Yushukan…or…Just a Nationalistic Scam??


“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”

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials - not such a peace-loving guy....

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials – not such a Peace-Loving Guy….

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.

Prayers to the War Dead

Prayers and Respect for the Dead

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.

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

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.

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum's Lobby

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum’s Lobby

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.

A Steam Engine used on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway," the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians

A Steam Engine, used on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” displayed in the museum’s lobby.  This was the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians used as slave labor in its construction.  The museum only mentions what an incredible engineering feat it was, and accomplished by the Japanese….

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….

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives.  They were pressured and brain-washed to kill themselves rather than face rape and torture by the Americans.  Or so they were told….

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.

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

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.

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

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.

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World.  Picture at the Yasukuni Shrine, 2015.

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.

Liberalism and "Truth" are Sometimes a Scary Combination.

Liberalism and “Truth” are Sometimes a Scary Combination.  I’m pretty sure Japan started a War of Aggression with the United States….

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.”

Monument to War Widows

Monument to War Widows

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.

Kure Maritime Museum: The tragic story of Battleship Yamato


A NOVA episode detailing the story of Battleship Yamato

Ensign Nakatani, of the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, was the only American aboard the Japanese battleship Yamato when it sank in 1945. As a Nisei, the term for second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the outbreak of war with the United States in 1941 caught him off-guard as he was studying in Japan. Bilingual and familiar with America, he found himself immediately pressed into service for the Emperor, serving as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese. Like most Nisei, he was treated with great disdain and suspicion by the ultra-nationalistic Japanese. Nakatani, his communications with his stateside family severed, and was unable to contact his parents or younger brothers. He was alone.

Yamato Scale Model

Yamato Scale Model

Only as he departed from the Japanese city and shipyards of Kure on the Yamato‘s last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive his first and only family contact during the entire War. A single letter, from his mother, written years earlier had meandered through the channels of the International Red Cross, finally finding its way to him in Japan via Switzerland. The letter read, in part, “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model on display WM

But peace was not to come in time for Nakatani. According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s memoirs in Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. Such tragic stories are solemnly told in the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly known as the “Yamato Museum,” located in Kure, Japan.

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Yamato under Construction

Yamato under Construction

Yamato (大和) was the lead ship of the Yamato class of Imperial Japanese Navy World War II battleships. During the 1930s, as the Japanese became ultra-nationalist with views to expand their Empire, new designs for heavy fighting ships were begun. The Japanese recognized that they would simply be unable to match the output of U.S. war machine once war broke out, so these massive vessels were designed to engage multiple enemy battleships at the same time, and engage them first with very long-range guns. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed, displacing 72,800 tons and armed with a main battery of nine 18.1 inch main guns, the largest caliber naval artillery ever fitted to a warship, which gave the ships an unmatched range 26 miles. Formidable by any standard, by 1945 her secondary battery comprised six 6.1 inch and twenty-four 5 inch guns. For more close-in defense against aircraft, Yamato carried an astounding 162 anti-aircraft guns of 25mm! Despite this protection, neither ship survived the war.

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

Yamato Underway

Yamato Underway

Laid down in 1937 and formally commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she served as the flagship during the Battle of Midway, a disastrous defeat for Japan in the middle of 1942. After the initiative of the war in the Pacific shifted to the Americans, the battleship remained in the vicinity of the Japanese-held Island and anchorage of Truk for much of 1943-1944, and played little part in any battle of significance. Yamato fired her main guns at American surface ships only once in late 1944 with little effect.

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scale model from the stern WM1945 saw the Japanese suffering a crippling loss of fuel oil, raw materials, and general supplies, and in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance on the Japanese “home” islands, Yamato was dispatched on a one-way mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed. Allied forces invaded Okinawa on 1 April 1945, and facing American boots on Japan soil proper, the imperial war machine responded in desperation with a mission codenamed “Operation Ten-Go” that would see the suicidal commitment of much of the remaining strength of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Yamato and nine escorts (one cruiser and eight destroyers) would sail to Okinawa and, in concert with kamikaze and Okinawa-based army units, attack the Allied forces assembled on and around Okinawa. Yamato would then be beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement and continue to fight until destroyed. In preparation for the mission, Yamato was fully stocked with ammunition, but not enough fuel for a return voyage. Designated the “Surface Special Attack Force,” the ships sortied on the afternoon of April 6th, 1945, the same day the USS Emmons was sunk by kamikazes off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula (see my blog Wreck of the USS Emmons for more).

