A final stop: Yasukuni

This summer has provided wonderful chances to learn more about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and peace issues. There are literally too many people to thank to begin here.

It’s been a pleasure to share here a little of what I have experienced during the Fulbright-sponsored research trip. I’m not sure exactly what I will do with this site as I switch to compiling dozens of interviews and writing more extensively about what I learned. But I hope to keep it active for some of what I do with the Hiroshima and Nagasaki material.

Before my return to Seattle on Wednesday, my final full day in Japan started with visit to a Tokyo museum that, like most of my research this summer, focuses on the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s dedicated to telling the unhappy story of the Lucky Dragon 5, a tuna fishing boat that was exposed to large amounts of nuclear fallout from a 1954 U.S. nuclear test in the Bikini Atoll. The crew of 23 was sickened and one member died. The results of the test, as the museum notes, also continue to haunt the Marshall Islands today.

Later in the day, I went to see the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo and, in particular, its museum about the history of the Japanese military. Yasukuni is the site where the souls of Japan’s war dead are memorialized. Visits by top political leaders regularly inflame anger in China, Korea and other parts of Asia about the lack of reflection on Japan’s aggressive and often brutal conduct in World War II.

Much of the problem lies with Yasukuni’s honoring of convicted war criminals. But it’s also the sense among the neighbors that the political establishment in Japan has never come to grips at all with the nation’s responsibility for aggression.

As a Tokyo University professor had told me, the museum was put together with great skill. It has state of the art collections, lighting and displays. And the content had some high points: good context for 20th century events in displays about Western colonization of much of Asia, for instance, and some early reflections on warriors’ motivations and their distaste for the sufferings of war itself. But the displays of the pre-World War II period make the kind of slick argument the professor warned me to expect: Japan was maneuvered into the war by the United States. It was, indeed, a clever script, picking among U.S. documents to make warnings of likely Japanese aggression seem like proof that American officials were forcing Japan to start the war.

I went with a friend, an interpreter who had put aside a couple of days to help me. She said the frequent English displays simply translated the Japanese text they accompanied, something that fit with the rest of the professionalism.

But there were questions of content, tone and meaning that could hardly be softened by the smoothness of the presentation. Some displays glorified the Kamikaze fighters who undertook suicide missions late in the war. Perhaps there are lessons for, say, a future museum with a jihadist theme.

I have no idea how many people were buying into the museum’s version of history. At least three other visitors Tuesday afternoon seemed to be there as observers from a different viewpoint; my friend noted that they were speaking Chinese. A younger woman, perhaps in her 30s, seemed to be providing interpretation to her companions, a man and woman who looked like they could be in their 70s, perhaps her parents.

As the younger Chinese woman and I read one panel about Japan’s military in China during the 1930s, she laughed quietly. It discussed the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident, saying that even though Chinese-Japanese relations were stabilizing (in the wake of Japan’s forcibly installing a puppet government in Manchuria), problems had arisen. The display talked about “terrorism” incited by the Chinese Communist Party. The fight and the eight tragic years of all-out war that followed was blamed entirely on China: “The prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere in China,” the museum says, helped turn “the small incident of Chinese shooting at the Japanese troops” into war across northern China.

A panel or so later, there was no laughing as the two Chinese-speaking women took considerable time to look at a display about the Nanking Incident, generally known elsewhere as the Rape of Nanking. It is generally regarded as a case of Japanese troops engaging in numerous acts of genocidal fury. Not at Yasukuni. “After the Japanese surrounded Nanking in December 1937,” visitors are told, “Gen. Matsui Iwane distributed maps to his men with foreign settlements and the safety zone marked in red ink. Matsui told them they were to maintain strict military disciplines, and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished.” One could conclude that only the Chinese did so, since, after noting a disorderly Chinese retreat, the display seems to return its attention to the city to report: “The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.”

The museum has no problem with directing compassion toward some suffering. One of its final displays talks about the brutal hardships endured by Japanese troops after surrender at the hands of Soviet and Chinese captors: “Their fate was so cruel and their suffering was so great as to defy all description.” The difference between suffering deemed too great for description and that of Chinese victims deemed non-existent lies at the heart of Japan’s continuing and unncecessary troubles with its neighbors.

While Yasukuni is privately operated, it retains significance in part because of how closely it reflects the way considerable parts of the political establishment would like to view Japan’s history. I was glad to see it, both for the chance to get another view on history and to see what are often genuinely touching memorials to the good and decent people who fought for their country.

For all the troubling views Yasukuni sometimes represent, there are many encouraging aspects to how Japan looks at its modern history. The Lucky Dragon 5 museum also stands in stark contrast to Yasukuni. The ship museum is remarkable on a number of fronts, including how it captures the importance of one incident in sparking the anti-nuclear movement in Japan and even the world. Advocacy for nuclear abolition might seem to be a natural birthright in a nation that suffered the only atomic attacks in history, but the fate of the crew brought the issue to life in Japan. The museum, established by the Tokyo metropolitan government, is part of a network of museums dedicated to peace in Japan.

Perhaps more importantly, the evidence I saw suggests that, despite all sorts of ambivalence and differing opinions on national security issues, Japan is reasonably interested in playing a role for peace and nuclear disarmament. Public opinion blocks the conservative politicians who would like, for instance, to revise the constitution and wipe out its noble renunciation of war. And even under conservative governments, Japan has continued to advocate for non-proliferation and serious steps toward disarmament. As we go forward into a world with many dangers, including terrorism and nuclear proliferation, that remains a plus, maybe even something that will prove a blessing for everyone.

Joe Copeland visited Japan on a Fulbright grant.