'Stop Talking About Yasukuni; the Real Problem Is Yūshūkan'

Why a museum matters more than a shrine.
More
Yushukan, the Japanese military-history museum in Tokyo near Yasukuni Shrine. 

The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, and five. Now, another angle: that the real object of attention should not be the famous Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead and a handful of "Class A" war criminals, are honored. Instead, by this logic, it should be the nearby Yūshūkan, 遊就館, or war-history museum, that presents an incredibly tendentious "Japan as victim" interpretation of 20th century events. I mentioned my visit there in the first installment of the series. But let me now turn it over to the readers.  

First, from an American who lives in Japan, is fluent in and works in Japanese language, and has a Japanese spouse: 

Now that everyone is eating their osechi [holiday treats] and I am not getting any more emails on my blackberry, I would like to emphasize again something you pointed out in your original post:

    "As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement."

I think that the discussion of Yasukuni by foreign media outlets presents the shrine itself in a far more anodyne way by just referring to it as a place housing the souls of Japanese war dead that also (almost incidentally) includes Class A war criminals. Thinking about Yasukuni this way makes comparisons to Arlington sound far more reasonable, particularly if one is sympathetic to the sort of "victor's justice" criticisms about the general legitimacy of some of the post-war trials for the crimes of starting the war (ignoring for the moment the crimes of how the war was subsequently fought or those crimes carried out against civilians, which were less the focus of the trials led by the US).

I wish instead that every article about this issue would mention, as you did, the "historical" museum at the shrine, which I visited for the first time when I was studying abroad at [a leading] university here in Tokyo as an undergraduate. Aside from various military memorabilia (e.g., a Zero fighter plane), it portrays on exhibits along the walls of the museum a timeline of the entire war period (which for Japan includes, of course, the fighting in Manchuria and China before the US was involved).

This amounts to a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing. The vast majority of the wall space is taken up with detailing Japan's military victories, with only the last few panels tying up how the US dropped the atomic bombs (causing the Emperor to make the judicious decision to end the war in the interest of the people). As I remember it, not only is there no mention at all of the atrocities committed in China and Korea by Japanese forces, but forces arriving in China are described as being welcomed by the people with open arms. [JF note: that is my recollection as well.]

The museum is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity (in that it is in both Japanese and English, and thus not just for Japanese consumption). It is entirely different to create a memorial to pay somber respect to those who died in a war -- irrespective of the justice of the particular cause the soldiers died for -- than it is to create a memorial that recasts an entire war in a glorified light, including over the widely recognized atrocities committed in that war.

I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai? Or maybe if there was a museum at Arlington that talked about how the slaves were better off under the Confederacy? I think it would be easy to see how the existence itself of any such museum would leave lots of people justifiably furious, let alone patronage of the museum or any associated place by a sitting head of state.

I think any reasonably objective person who visited the museum would realize that, whatever it was intended to be or was in the past, Yasukuni itself has since deliberately and absolutely been made a political symbol of a very specific view of history by certain people in Japan, and is not at all a neutral place that incidentally is shouldering the blame for some past crimes of those interned therein. There is no way that any Japanese politician could visit the shrine without endorsing this same view of history, and be doing so deliberately. I don't think that this is clearly explained in most articles about this topic for international audiences, which I think muddles the issue and allows sympathy for the actions of Abe which is not at all merited.

Similarly, from another Westerner with experience in Japan:

I visited Yasukuni about 1998 I think. It was Golden Week and there were the usual ceremonial displays of old war vets in uniform. The Emperor's Nephew was visiting, I have a photo of the Imperial Police shoving me out of his path while I was trying to take his picture.

I went into the Yuushuukan, the war museum, and was horrified at some of the things I saw. There were displays mapping out Japan's foreign military campaigns, but no mention of the hundreds of years of civil war inside Japan. Japan's naval battles in the Sino-Japanese wars were emphasized as the beginning of Japanese modern military power in Asia. This is a fact, but the display's assertion that this was right and proper, seemed propagandistic.

So I went into the theater that shows a film on 20th Century Japanese military history. The film is pure propaganda dating back to before WWII. It clearly explains the "ABCD Theory," that the Americans, British, Dutch, and Chinese forced Japan into a war it didn't want, by colonizing Asia and monopolizing all the oil, rubber, and other products Japan needed. Japan is clearly laid out as the victim here, they would starve if they didn't fight for "what was rightfully theirs.".

Oh but the war itself is portrayed as liberating the oppressed people from the ABCDs, there is actually a scene in the film of Japanese soldiers advancing into China, handing out rice balls to starving orphan children. What a civilized war! This propaganda absolutely enraged me, particularly when I realized this was exactly the same propaganda forced on the Japanese civilians during the war.