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scout float-plane on the Battleship Yamato WM

The Yamato’s task force, however, was spotted by an American sub as it sailed south of Kyushu, and on April 7th, 1945, she was sunk by American carrier-based aircraft with the loss of vast majority of her crew.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese standard on the bow WMThe Allies had been decoding Japanese radio traffic for some time, and were well aware of Japan’s intent. Further, numerous American submarines spotted the Special Attack Force as it sailed south, but were unable to attack due to the ships’ high speed evasive maneuvering. They were, however, able to radio position, course and speed to the American fleet waiting to the south. With these reports, the Allied forces around Okinawa began to brace for the Special Attack Force’s assault by placing six battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers on alert to intercept Yamato if aircraft-carrier based planes were unable to stop the group from reaching vulnerable Allied transports and landing craft.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, admiring the ship's model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, armed Japanese Zero WMYamato’s crew was at general quarters and ready for action as dawn broke over cloudy skies on April 7th, 1945, only a day out of port. The first Allied scout aircraft made contact with Battleship Yamato at 8:23am, catching glimpses of their bright wakes playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. The group of ships was then shadowed by the America aircraft for the next few hours as the Allied Fleet Carriers readied their aircraft for strikes. At around 10:00am that morning, Yamato held radar contact with the first wave of Allied attack planes, American F6F Hellcat fighters which were sent to sweep the skies over the battleship clear of Japanese aircraft. The Yamato and her escorts, however, were sent without air cover.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, bow on Yamato scale model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, 13mm aircraft machine gun WMAt about 12:30pm, a large raiding force of 280 bomber and torpedo aircraft arrived to stop the Yamato’s advance. As the Yamato increased speed to 24 knots and her destroyers closed to provide anti-aircraft fire, the Allied attack started at 12:37pm. The Yamato initially remained unscathed, throwing up an almost impenetrable wall of large and small-caliber defensive fires. But at 12:41pm, time quickly ran out for the proud ship. Two bombs obliterated two of her triple 25 mm anti-aircraft mounts and blew a hole in her deck, where fires started and raged. A third bomb exploded in quick succession, destroying her radar room and more of her secondary battery. Within minutes, two more bombs struck the battleship’s port side, causing significant damage to the ship’s main battery guns.

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

Yamato under Attack

Yamato under Attack

As the dive bombers attacked from almost directly overhead, the torpedo bombers started their attack runs at near sea level height. Splitting the ship’s defensive fire, already greatly reduced by exploding bombs, four torpedoes ran home and struck Yamato, damaging this ship’s boilers, engines and steering gear. The attacking swarm spent, the aerial assault ended as quickly as it started at around 12:47pm. In ten short minutes, explosion after explosion left the battleship listing 5–6° to port and on fire, her top speed significantly reduced, and with most of her unprotected 25mm anti-aircraft crews killed or wounded.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, battleship scale model 3 WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model WMThe ship was now easy to find, a thick plume of black smoke beckoning other approaching waves of aircraft. Suffering reduced maneuverability and sharply curtailed anti-aircraft capability, the second wave of Allied planes found a much easier target. Starting at just before 1:00pm, the Americans again swarmed the battleship, attacking simultaneously from above and on level from all directions. Three or four torpedoes found their marks, their massive explosions furthered reducing steam to the ship’s engines and dramatically increasing flooding. Yamato was now listing perilously 15–18° to port, but the ship’s crew was able to counterflood and reduce the list to 10°. Although the ship had so far absorbed a massive amount of punishment, she was still in no real danger of sinking.

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Still a third attack wave was launched and struck beginning at about 1:40pm that afternoon. At least four bombs hit the ship’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among Yamato’s remaining 25 mm anti-aircraft gun crews. More serious though were four more torpedo impacts, resulting in flooding that was almost uncontrollable. With the auxiliary steering room now completely flooded, the ship lost all maneuverability and became stuck in a starboard turn. Yet the ship and her crew fought on.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, heavy caliber deck guns B&W WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter 5 WMThe fires and flooding began to take their tool, and by about 2pm that afternoon, the ship could only make 10 knots through the water with a steadily increasing list. Fires forward near the ship’s main battery raged out of control, and alarms were sounding about temperatures in the ship’s magazine. At 2:02pm, the order was given to abandon ship since the crew was unable to flood the vital and dangerous ammunition storage areas to keep them from exploding.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, crew and idle guns WM

Yamato Explodes

Yamato Explodes

The final assault began at 2:05pm. Torpedo bombers once again scored more hits. The battleship continued her inexorable roll to port, losing all power 2:20pm. Three minutes later, Yamato capsized, and as she rolled, one of the two bow magazines detonated in a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud almost four miles high that was seen for hundreds of miles. Yamato sank rapidly, quickly killing over 3,000 of her crew. Only 269 sailors survived the onslaught, while the Allies lost only ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, breech of a heavy naval gun WM

