Over the Golden Week holidays, I had the chance to visit Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead and the Yushukan, a museum on the shrine grounds that mainly focuses on the military history of modern Japan through World War II. It was my first time to the museum, and it ended up being well worth the 800 yen admission fee, if only to catch a glimpse of mainstream right-wing thought on the war. Without pretending to expertise on the subject, I’d like to give a quick rundown of my visit and some impressions.
We visited on Saturday, and our first encounter was with an outdoor antique market, in full swing despite the light rain. The lineup of wares, while heavily featuring elaborate ivory carvings (a scale model ship was the most impressive bit elephant tusk), were an interesting assortment of Showa-era memorabilia. There were old records, collectible cards of forgotten manga characters, tattered Imperial Army uniforms and medals (one in English, perhaps for colonial conscripts?), waifish, flapperesque mannequin heads, old jade, and many vintage magazines (I especially liked a Takarazuka Revue promotion from the 80s and a playbill/promotion from a Japanese stage production of Gone with the Wind). We bumped shoulders with the middle aged female clientele and traded greetings with the cantankerous older men who ran the shops.
After a quick perusal (we didn’t buy anything out of a desire to avoid filling up the apartment with other people’s musty memories), we walked under the enormous tori’i arch and past the refreshment stand. Some men, elderly but not elderly enough to have fought in WW2, sat in front of the vending machines, decked out in military gear. One wore a t-shirt calling on “all Japanese to be proud” of their Yamato racial heritage. Are those of the Yayoi stock not their compatriots?
We showed our guest the prayer-and-donation area where Koizumi made his controversial visits and turned right, past the memorial sakura grove and the stage to the square in front of the museum.
By my count, there are four major memorials in the square – for war horses, dogs, pigeons, battleships, and Justice Pal, the Indian representative at the Tokyo tribunals who issued a dissenting opinion that Japan was not guilty of waging a war of aggression. He gets quite a large concrete memorial, with his photo and a key quote written in Japanese calligraphy. At first I wondered why Justice Pal, who is neither Japanese nor enshrined at Yasukuni, would warrant higher billing than, say, Tojo or Admiral Yamamoto. But as we shall see later, war crimes, and the legacy of Japan’s ruling elite, are the overwhelming theme of the Yushukan.
As we entered the building, the first things we saw were: directly in front, a locomotive that once ran over the “bridge of death” over the River Kwai; to the left, a Mitsubishi Zero fighter; and the ticket machines (800 yen) on the right.
The museum starts on the second floor, and before the real exhibits begin you can take a look at some “fan artwork”—there is a stylized rendering of a pilot training center, some preserved cherry blossoms from when they were in full bloom last month, and a somewhat odd statue featuring a brave WW2-era Japanese soldier with, if I remember correctly, a woman on his right and a naked boy to the left who would probably be best described as “savage” in the colonial sense of the word.
The first main exhibit is a quick rundown of pre-Edo and Edo period Japan, focusing on the “samurai spirit” that the museum claims has been a consistent code of Japanese warriors. The explanations and displays of armor are accompanied by pictures of the great leaders from Warring States through the WW2 era, with Toyotomi Hideyoshi, uniter of the archipelago, gaining a place next to Admiral Yamamoto, a man who plunged Japan into war with the United States despite having bluntly told Prince Konoe that such a war was unwinnable.
We were then treated to the section on the late Edo period, when the shogun was forced into signing unequal treaties with the Western Powers, a move that would eventually result in civil wars and the “restoration” of the emperor and the construction of modern Japan.
Here the translations were extremely spotty. There was plenty of explanation of geopolitics (the Opium Wars are duly noted for foreign visitors), but several interesting facts were left in Japanese only – for instance, a chart showing the number of foreign ships sighted off of Japan’s coasts in the 19th century (very few until the 1850s), a depiction of attacks on foreigners perpetrated by pro-emperor agitators in the “sonnou-joui” (“respect the emperor, expel the foreigners”) campaign; and no translation of passages showing how that movement turned its anger at the shogunate. Also, no translation of the descriptions of various nations by the Iwakura Mission (“Britain is a model of even development!”)
The message, however, was clear – Japan was forced into national disgrace by a weak shogunate, the pro-emperor faction fought and won control of the country, and it was this faction, and its ingenious leadership, who took Japan deftly into the modern era by learning from the West, renegotiating the unequal treaties, and embarking on the national modernization drive.
For the uninitiated such as myself, it might be perplexing why Yasukuni Shrine would feel the need to spend so much time playing up the events and achievements of the late Edo/early Meiji era. One more obvious motive is the need to characterize the West as a dangerous imperialist power that Japan has needed to deal with since that era. The other, detailed in the section of the museum that outlines Yasukuni’s history, surprised me – Yasukuni Shrine was built in 1869 to commemorate those who died for the emperor in the pre-Restoration civil wars.
