“Each article displayed in this museum is filled with the wishes…and sincerity of enshrined deities who devoted themselves to building ‘a peaceful nation’.” ~ Passage from the Yushukan museum’s brochure discussing the “Noble Spirits of Fallen Heroes”
Wait, what? “Peaceful Nation”??
There is good in the world. Over 2,466,000 souls are enshrined as kami at Yasukuni Jinga (see Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more), a total which includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort. There are neither ashes, bodies or bones in the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent. And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide. Remember the dead of those cherished but lost is a good thing.
But there is bad in the world as well. At immediate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes. Depending on your frame of reference, this may not suffer much cause for concern. The wider, larger, more looming issue in the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those deeds entailed. More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are worshiped as gods. Some, maybe even many, suffer concerns of varying degree over such passive pardon.
And then there is ugly, what I’ll classify as an insidious evil. Central to the Yushukan is that it actively attempts to whitewash Japan’s history of crimes against humanity and wars of aggression of the first half of the 20th century in classic Nationalistic fashion.
I have discussed in other blogs the importance of remembering and even honoring the dead when warranted (which holds the bulk of the time), and the situation in Japan, with all its complexities rife with ethical dilemmas (think our own country’s heated debates over Confederate memorials), is no different. No matter your politics or religion, I argue that the vast majority of the almost 2.5M souls enshrined at Yasukuni were poor, uneducated “Joe-Jui-Jitsu Six-packs” who died for the cause, a cause to which they were shamelessly indoctrinated from birth. When the rich wage war, it is the poor that suffer and die the most. In this vein, the crimes of the very few should not outweigh the ignorant innocence of the many. The greater good, in my opinion, should take precedence.
However, I am not so compassionate, understanding or forgiving when it comes to the Yushukan museum of war history, a museum operated by the shrine.
This museum, and in more modern times their website, make clear and unequivocal statements criticizing the United States for “convincing” the Empire of Japan to launch an attack on the United States in order just to justify war with Imperial Japan. There is no discussion of a wider world war in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, Japan’s war of aggression throughout the Pacific is referred to as the “Greater East Asia War.” A documentary-style video portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the 1930s as an effort to “save” the region from imperial advances of the colonial Western powers. Japan foresaw a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a moniker for their own expansionist agenda. Displays portray Japan as a “victim” of foreign influence and meddling, especially the undermining of trade by the United States. It goes on to highlight what it considers “the negotiations to avoid the war with the United States,” an accidental admission which in and of itself insinuates a forgone conclusion to go to war! Notably missing, the museum fails to acknowledge any of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanjing (see Japan’s War Crimes for more), the abhorrent treatment of POWs, and the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and culture writ large.
For instance and specifically related to Okinawa and the Typhoon of Steel which was endured there, there is a moving display of “articles left behind” by the Kinjo sisters, who served as part of the famed Okinawa “Lily Corps”. These high school students were drafted to serve as nurses’ aids and were assigned to cave hospitals around southern Okinawa. These girls, in reality, were abandoned by the Japanese military, and many were pressure to end their lives through mass suicide. However, the museum submits a revisionist version that Okinawan’s roil at: “On June 18, 1945 an order to disband the student corps was issued during a severe cleanup operation by the American forces. However, the Third Surgery bunker was besieged and more than 40 staff members lost their lives.” High school students can barely be thought of as “staff,” and this particular loss of life is egregious by any measure. The monument to these lost girls is one of the most-visited and moving places today on Okinawa, exactly because of Japan’s cold-blooded desecration of her most valuable treasure – her youth….
The museum clearly portrays Japan as diligently negotiating to avoid war at every turn – even as they planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and throughout the wider Pacific basin, and America as being the unreasonable bully hell-bent on controlling and containing Japan. There is no portrayal of aggression by the Japanese. In its place is only a weak, flaccid claim of Japanese self-defense against American and European Imperialists. The museum goes on to claim that Japan went to war with the intent of creating a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” for all Asians, with aims of ejecting various Western powers who had colonized parts of Asia and the Pacific. This argument is nothing more than a thin, transparent veil attempting to cover their unjustified expansionist wars of the 1930s in Korea and China, and the 1940s in Burma, Indonesian, the Philippines, and throughout the Pacific.
Because of this Nationalist stance and odd-ball justification of the slaughter of over SIX MILLION (some estimates put the figure over 10M) Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war, the Japanese Government has been widely criticized by China, South Korea, and Taiwan as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II. My experience throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands has been one of peace, gentleness, and wholesale value for life, but my visit to this museum provides a hint at underlying currents of gross nationalism still present in many dark corners of the Japanese psyche. And while I appreciate being able to see the rare military hardware on display here (sorry, pictures inside not allowed), and many of the relics of those lost are quite moving and well displayed, it is the general feel of this place that lives me, a Westerner, questioning what many Japanese really know about the War, but more importantly, how they feel.
Finely, and perhaps in one of the most insulting aspects of the museum, outside of its main entrance is a memorial plot that one might easily miss. It is homage to Dr. Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the Tokyo Trials in 1946. The pamphlet provided, in English, goes on to state, “Dr. Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalized vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan. Consequently, he submitted a separate opinion recommending that each and every one of the accused be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges….” The text further characterizes the trials as “…the Allies’ craze for retaliation….” While there is some argument about the due process afforded those accused during the war crimes trials in the East (as compared and contrasted against the Nuremberg Trails held in the West), the top Japanese leadership found guilty as Class A War Criminals were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, GUILTY of crimes against peace through the planning and direction of war.
But regardless of politic viewpoint or an inherent revulsion at revisionist history, there is no other comprehensive venue in Japan where someone – Ministers and Emperors included – can pay respect to the fallen in such an embracing fashion. In other words, for many Japanese there is a strongly compelling reason to visit this shrine. And what about those who find the conflict in the adjoining museum’s nationalistic point of view and alternative account of dirty deeds so troubling? Well they can deliberately avoid entering the museum so that their visit remains religious rather than political.
Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently visited the shrine which sparked wide admonition from Asian governments. In an official statement, Abe explained that he wished to “report before the souls of the war dead…the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again. It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of [other Asian] people.”
Can’t fault the man for that. There is good in the world. And it’s high time for the curators of the Yushukan museum to do their part in fulfilling Abe’s pledge.