Kure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Museum, Akishio SS-579 crewmember volunteer WMKure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Kure Museum, Akishio SS-579 submarine made by Mitsubishi WMIn 2005, the “Yamato Museum” was opened near the site of the former Kure shipyards where the battleships were built. The centerpiece of the museum, occupying a large section of the first floor, is an almost 90 foot long model of Yamato at an amazing 1:10 scale. For naval historians and those interested in learning about how such engineering genius and manufacturing acumen could result in such tragic circumstances, this museum is a must-see. Although a small fee is charged, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Kure Museum, located right across the street, is totally free. The two museums complement each other in dramatic fashion, and make for a wonderful day of discovering Japanese Traces of War.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It's free.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It’s free.

When you do visit, please take a moment or two to contemplate and honor Nakatani’s fate. Born in a different time, place, and circumstance, we all could have suffered the same, as many do today.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, enjoying the Yamato museum together

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/supership/producer.html

WWII Photos used licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time 2 WMEyes of crudely mounted photographs, pre-death mug shots in essence, seem to follow as Jody and I moved silently through the horrific halls of S-21. The peering stares of over 6,000 men, women and children unknowingly destined for demise seem to plead for intervention. Perhaps the saddest photo is that of a young mother and her baby lying by her side, blankly staring into the camera with an almost vacant expression of indignant resignation. All those photographed shared a tragic predicament – not knowing that they were facing imminent death just at the moment their photos were being taken – a commonality which results in a profoundly unnerving experience for any viewer.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), mom and baby victims WM

In early January 1979, on a bright and breezy Cambodian wintery afternoon, heavily armed Vietnamese military reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign beginning the previous Christmas Day. Vietnam had had enough of the obnoxiously militant culture that the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge of Democratic Kampuchea (“DK,” how the régime referred to Cambodia) had installed. And in an interesting turn of events just a handful of years after their victory over the Americans, Vietnam was doing something about the brutal, genocidal, suicidal régime next door when no one else in the world would.

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prisoner transport WMThe Khmer Rouge was taken aback in surprise by the rapidity of Vietnam’s assault. After barely two weeks of fighting, Cambodia cracked open as easily as that of a raw egg. The Khmer Rouge dissolved into the rural jungle and countryside just as quickly as it had appeared, while the invaders were welcomed as liberators by nearly every Cambodian who was left behind. Those people, altogether terrorized and literally exhausted by nearly four years of undernourishment, back-breaking labor, and widespread fear and executions, were ready for change. They were simply looking for peace, safety and security after decades of war in Southeast Asian, followed by a years-long internal civil war, and finally from the wretched atrocities suffered by their own peoples’ hand.

White Graves of 2 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

White Graves of 4 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building A 2 WMAs the Vietnamese troops secured the city, two photojournalists accompanying the invasion were drawn by the unmistakably smell of decomposing bodies. As they approached the silent source of the foul odor they noticed a large fenced compound topped with dense, electrified coils of barbed wire. The entrance gate was only marked with a single Revolutionary sounding slogan in Khmer colors of red and white: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the Country, the People and the Party.” Nothing else identified this curious place.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building C WM

Once inside, though, the photogs found themselves on the grounds of what had once been a large school, about two city blocks in size, consisting of four three-story buildings in the shape of a right-hand bracket (if facing north), each with open-air breezeway balconies on their successive floors. An additional single-story building, found littered with papers and office equipment, split the compound, dividing it into nearly identical halves.

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

It was the rooms of the building on the southern end of this arrangement that brought the first horrors. Here the journalists discovered several murder victims, some still chained to simple iron bedframes, in rooms almost complete barren. Most had suffered numerous serious injuries, but almost all had their throats slashed, and the blood pooled below the beds, although congealing, was at places still wet. In total, 14 victims were found, killed only a couple of days previously.

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 10 WM

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

But what was discovered in the other buildings is what started to illuminate the sinister nature of the place: heaps of ankle shackles, hundreds of handcuffs, whips of various material, and lengths of chain and electrical cord. Other former classrooms had been crudely divided into cells by clumsily bricked partitions, while others still had more elaborate and larger cells created by wooden walls and doors. Metal American 7.62mm ammo boxes in some of the cells contained human feces. The Vietnamese had stumbled into a vicious and important Khmer Rouge killing facility known as S-21, “S” standing for “santebal,” a Khmer term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police).

