Eirei is a 'term used to honor the spirits of dead persons who performed an outstanding act.'
Today, it can be a politically or ideologically controversial subject.
After the Russo-Japanese War, the word came into use to refer to those who, in particular, died for the country and the 'churei' or 'chukon' (Loyal Souls) of the fallen officers and soldiers who are enshrined at Yasukuni-jinja Shrine and Gokoku-jinja Shrine. Since the Greater East Asia War (Second World War), it has sometimes been used to refer to the spirits of Self-Defense Force officials who have died in the line of duty. Therefore, it is often pointed out that using the word 'eirei' for every person who died in war (the war dead) is wrong.
Consequently, the word often refers to military men in many cases but it is not necessarily limited to them. Koki HIROTA, the only civil official executed as a class-A war criminal, and Kiichiro HIRANUMA, who was not executed, are enshrined together with others at Yasukuni-jinja Shrine, while the students called up for service and the Joshi Teishintai (Women's Volunteer Corps) killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima are also enshrined as eirei at Hiroshima Gokoku-jinja Shrine. This means that death in battle, in other words being killed in action (or being executed by the enemy) is not what it takes to be eirei.
Yasukuni-jinja Shrine also collectively enshrines military men who died of illness during the war (those that were taken ill and died after going to war, not killed in battle). On the other hand, Self-Defense Force personnel who die in the line of duty will be enshrined together at Gokoku-jinja Shrine (through the association of former members), not at Yasukuni-jinja Shrine.
The concept of eirei
In the Shinto view of souls, even after a person dies, the soul lives on eternally, and souls that have been enshrined and appeased will become sorei (ancestral spirits, usually ones which have lost their individuality) to watch over descendants. Based on this idea, the descendants honor the achievements of the deceased, recall their virtues, and thereafter respectfully worship the soul of the deceased at soreisai (ancestral rites) such as anniversaries, Obon (Buddhist festival of the dead) and spring and autumn equinox.
Thus, in Shinto, which dates back to ancient times, worship of sorei by descendants related by blood has existed from the start, although the concept of 'eirei' did not exist. However, in village communities, there arose a belief in ujigami (a guardian god or spirit of a particular place). In addition, under the ancient political system with the emperor at its center, goryo-shinko (the belief that spirits intimidate society) was established to deal with vengeful spirits, and thus malevolent gods were enshrined and appeased. The concept of 'Eirei' is perceived as stemming from ujigami and goryo-shinko.
According to "Nihonjin no tameno kenpo genron" (Principles of the Constitution for the Japanese) by Naoki KOMURO, when we look at the postwar Yasukuni-jinja Shrine from the viewpoint of traditional religious belief, the eirei that are considered to be enshrined there are not eirei in the true sense.
Eirei are to be publicly honored, and it is the fact that 'they died for the emperor' that should be honored. After the war, the Emperor denied being an absolute god (Arahitogami: kami who appears in this world in human form). When the absolute god-emperor ceased to exist after the war, the spirits of the war dead became the object to be appeased. This means that, since the war, there are no eirei at Yasukuni-jinja Shrine because the object to be publicly honored does not exist there. The spirits were supposed to be appeased, carried away by water and become gods to bring blessings to people. However, Yasukuni-jinja Shrine calls them eirei on the presumption that the non-existent absolute god-emperor exists.
After the war, some Buddhist practitioners have reflected on having enshrined 'spirits' that contradict Buddhism and on having been subservient to the concept of eirei.
Now 'eirei' is regarded as one of the core elements in the doctrine of 'State Shinto.'
Masaharu HISHIKI states in 'Religious Considerations of State Shinto' ('Seizan Gakuho,' March 1994) that some religions in the world place little value on expressing doctrine in words, but using the results of religious studies and cultural anthropology, State Shinto doctrines can be extracted without difficulty, and summarizes them as follows:
Holy war: Your own country's act of hostility is always right, and taking part in it is a noble duty.
Eirei: Those who engage in such a battle and die will become gods. Therefore, we enshrine the dead.
Kensho (honoring): Make them (eirei) a model and follow their example.
He also points out in the same article that 'by using the religious tricks of holy war doctrine and eirei doctrine, State Shinto window-dresses the political purpose of involving people in acts of aggression which is embedded in the doctrine of honoring.'
Meaning of 英 (ei)
More often than not, the character 英 (pronounced 'ei' or 'hide') is considered to mean excellence or things that are superior, but in reality it is also pronounced 'hana' or 'hanabusa,' indicating flowers (hana), especially those that don't bear fruit, namely 'male flowers.'
They are called 'mudabana' or 'adabana' in Japanese. Taking into account that one reading of a character never conveniently refers to one thing and that a character has a variety of meanings, eirei can be seen as a perfect word.