When the film ended, I felt like I was an intruder, witnessing a conspiracy that everyone thought was dead. And the Japanese people who exited the theater were surprised to see a gaijin [literally "outside person," foreigner] had watched the film, some of them seemed embarrassed. One of them saw my angry scowl and asked me what I thought about the film. He talked to me about it at length, saying it was the crazy uyoku [right-wingers] that still promote these ideas, but that the mainstream of society has rejects them. But the uyoku still have influence.

My experience of the presentations in the yuushuukan was entirely negative, even for a Japanese history student like me, although there was a single solitary moment I will never forget. In the display of military gear, there was a tarnished old clip of ammunition. It was a row of about 8 cartridges about 5 inches long, clipped together at the base, ready for insertion into a gun. But these bullets were hit by another bullet. The bullet penetrated through the middle of the first cartridge, then through the second with less power, going right finally coming to a stop at the very last cartridge. One bullet shot perfectly down the length of the clip, taking out the entire clip. I thought that was the perfect symbol for war, bullets being destroyed by a bullet.
 

Similarly, from yet another Japan-observing gaijin:

I've seen a couple of your commenters saying we should just let Japan mourn like any other country, and the world should not interpret Yasukuni as anything more provocative than shrines to war dead everywhere else.

What they're missing is something that is obvious to anyone who visits the place: it is the Japanese who continue to make Yasukuni an offensive symbol. The approach to the shrine is thronged with militaristic right-wing groups and their banners and loudspeakers that glorify Japan's militaristic past. The shrine itself is beautiful and dignified, but next to it sits a well-funded war museum that's run by those right-wing groups. And that museum is as slanted as anything I've seen in a totalitarian country. The "US forced Japan into war" part is quite something -- but I actually found the stuff about the Japanese efforts to bring stability and development to Manchuria and Nanking (!) much worse.

And, just to establish the point, from another outside observer of Japan:

Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, on a horse in wartime.

Japanese (right-wing) politicians often compare Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery, since they insist they are simply honoring Japan’s war dead, something that all nations do. I think they have a valid point. The vast majority of Japanese killed in WWII were unfortunate draftees and it is proper to honor and memorialize them, even if the war they fought in was wrong. (Iraq II and Vietnam are widely considered bad wars in the US, but no one would ever consider not honoring the soldiers who died fighting them.)

The fact that war criminals are enshrined in Yasukuni is often cited as the reason why Japanese leaders shouldn’t visit it. I disagree with this. The Tokyo trials that convicted these “war criminals” are widely considered a joke (unlike Nuremberg) and while the people who were convicted were certainly bad, the trials were extremely arbitrary in who was targeted and many people who had been arrested were quickly given amnesty by the US when the Cold War heated up... 

The main problem with Yasukuni as I see it is the fact that on the grounds of the shrine is a museum that offers an extremely revisionist view of WWII. The museum’s perspective would be extremely offensive to almost anyone, not just Chinese or Koreans, and does not represent the commonly held view of the war among Japanese. In this sense, the shrine is indeed a place that glorifies Japan’s actions in WWII.

Yasukuni, therefore, is not an appropriate site for a national leader to visit. However, there is probably a catch-22, in that any Japanese leader who proposed building a memorial for war dead that could actually be compared to Arlington would at once be denounced by China and Korea (and probably the Japanese public) as promoting militarism.

To end this on a more  constructive direction, consider this note from a well-known  pilot and writer, about one of the under-appreciated aspects of Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942, mentioned here.

I too for decades and decades thought that the main benefit of the Doolittle Raid was the morale boost that it gave the U. S. public, but Winston Groom's new book "The Aviators" gives a fascinating new insight into the most important fallout from that mission.

Yes, America was thrilled to read that we'd bombed "the Japs," and yes, it did cause the Japanese high command to shuffle troop and naval units around to protect against the eventuality of future raids, but the game-changer was that the Doolittle mission unleashed an absolute torrent of semi-hysterical Japanese radio comm while it was underway, some of it in the clear and some coded, and that all of this was read by the cipher geeks in Hawaii and Washington who were soon to break the Japanese Imperial Navy code.  And because of that trove of radio messages to work with, they broke the code in time for the Battle of Midway, when as a result we knew in advance what the Imperial Fleet's movement would be.

As I'm sure you know, the critical 10 minutes of that battle, when the unexpected SBDs sank three Japanese carriers and crippled a fourth (later to be sunk) were the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific.  We can thank Doolittle for that, it seems.
 

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In