yasukuni Shrine: Ritual and Memory,” Japan Focus, Article 293; Helen Hardacre, Shinto and the State 1868–1988 (Princeton University Press, 1991); John Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine (University of Washington Press, 1996); Nelson, “Social Memory as Ritual Practice: Commemorating Spirits of the Military Dead at Yasukuni Shinto Shrine,” Journal of Asian Studies (May 2003).