WEAI Author Q&A: Akiko Takenaka’s “Yasukuni Shrine”

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We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwarpublished by The University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Akiko Takenaka, an associate professor of  history at the University of Kentucky. Professor Takenaka’s book offers the first extensive English-language study of Yasukuni Shrine as a war memorial. It explores the controversial shrine’s role in waging war, promoting peace, honoring the dead, and, in particular, building Japan’s modern national identity. It traces Yasukuni’s history from its conceptualization in the final years of the Tokugawa period and Japan’s wars of imperialism to the present.

We thank Professor Takenaka for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project. 

What is the significance of the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan? How did you become interested in focusing your book on it?

Yasukuni Shrine is one of the main focal points in the international debates on how Japan remembers its wartime past. It is also deeply intertwined with Japan’s domestic politics in the postwar decades as a result of the strong ties that the Liberal Democratic Party has forged with the shrine and all its meanings.

But most writings on Yasukuni Shrine treat it as a political problem rather than a war memorial and an actual space, an actual shrine, with a long history. I wanted to examine its history as well as the spatial practices that took place within the shrine grounds as a way to think about how it became such a complex political issue. I was also interested in the ways the shrine contributed to the making, strengthening, and transforming of Japan’s national identity.

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

Brian Connors Manke Photography (c) UK College of Arts & Sciences

What kinds of archives and sources did you consult during your research for the book? Did you encounter any challenges in researching this history?

Key primary sources include publications by the shrine, including a number of photo albums produced for bereaved families’ visits, newspaper and magazine articles, and memoirs. I conducted interviews and held discussions with numerous people who lived through the Asia-Pacific War in order to better understand the experience of a total war and of the loss of a family member on the battlefront. I also interviewed shrine personnel, and visited the shrine grounds and the Yūshūkan museum numerous times for fieldwork. Secondary sources are countless and continues to appear. I find that they are driven by politics for the most part, but wanted to make sure that I incorporated the arguments that had been made previously. Weeding through as many of them as possible was an enormous task.

How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding about Japan’s postwar history?

I think that a key contribution that my book can make is its coverage of the entire history of Yasukuni Shrine from its pre-Meiji conceptualizations to the present. I attempted undertake the history in a way that would highlight the varying roles and meanings the shrine has had for different people, and how the meanings have transformed over time. My goal here was to demonstrate why Yasukuni Shrine became, and still is, such a political problem, rather than to offer critique or solution, which is what most publications on the topic do. This attempt also involves a critical understanding of the reasons why both supporters and critics of the shrine strongly believe what they do. I took this approach because I believe that a resolution to such a complicated and contentious issue must involve an understanding of beliefs of the other side. I hope that this approach will also be useful in thinking about other pressing matters that Japan faces, including the recent controversies over the “comfort women” issue.

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