The controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a source of perennial tension between Japan and its East Asian neighbors, and the Peace Parks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are well-known in and out of Japan as the country’s representative war memorials, drawing millions of visitors each year.
But these are only the most well-known sites in a country littered with hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller war memorials, shrines and museums, as well as simple stone markers that provide a glimpse into how Japanese, or at least those living near the memorials, choose to interpret and remember their nation’s past.
Besides Yasukuni, what other well-known places commemorate World War II?
Yushukan, adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, is Japan’s largest repository of weapons, uniforms, letters, and other military artifacts from the era, as well as Japan’s foreign wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, also in Chiyoda Ward, was established by the government in 1959 to house unidentified Japanese soldiers and civilians who died overseas. Their remains are kept in a five-ton ceramic coffin.
The cemetery also contains a monument with a poem written by Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa.
While Yasukuni’s defenders often claim the shrine is simply Japan’s version of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, the U.S. government does not appear to share that view.
During a visit to Tokyo last October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel paid their respects at Chidorigafuchi, a gesture made in return, U.S. officials said, for Japanese officials paying their respects at Arlington when they visit Washington.
What are some other prominent World War II-related memorial sites outside Tokyo?
Two that receive a fair degree of media attention are Okinawa Peace Memorial Park and the Chiran Peace Museum in Minamikyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture.
Okinawa’s park, near the southern tip of the main island, includes an area with large stone plates inscribed with the names all of those who died in the Battle of Okinawa, which raged from April to June 1945. The names include not only fallen Japanese soldiers and civilians, but also Koreans, Taiwanese, Americans, and British soldiers who perished in the conflict.
Close to the park is the Himeyuri monument and its adjacent museum, dedicated to female high school students who worked in field hospitals that the Imperial Japanese Army set up in nearby caves.
There is also the formal underground headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Navy— a series of underground corridors where many Japanese committed suicide as the battle ended.
By contrast, the Chiran Peace Park sits on the former site of an air base for kamikaze pilots and commemorates the young men who took off from Chiran for suicide missions.
The museum’s exhibits include the planes they flew as well as articles, letters, personal items and photographs of the pilots who were stationed there. Most of them never returned.
Are there any war memorial sites commemorating historical facts the government would probably just as soon forget?
Some places that manage historical sites are doing anything but attempting to glorify the past. Okunoshima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture, which sits in the Inland Sea about a 45-minute drive from Hiroshima airport, was the production site for Japan’s poison gas weapons during the war. At the site are brick remains of the warehouses where the gas was stored and a small museum that tells the story of the tiny island’s dark history.
Are Japan’s war memorials, monuments, and museums all dedicated to World War II?
Some places have memorials, museums or small shrines dedicated to earlier conflicts, from the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. There are even a few places related to Japan’s actions in World War I.
Where are some of these other memorials?
There is a large monument in central Nagoya erected to commemorate Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese conflict, which was also marked by a monument in Hiroshima, before its name was changed to the Peace Monument in 1947 during the Occupation.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 is particularly well remembered on Shikoku, thanks to attempts by a city in Ehime Prefecture to publicize its regional history.
During the war, the city of Matsuyama housed one of the largest Russian prisoner-of-war camps in the country, where over 4,000 Russian POWs were detained in relatively open conditions alongside its native population of roughly 35,000.
Volunteers nursed injured and sick POWs, and the healthy ones were allowed to walk around town freely, go on bicycle tours and, in some cases, marry local women. The city is also home to a Russian military cemetery where 98 POWs who died of disease are buried.
Matsuyama makes various efforts to remind the public of the war. Last year, a municipal museum co-sponsored a photo exhibition about the POWs. The city also provides information on its website about two local brothers who played prominent roles in the conflict.
In addition, a small area of Matsuyama Castle has been officially memorialized as the spot where a Russian POW and a Japanese nurse fell in love, and the spot remains a popular place for wedding shoots.
A more formal, militaristic form of remembrance can be found aboard the battleship Mikasa in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. The ship, which played a decisive role in Japan’s victory over czarist Russia’s Baltic Fleet in May 1905, is now a floating museum, complete with an outsize statue of Adm. Heihachiro Togo.
This year marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. Are there any memorials commemorating Japan’s role in that conflict?
Compared with the Russo-Japanese War or World War II, World War I is Japan’s forgotten war.
But one place that does recall the country’s role in the conflict is the Bando POW camp that was set up in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture.
There, German and Austrian POWs captured during the Battle of Tsingtao lived — like the Russian POWs in Matsuyama — in an atmosphere of comparative freedom.
The Bando camp also claims to be the first place in Japan where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, now a staple of orchestras and amateur choruses nationwide, was performed.
The camp was re-created several years ago for use as a film set, and parts of it remain and can be visited today, along with the Naruto German House, which preserves information about life in the prison camp and the performance of the Ninth Symphony by the prison orchestra.
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