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

S-21 now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the auto-genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970s under the inhuman Khmer Rouge régime. Tuol Sleng translates roughly as “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” and was but one of at least 150 execution centers dispersed throughout the country. Although some estimates put the death toll from S-21 as high as 20,000, a more accurate number is probably somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000.

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to adapt the school as a prison. The buildings were cordoned into a compound enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, windows were covered with iron bars, and balconies covered with a thick matrix of razor wire to prevent suicidal leaps from the upper floors.

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

At any one time, the prison held as many as 1,000–1,500 prisoners. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Western-propped Cambodian Lon Nol regime and consisted of mostly soldiers and government officials, but also included academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. But during early 1977, when the Khmer Rouge enacted large-scale internal purges, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived.

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

Most lower-ranking prisoners at S-21 were held for a few days or weeks, whereas more important ones and those suspected of grave offenses were routinely incarcerated for several months. Thousands of prisoners, regardless of their perceived importance, had undergone interrogation, prepared concocted confessions admitting counter-revolutionary crimes up to several hundred pages long, and submitted lists of their friends, family and associates entitled “strings” that sometimes ran to several hundred names. These false indictments kept the cycle of paranoia and death endlessly flowing. All the dots making up each string were ultimately “smashed.”

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Few prisoners maintained their innocence for long under the torture widely inflicted at S-21. Considered guilty by the very fact that they were arrested in the first place, prisoners were all expected to confess their imaginary associations with the West and the CIA, or with the East and the KGB, or worse yet, with Vietnam in writing before they were taken off to be “smashed,” the Khmer euphemism for murder. Routinely beaten and shocked with electricity, nearly drowned by water-boarding and forced submerging, burned with searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, cut with knives and hung to near-death, prisoners confessed to that with which they were charged.

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), instruments of torture WMThe buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site has four main buildings, the first of which holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims of the prison were discovered. The second offers gallery after gallery of photographs of those tortured and ultimately executed. The third presents the original classrooms which were sub-divided into smaller cells for prisoners, while the final holds some interesting artwork by former S-21 inmate Vann Nath depicting torture alongside the actual instruments pictured. The last classroom of the last building contains a small Buddhist altar and stupa (burial tower), and empties into a large courtyard which features a remembrance memorial to the victims and the atrocity which occurred there.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), barbed balconies WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 8 WMMost of the rooms of the first building are bare, containing only a rusting iron bedframe, along with a black and white photograph hung on a wall. The grisly photo reflects the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each, the mutilated, bloated and decomposing body of a prisoner is shown, usually chained to a bed situated over pool of still-wet blood, obviously and brutally murdered by their fleeing captors only a day or two before the prison was uncovered.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 6 WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP brother shackled in prison WMThe other buildings display about 6,000 silent, melancholy portraits. Some of the striking black and white images portray shock, while others reflect a depressed resignation. Others portray confusion. While it’s the scenes of mass graves and thousands of bones which are used to capture the imagination, the most haunting images are these stark portraits taken and preserved by the Khmer Rouge at S-21. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from their respective records, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time WM

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

The museum today helps to provide an organized archive of Cambodia’s brutal past in the hopes that history will not be repeated. Combined with the Killing Fields close by at Choeung Ek (see Seeing The Killing Fields for my blog about that depressing place), it’s hard to escape the brutal reality of the evil which infected these places. For survivors, the vast and seemingly random cruelties of the Khmer Rouge are captured and effectively condensed in the museum’s displays. The indifference of the DK government officials, exhibited in room after room, is all too clear for anyone to see. But the museum, at times, overly represents the Khmer Rouge as a homogenous group of indoctrinated fanatics, the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for most of the unhappiness of the Cambodian people. While this may be an easy or attractive explanation, it falls well short of the much more convoluted complexion of the Khmer Rouge phenomenon of the 1970s.

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

A visit to S-21 is at once disorienting. There is a stark, esoteric contrast between the now peaceful, green and sun-soaked compound against the horrific exhibits and photographs on display. There is an almost unbelievable dichotomy between the sounds of children playing outside superimposed over the silent induction photos of the many children and teens which were held at S-21 and ultimately smashed. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), ankle shackle and rebar restraint WM

Together with a visit to the museum’s companion Killing Fields, the experience can be profoundly depressing, one our guide referred to as our “Sad-Sad day of touring.” While a broad debate continues to rage over the nature and appropriateness of “dark tourism,” I remain steadfast in my own personal convictions that we must experience such places firsthand. Only when the darkest aspects of the human spirit are seared into our collective consciousness will the evil that lurks in the shadows be remembered and banished from our civility.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), never forget the crimes WM