Friday, October 28, 2016

Keeing Japanese Nationalism Alive

I had to visit the Yasukuni Shrine during my month here.  It is the place where Japan's war dead are enshrined (their names are written down, so their spirits are essentially here).  Kind of like Japan's Arlington, except it got more controversial in the late 1970s when the names of several war criminals were added.  This meant that every visit by politicians now carries much more weight--that they are seen by the neighbors as paying respect to those who committed war crimes.  Not good. 

To make matters a wee bit more complicated, next to the shrine is a museum that is dedicated ostensibly to Japan's war dead.  What is it actually?  Well, its content has varied over time from being very nationalist, blaming FDR for luring Japan into the war, to being merely quite nationalist.  The challenge of documenting this is that one is not allowed to take pictures inside the museum (except right before the entrace--see below).  This is strange, since it is the only war museum I can remember with such a restriction.  It is not like there are pieces of art or artifacts that would be damaged.  So, I took extensive notes.

What did I note?

  • That the text that came with the Zero here was a bit much--best carrier fighter?  Maybe at the outset, but not by the middle/end of the war.

  • The museum featured a locomotive engine from Thailand/Burma.  I could not help but think that the museum was referencing The Bridge Over The River Kwai.

  •   Next to the locomotive was a howitzer that had served in a variety of places including the Philippines where this particular regiment "surpassed all expectations in the battles of Bataan and Corregidor." Uh huh. 
  • The texts in the first part of the museum mentioned unequal treaties (yep) and referred to the war as the "Greater East Asia War" which is like calling the US Civil War the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States.  The Pacific War is what less nationalist types call it. 
  • The war with China: an incident.  The Nanking Campaign/Incident was sanitized.  
  • The oil embargo was considered to be the cause of the war.  Almost fair, except the context for the embargo seemed a smidge off. 
  • Pearl Harbor?  Admitted it was a surprise attack that "succeeded in destroying the US fleet."  Oh really?  Guess aircraft carriers don't count.  Nor did the attack destroy the vital logistics features that led to a rapid rebound of the surface fleet and supported the submarine campaign that would destroy the Japanese fleet (the US subs get no credit in any Japanese exhibit I saw this month).
  • The discussion of the Special Attack Corps--the Kamikazes--was also presented in a way that was disturbing.  As was the pride in how the last remaining big battleship, the Yamato, went on a suicide mission with no chance of success to Okinawa.  Likewise, the text concerning the human torpedo project was just a bit off-putting. 
Outside the museum, there was some memorials:

To the merchant marine, lost in the war, I think.
To the widows and orphans
At other sites in Japan, I felt a fair amount of guilt--the various shrines and other buildings that had to be re-built after the firebombing of March 1945.  Here, not so much, as the attitude presented here was that the war was something that happened to Japan, rather than something that Japan had a great deal of responsibility in instigating.  Plus the major war crimes are entirely omitted--the Nanking "incident," Bataan, and on and on. The war was especially cruel, and both Japan and the US engaged in barbaric strategies and tactics.  I have to go to the WWII Museum in New Orleans one of these days to see how stuff is portrayed there.  I may not be entirely fair, but, to be clear, a fair amount of Japanese are bothered by how the stuff at this museum depicts the war.

Perhaps I would not have noticed some of the omissions and biased portrayals had I not been expecting it, as I was warned that this museum is fairly nationalist.  On the other hand, I noticed quite quickly at the Hungarian House of Terror the map of irredentism at the beginning. One thing is clear--I did not see anything like this in Germany, where only the fringe views World War II with any sense of pride.  Here, it is not so fringe.  And for the neighbors, China and South Korea in particular, any reverence for the past gives them carte blanche to harp on it rather than moving forward.  Europe and East Asia are so very different when it comes to how countries who were enemies in World War II view each other today (with US-Japan as the main and vital exception).

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