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A trip around the Yushukan, Japan’s font of discord

Yasukuni war museum is forever hostage to a doctrine that eschews balance or remorse

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

Eight months on, the diplomatic shock waves from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December continue to reverberate. The Chinese and South Korean leaders still refuse to meet one-on-one with Abe, with Beijing seeking assurances from Tokyo that the premier will not make another visit to the contentious site as a precondition for talks.

The main bone of contention between Japan and its neighbors regarding the shrine is generally considered to be the enshrinement of 1,068 war criminals, and in particular 14 Class-A war criminals, alongside the souls of millions of Japan’s war dead from all the nation’s conflicts since 1868. But often overlooked in discussions about Yasukuni is the poisonous role played by the Yushukan, the war museum built within the shrine grounds to promote the nationalist ideology that has become known as the Yasukuni doctrine.

As Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University, explains, this doctrine holds “that all the wars Imperial Japan has fought in modern times were wars of self-defense. Therefore, the people who died while fighting for the country’s peace and safety — not only the soldiers, but even nurses and other civilians who were killed on the battlefield — should be commemorated and treated as deities. Also, as a logical conclusion, those conflicts are never treated as wars of aggression.”

Abe has made no secret of his adherence to this doctrine. He has issued statements casting doubt on the idea that coercion was involved in the recruitment of wartime “comfort women,” questioned the guilt of those convicted of war crimes by the Tokyo tribunal and suggested that Japan’s wars in Asia were defensive rather than aggressive. As a lawmaker in 1997, Abe founded the nationalist Institute of Junior Assembly Members Who Think About the Outlook of Japan and History Education and led the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which released a revisionist school textbook in 2005 that was accused of playing down Japan’s rampage across Asia in the 1930s and ’40s.

A Chinese government statement on the Yushukan goes as far as to call it “the most important part of the Yasukuni Shrine and a key facility to glorify Japan’s war of aggression.” It continues: “A false view of history, embodied in the captions and exhibitions in the museum, blatantly advocates militarism and a wrong perspective on history, glorifies militarists and whitewashes Japan’s acts of aggression.”

Perhaps mindful of criticisms from abroad, in 2006 the administration of Yasukuni Shrine asked former diplomat Hisahiko Okazaki to modify some of the Yushukan’s more offensive exhibits.

“My primary objective in modifying the exhibits is to protect the intellectual integrity of Yasukuni Shrine,” Okazaki wrote in The Japan Times in February 2007. “The principal yardstick for alterations is to remove inappropriate expressions that may be viewed as intellectually dishonest or far-fetched.” Perhaps anticipating that he would be criticized for his involvement in the project, Okazaki added the caveat, “Every modification and addition does not reflect what I proposed.”

So, is the Yushukan any less offensive after Okazaki’s work? What can we learn about the Yasukuni doctrine from a tour of the museum?

I recently visited the museum for the third time to see how it looks after undergoing several renovations, and in order to assess Okazaki’s work. This time, I asked Shaun O’Dwyer, an associate professor at Meiji University’s School of Global Japanese Studies, to help me interpret the huge mass of information available at the museum.


While most outdoor exhibits were moved inside in 2002, a few monuments have been left outside the building, among them the statue of a kamikaze pilot and a tribute to the late Radhabinod Pal, a jurist who represented India at the 1946 Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and gained Japanese nationalists’ eternal gratitude when he famously stated that in his opinion, none of the defendants were guilty, including the infamous 14 Class-A war criminals who were enshrined at Yasukuni in 1978.

Pal is one of a handful of foreigners whom Japan’s nationalists like to hold up as representatives of an enlightened minority overseas that acknowledges the country’s past innocence and good faith. What they conveniently seem to forget is that Pal actually condemned Japan’s wartime conduct as “devilish and fiendish.” His reluctance to back the 1946 war-crimes convictions stemmed from his belief that the tribunal was one-sided and fundamentally unfair. “The evidence is still overwhelming that atrocities were perpetrated,” Pal said — including the Nanking Massacre of 1937-38.

The Japan-India connection is a recurring theme throughout the Yushukan, representing a prime example of pan-Asian solidarity that, according to the museum’s narrative, goes back to Japan’s naval victory over Russia in 1905.

“It is true Russia’s defeat was welcomed by the other Asian peoples,” O’Dwyer says. “Even (Mahatma) Gandhi was moved. It showed they were not destined to be forever under Western domination. But India’s admiration for Japan may be also due to the fact that they didn’t experience Japanese occupation.”

The Indian government stresses this point in a statement in Japanese on its Tokyo embassy website: “Judge Radhabinod Pal’s dissenting voice at the War Crimes Tribunal reflected our country’s position. . . . Since civilizational contacts between India and Japan began some 1,400 years ago, the two countries have never been adversaries. Bilateral ties have been singularly free of any kind of dispute — ideological, cultural or territorial.”

