Government Officials’ Visits to the Yasukuni Shrine: Constitutional and Ethical Struggles

“Visits to the shrine by government officials create an ethical and cultural struggle for many Japanese, who are surprised to learn of international reaction to the visits, and yet feel deeply committed to avoiding conflict.”

For those familiar with Japan, the simple mention of the Yasukuni Shrine raises the specter of controversy. The Shrine is an edifice of the Meiji Era that sprung from humble beginnings into the site of international controversy. The shrine was originally created in 1879 to commemorate government soldiers killed in the Boshin War, but it has grown into a symbol of Japanese nationalism, militarism, and historical revisionism, which is controversial to many people within the pacifist culture in Japan, and to people in China, Korea and Taiwan.

Among those enshrined there today are those involved in military expansionism and war crimes. This includes fourteen Class-A war criminals who were secretly enshrined without public knowledge. There are, of course, many enshrined there who did not commit war crimes, but the cultural meaning of the shrine is itself controversial within Japan, which has become a culture deeply rooted in pacifism. Moreover, to many Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese and others, visits to the shrine by high-ranking government officials is an offense. Visits to the shrine by government officials create an ethical and cultural struggle for many Japanese, who are surprised to learn of international reaction to the visits, and yet feel deeply committed to avoiding conflict.

Japan is a constitutional democracy, however, and whether or not visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by the government officials are offensive and ill advised, the question remains whether those visits are constitutional. Most courts to consider the question have held the visits are constitutional, but at least one court, the Osaka High Court, held the visits are unconstitutional. This talk explains why the Osaka High Court correctly interpreted the Japanese Constitution. Moreover, the talk addresses why this approach is consistent with the ethical commitments of many in Japan, who accept pacifism as part of the cultural dasein.

Professor Frank S. Ravitch

Professor Frank S. Ravitch’s career has included experience in private practice and on Capitol Hill. Since joining Michigan State University’s Law College he has authored several books, and a number of law review articles, essays, book reviews, and book chapters, as well as amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the author of Freedom’s Edge: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and the Future of America (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2016); Marketing Creation: The Law and Intelligent Design (Cambridge University Press 2012), Masters of Illusion: The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses (NYU Press 2007); Law and Religion: Cases, Materials, and Readings (West 2004)(2nd Ed. 2008) (3rd Ed. 2015 with Larry Cata Backer), School Prayer and Discrimination: The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters (Northeastern University Press, 1999 & paperback edition 2001). He is co-author, with the late Boris Bittker and with Scott Idleman, of the first comprehensive treatise on Law and Religion in more than one hundred years, Religion and the State in American Law (Cambridge University Press 2015) (this project was supported by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment). He is also co-author of, Employment Discrimination Law (Prentice Hall, 2005) (with Pamela Sumners and Janis McDonald).

Professor Ravitch’s articles, which have appeared in a number of highly regarded journals, have primarily focused on law and religion in the U.S. and Japan, but he has also written about civil rights law and disability discrimination. He has given numerous academic presentations nationally and internationally. In 2001, he was named a Fulbright scholar and served on the law faculty at Doshisha University (Japan), where he taught courses relating to U.S. constitutional law and law and religion. He serves on a Fulbright Review Committee under the auspices of the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars. Complementing his professional service is his commitment to community service; Professor Ravitch has made dozens of public presentations explaining the law before school groups, community groups, and service clubs and has served as an expert commentator for print and broadcast media.

He teaches Torts I, Law and Religion, and Law and Interpretation. His current research projects include an article explaining why the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby harms the Free Exercise of Religion for traditional religious entities. He speaks English, Japanese and Hebrew.​

Professor Ravitch was a Keynote Speaker at The Asian Conference on Ethics, Religion & Philosophy 2014 (ACERP2014) in Osaka, Japan.

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