Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine picks ex-admiral as chief priest

By Thomson Reuters Mar 14, 2024 | 8:44 PM

By Yukiko Toyoda

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine has picked a former military commander as its chief priest in a move that could stir controversy over a site that other Asian nations see as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Umio Otsuka, 63, a former Maritime Self Defense Force (SDF) commander and a one-time ambassador to Djibouti, confirmed his appointment, which marks the first time since 1978 for an ex-military official to assume the post.

The last retired military officer appointed as chief priest, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, enshrined 14 prominent convicted war criminals alongside the 2.5 million war dead honoured at the shrine, including World War Two-era prime minister Hideki Tojo.

“I feel very honoured that the next stage of my life will be to serve this shrine for peace, where the spirits of those who gave their precious lives for the country are commemorated and honoured,” Otsuka told Reuters.

A spokesperson for Yasukuni Shrine, whose name means “peaceful country” in Japanese, declined to confirm his appointment.

Visits to the shrine by senior Japanese political figures have drawn criticism from countries such as South Korea, which was under Tokyo’s colonial rule for 35 years, and China, which Japan invaded.

Conservatives assert that Yasukuni, which was established in 1869 as Japan emerged from more than 250 years of isolation, is meant to commemorate all the nation’s war dead and is not a shrine dedicated to those blamed for waging war on Japan’s neighbours.

Otsuka’s appointment comes as Tokyo and Seoul deepen security cooperation with each other and their shared ally, the United States, in response to escalating regional threats from China, Russia and North Korea.

No serving Japanese prime minister has visited the shrine since Shinzo Abe went in 2013, prompting an expression of disappointment by then-U.S. President Barrack Obama.

(Reporting by Yukiko Toyoda; writing by Tim KellyEditing by Chang-Ran Kim)