The museum’s new entrance area showcases a number of large exhibits. The most interesting for us is a steam locomotive that was used on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway. According to the description on a plaque in front of the exhibit, Japanese engineers succeeded where the British Army had failed, building 415 km of railroad in record time in spite of the rugged terrain and extreme tropical heat. This feat of engineering was accomplished thanks to the 180,000 Asian civilian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war who were forced to work on the project. However, the description fails to mention that around 90,000 Asians and more than 12,000 Allied POWs died in the process due to maltreatment, sickness and starvation.

“The interesting thing is how the Yushukan defines the labor recruitment,” O’Dwyer says, pointing to the Japanese-language description. “Genchi jūmin nado means ‘local residents, etc.,’ but it fails to convey the real scope of the recruitment.

“The Asian laborers included people from Burma, Malaya, but also ethnic Chinese, Tamils and Javanese. All these people were recruited in different ways, including cajolery and force. Even the so-called comfort women must be seen in the context of the overall forced-labor issue, which involved millions of people and was a real form of human trafficking.”


The escalator past the ticket gate takes us to the second floor, where the usual array of weapons, armor and flags is on display, but the real treat — for those who understand Japanese, that is — is a documentary that portrays the Imperial Japanese Army’s wartime exploits as simple acts of self-defense. The movie’s title is “Watashitachi wa Wasurenai” (“We Don’t Forget”), which is rather ironic, as its makers appear to have forgotten to include all those events that jar with this nationalistic version of history. It’s a fascinating work, albeit a little maudlin in its forced patriotism. The female narrator’s melodramatic delivery brings to mind the iconic North Korean TV newscaster Ri Chun Hee, a figure often ridiculed in the Japanese media.

Starting with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, there is a clear effort throughout the museum to stress national unity and Japanese historical continuity according to a model that highlights the official version to the detriment of differing points of view. The other side of the story is almost nowhere to be seen. The most obvious omission is barely any mention of enemy or even Japanese civilian suffering. Even in the first-floor museum shop, besides stickers, postcards and candy boxes (many sporting the Japanese military flag), the books that enjoy pride of place are those about Hiroo Onoda — the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender in 1945 and held out in the Philippines until 1974, and is thus seen to epitomize the values of loyalty and stoicism — and two by former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, another of Japan’s valuable foreign friends who has often defended Tokyo’s foreign policy.

Following the labyrinthine route across the museum’s two floors, the military history buff can enjoy handsomely maintained displays. Visually speaking there is a lot of quality, but all of this is accompanied by unnecessarily intrusive patriotic music (a mix of military tunes and uplifting hymn-like compositions), stern narration and recorded speeches.

The written descriptions are pretty straightforward, but careful reading reveals a clear bias toward playing down Japan’s acts of aggression and colonial rule. For instance, when discussing the period between the Russo-Japanese War and the Manchurian Incident of 1931, the museum states that “The Chinese . . . with their nationalistic and xenophobic zeal after the revolution, focused their animosity on the then existing international agreements. An anti-Japanese movement in Manchuria . . . prompted the action by the Kwantung Army, and the establishment of Manchukuo.”

The museum’s narrative seems to imply that local people wanted to create an independent state. It never mentions that Manchukuo was actually a puppet state that loyally followed Tokyo’s directives and that the Chinese in Manchuria organized volunteer armies to oppose the Japanese.

When mentioned at all (e.g., describing both the Manchurian Incident and the 1933 Defense of the Great Wall), the Chinese are depicted as terrorists even though they were simply fighting for their land. On the other hand, the museum curators do not seem to have any problem with the fact that a colonial power (Japan) was trying to instigate an autonomy movement in north China. Japan’s interventions in China are described matter-of-factly as problems of national security.

Commenting on the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 and other similar events in The Japan Times, Okazaki states: “It is a historical fact that all three incidents were the result of Chinese provocation. I will not yield on this point.” Unfortunately, things are not so clear cut. Historians still disagree over the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Some believe it was actually fabricated by the Japanese army to provide a pretext for the invasion of China. We will probably never know the truth, but it is a fact —acknowledged by Okazaki — that Japan was covertly involved in other such incidents, including the assassination of Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928, the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and the First Shanghai Incident in 1932.

O’Dwyer observes that the description of the deeply contentious Nanking Massacre was changed in 2007: The claim that “ordinary citizens recovered their lives peacefully” under Japanese occupation was removed. At the same time, it states that Japanese Imperial Army Gen. Iwane Matsui insisted on strict discipline among his forces, even threatening anyone committing unlawful acts with severe punishment. Perhaps he did so, but the exhibit does not state whether these orders were actually obeyed or not. We now know that many, if not most, Japanese soldiers ran amok.

The same description also mentions that “the Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.” Actually, this lack of “fair play” on the part of the disbanding Chinese military is perfectly understandable considering that an order had been sent forth to execute POWs. As for “severe prosecution,” this meant that all men of military age were presumed to be soldiers in disguise. As a consequence, many were killed.

