historiography

The story of World War II according to Japan’s controversial war museum

August 15, 2014
August 15, 2014

On the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II today, dozens of Japanese cabinet ministers and lawmakers wearing dark suits quietly paid their respects at Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors many considered war criminals, as well as over two million other Japanese war dead.

South Korean officials and Chinese media criticized the visits—South Korean president Park Geun-hye said officials were only pushing Korea and Japan further apart, while Chinese media accused Tokyo of “reviving militarism.”

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A group of lawmakers walk after offering prayers at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo August 15, 2014, to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday sent a ritual offering to a Tokyo shrine to war dead but did not join cabinet ministers in a visit, seen as an effort to avoid further inflaming ties with China as he seeks a summit with Beijing. REUTERS/Yuya Shino
Lawmakers visiting the Yasukuni shrine on Aug. 15th.(Reuters/Yuya Shino)
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Members of nationalist movement "Ganbare Nippon" holding Japanese national flags gather under the huge Torii gate at the Yasukuni shrine while paying tribute to the war dead in Tokyo August 15, 2014,
Members of nationalist movement “Ganbare Nippon” gather under the huge Torii gate at the Yasukuni shrine.(Reuters/Toru Hanai)

The visits to the shrine come at time when relations between Japan and its neighbors are strained. Over the past few months China has waged a public relations war against Japan, releasing archived diaries of Japanese soldiers detailing violence and the torture of Chinese citizens. The Japanese government has recently approved a reinterpretation of its post-war pacifist constitution that will allow the Japanese military to defend its allies, and it pledged to slightly increase military spending. Both moves drew China’s condemnation.

But the truly provocative site for those worried about the creep of Japanese militarism or historical revisionism is a few meters from the shrine: the Yushukan, a small, squat, yellow and white war history museum that’s rarely mentioned during the diplomatic impasses caused by official visits to the shrine.

The Yushukan, whose name “Yushu” means “to associate and to learn from high-principled people,” features rather glib explanations of events before and during World War II. Exhibits gloss over the violent six-week ransacking of the Chinese city Nanjing in the winter of 1937, for example, and proudly display the locomotive car of a train for the Thai-Burma railway, which was constructed by thousands of prisoners of war from the UK, Australia and elsewhere, many of whom died building it. The museum also says that the US forced Japan into war.

The museum is not run by the Japanese government, but by the same religious corporation that administers the shrine—a connection that, for some, makes visits by Japanese officials to the shrine much more political than they claim. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not visit the shrine today but sent a gift. Thousands of regular citizens, including nationalists dressed in old military uniforms, paid their respects.

A Japan's national flag flutters among visitors at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo August 15, 2014, on the 69th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday sent a ritual offering to the Tokyo shrine to war dead but did not join senior government officials in a visit, a decision meant to avoid inflaming ties with Beijing as he seeks a Sino-Japanese summit.

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Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march in front of the gate of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo August 15, 2014, to mark the 69th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two.
Men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers march in front of the gate of the Yasukuni Shrine.(Reuters/Yuya Shino)

The Yushukan espouses a minority view within Japan—the Japanese education system, for the most part, has long stressed pacifism and regret over the war—but the museum’s exhibits do reach a substantial number of people. About 300,000 people visit the Yushukan every year, the museum tells Quartz, about an average of 821 people a day.

“The museum and the shrine now stand less as anything to do with history and everything to do with erasing Japan’s modern past,” Alexis Dudden, an expert on Japanese history at the University of Connecticut, tells Quartz. “It isn’t the museum per se that has spread such views in Japanese society…but it certainly is lavish confirmation.”

Here are some of the museum’s historical claims:

The Thai-Burma “Death Railway” was actually just a railway

Visitors entering the museum are greeted with the locomotive car of the Thai-Burma railway, built to transport military supplies from Bangkok to Burma and better known in other parts of the world as the “Death Railway.” It is estimated that 13,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 native laborers died while building the railway.

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(Quartz)
Tap image to zoom
(Quartz)

America started the war

Until 2007, the museum maintained that America had tricked Japan into war in order to help the US economy, then in the throes of the Great Depression. That language has since been deleted, but the exhibit still lays blame on the US for launching an oil embargo that “triggered the war” with Japan:

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(Quartz)

The “Nanking Incident”

In 2010, the Chinese and Japanese governments released a report with both sides acknowledging for the first time that Japan had committed atrocities during its campaign to take China’s then-capital, Nanjing, between 1937 and 1938. Historians estimate that between 20,000 and 200,000 Chinese civilians and soldiers were killed and thousands of women raped—but the Yushukan skates over any mention of casualties. The only reference to what China calls the “Rape of Nanking” is a placard about the “Nanjing Incident”:

 “After the Japanese surrounded Nanking in December 1937, Gen. Matsui Iwane distributed maps to his men with foreign settlements and the Safety Zone marked in red ink. Matsui told them that they were to maintain strict military disciplines and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished. The defeated Chinese rushed to Xiaguan, and they were completely destroyed. The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.”

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(Quartz)

Japanese occupations across Asia were definitely a good thing

Japan occupied over a dozen former colonies and other territories throughout the Asia Pacific during the war. While the number of those killed by Japanese soldiers as well as the treatment of occupied territories is still up for debate, Japanese soldiers may have killed as many as 30 million Filipinos, Burmese, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Chinese.

In an exhibit, the museum describes these occupations as for the good of the region. “Even the verb forms create a general sense that the Japanese had no choice but to sacrifice themselves and their national wealth to liberate the hapless Asians from the evils of white imperialism,” Dudden said.

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(Quartz)
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(Quartz)

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