From there it was on to Japan’s development and colonial period, which was fairly unremarkable except for the fact that triumphal arches were once a common sight throughout Japan, though most have been taken down. While the Meiji section fascinated me, I will admit that the complicated geopolitics from the first Sino-Japanese war through the Marco Polo Bridge Incident made my eyes glaze over. I will note that Japan’s unsuccessful proposal to the League of Nations to ban all forms of racial discrimination receives prominent mention.
The WW2 section is also quite convoluted. Both this and the previous section seem aimed straight at the hardcore nationalists who are likely the most enthusiastic visitors. The basic story seemed to be, everything was going great (they really nailed the Brits in SE Asia) until “the turning point” and then they were pretty much doomed.
As far as I can remember, there was no section on the home front (no bamboo spears) and not a word about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the interpretation of the bomb is sensitive even in Japan, I guess the rightists didn’t want to get near that.
The immediate aftermath of Japan’s loss is briefly touched on (captured soldiers sent to Soviet gulags, another monument to Justice Pal), and then, finally, after a whole museum dedicated to Japan’s wondrous political leadership, a memorial to the Japanese who died in World War II. The walls are lined with small photographs, along with a profile containing their names, some vital stats, and how they died (in battle, of a battle-related disease, etc.). There are also exhibits of personal effects.
Though this seemed like the logical end of the museum, on our way out there was a final exhibit of the various suicide attack weapons – small fighter planes and manned torpedoes. The sheer size of the exhibits probably dictated their location, but it was a little jarring to see a respectful homage to the countless war dead followed by what seemed like a justification for pointless, desperate suicide missions that came into full use only after the war was a lost cause. The explanation next to the fighter plane implied that the pilots used ejector seats to escape and survive after the attacks. A video in the corner featured a Western reporter interviewing (in fluent Japanese) a surviving kamikaze pilot who seemed to be dismissing the conventional wisdom on kamikaze attacks, but unfortunately I did not stick around for that.
Last week’s visit came well after the museum’s 2006-2007 renovation. Yushukan was widely ridiculed for hyperbolic arguments justifying Japan’s involvement in the war, such as “Roosevelt forced Japan to go to war to lift the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression,” leading some cooler headed conservatives, such as retired diplomat and foreign policy commentator Hisahiko Okazaki, to refine the exhibits and take a more reality-based stab at making the facility’s central arguments.
And overall, the museum benefits greatly from omitting such cheap shots. The views of those involved in the shrine and what it stands for are made much clearer (to name a few: Japan was foisted into the international scene at a time when the great powers were bent on bringing Asia under their domination, good-faith attempts by the Japanese to encourage a more just international system (such as by calling for Korean national sovereignty prior to annexation or by suggesting that the League of Nations proscribe racial discrimination) were constantly thwarted by the West, the denial of Japan’s legitimate interest by the West were ultimately responsible for the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japan fought bravely but was ultimately outmaneuvered).
Personally, though I deeply disagree with the museum’s approach, I am not offended by the mere existence of a rightist war memorial. The arguments made did not seem particularly pernicious or dishonest, though certain claims (such as “Japan had repeatedly proposed national independence for Korea, but the West rejected the idea” prior to formal annexation in 1905) seemed kind of disingenuous. I am not in much of a position to make a strong case for or against most of the claims, but a private group, especially one so highly revered and with such a key role as Yasukuni, has every right to make an argument from a certain historical perspective.
But despite the outward appearance of officialdom and authoritativeness, Yasukuni could never be a “national” war memorial. The endless beatification of the Japanese ruling elites, including the bunglers who brought about Japan’s destruction in World War II, is as insulting as it is undeserved. The deaths of millions of Japanese, and the complete upending of the society, gets barely an afterthought, not to mention the destruction wrought by the war. In their place are the aforementioned lengthy historical diatribes and minutely detailed geopolitical analysis. Mrs. Adamu commented that it was like a three-dimensional edition of a typical Japanese textbook – lots of names and dates to memorize, not much context.
I had a hard time deciding whether the planners of the museum were simply carried away with respect for the war leaders and the voyeuristic lure of political intrigue, or if they were more interested in refuting the charges of “aggression” and absolving the “So-called Class A War Criminals” to quote the title of a prominent right wing manga on the subject.
This relentlessly defensive tone misses the point of what a war memorial should be about. When average Japanese talk about the war, only rarely will someone bring up the war leaders or the Powers. Mostly people bring up their personal, first/second/third-hand experiences – grandfathers who brought back souvenirs from Manchuria, memories of hunger in the early postwar years, and on and on. Where is the memorial for them?