Commenting on an exhibit on “Roosevelt Diplomacy and the road to the Pacific War,” O’Dwyer says that while there is nothing particularly wrong about it, it must be noted that the mounting American hostility toward Japan at the time was fueled by news coming out of China. The many American missionaries who lived in that country not only helped a lot of Chinese refugees when the war broke out, but also sent reports back to the U.S. detailing what the Japanese army was doing to the population, thus helping harden public opinion in the U.S. against Japan.

The kind of ideology that the Yushukan wants to assert through its exhibits comes to the fore when, discussing the Allied Forces’ postwar occupation, it states that the Americans “focused on eradicating these qualities” — referring to supposedly “Japanese” traits such as discipline and solidarity, spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotism — “to ensure that Japan would never again pose a threat.”

O’Dwyer notes: “This is exactly what people like Abe are saying now: ‘They imposed Western values on us and took away our national spirit.’ ”


There are many Japanese people, of course, who disagree with Abe’s right-wing take on history. One of them is Masahide Ota, a former governor of Okinawa Prefecture. Ota was among the high school boys and girls conscripted at the end of the war.

The 222 girls who were drafted as nurses and worked in harsh and appalling conditions during the Battle of Okinawa comprise some of the very few civilians featured in the museum. Toward the end, this unit of schoolgirls was disbanded and the girls were abandoned to the battlefield, as the retreating Japanese forces wouldn’t take the girls with them. Many of them were killed, mainly by crossfire, while others committed suicide, having been convinced by Japanese propaganda to expect systematic rape at the hands of the U.S. invaders. The museum’s description, however, simply mentions their sacrifice, choosing to forget the way they were treated.

The boys were used as auxiliaries, carrying ammunitions and delivering messages. Unsurprisingly, the death rate among these boys was very high. Ota, who was among the few survivors, came to the realization that he had been brainwashed, and has devoted his life since to promoting peace and discrediting a regime that went as far as to sacrifice thousands of civilians just a couple of months before the end of the war. His story, and those like it, go untold at the Yushukan.

As if to emphasize this sense of the waste of human life, the last few rooms show thousands of photo portraits of dead Japanese soldiers and civilians whose spirits are now enshrined at Yasukuni. In 1985, then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone declared that places such as Yasukuni and the Yushukan were necessary to inspire patriotic feelings in the Japanese people and convey the message that dying for one’s country was an act worthy of national honor. “Otherwise,” he said, “who is going to give their life for the country?”

At the end of our visit, it is time to draw our conclusions. According to O’Dwyer, Okazaki did his best, considering that he was obviously restrained by the Yasukuni doctrine, whose narrative states that all the soldiers died for the right reasons on behalf of the Emperor.

“Unless one goes all the way and reforms the museum’s narrative, it is impossible to stray from the main theme, i.e., that no one could do any wrong,” he says.

For my part, I have the impression that Okazaki’s main objective has been to rectify the museum’s anti-American bias. The former envoy alluded to his concerns about this anti-Americanism in an article for the right-wing Sankei Shimbun in 2006, referring to certain comments accompanying exhibits at the museum as “immature” and “cheap.”

While Okazaki and the Japanese government apparently care deeply about the opinions of Japan’s key ally (just witness the hand-wringing after U.S. President Barack Obama criticized Abe’s Yasukuni visit in December), the views of Japan’s former Asian colonies get less attention. As Okazaki stated on the pages of The Japan Times, “Given the ever-changing international situation, I did not think it would be proper to take into consideration the opinions of certain other countries,” meaning, no doubt, those such as China and the Koreas.

Our visit reveals an increased curatorial sophistication, evident in the use of multilingual sources (e.g., contemporary newspaper reports and diplomatic correspondence) to support the museum’s arguments. That said, as O’Dwyer points out, although the museum’s exhibits “have taken on the trappings of a historical narrative,” the museum is far from being ideologically unbiased.

Sophia professor Nakano believes the museum is completely outdated in its world view.

“Maybe it carried some weight in the late 1800s when Japan was under threat of the Western colonial powers, just as China was, but it doesn’t explain anything that happened afterwards, when Japan itself became a colonizing country,” he says.

In the end, we are left with the conviction that a healthy dose of unequivocal contrition for the conduct of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Pacific War would serve well both the museum’s and the country’s international reputation.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Kazuhisa Nakatani

    When I visited the museum in 2005, I realized that the English captions were slim in quantity and mild (or less jingoistic) in its delivery — compared to Japanese edition.

    According to this report, the narratives has become less double-tongued after the renovation in 2006. But I have to check myself…

  • GIJ

    Very good article, and I have to conclude that Simone’s background as a native of Italy only helped in maintaining his objectivity. I don’t think a native of Japan, Korea, China, the United States, Britain, Australia, or even India could have written such an even-handed account of the Yushukan. Good choice by The Japan Times to have Simone write this.