An exhibition hall in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward dedicated to victims of the wars fought by Japan in the 1930s and 1940s will not challenge visitors to think too deeply about how Japan waged those wars and its responsibility for them.

This is not an oversight. The new national peace memorial hall named Showa Kan (Showa Hall) that houses the display was designed that way.

The controversial hall finally opens today, four years behind schedule due to protests, debate and confusion.

After lengthy public debate over the hall’s exhibits and Japan’s war responsibility, the government declared it has given up the idea of showing an interpretation of history, including how the wars came about and how the government now views them.

All exhibits, therefore, are dedicated to materials showing the hardship of families of Japan’s war dead — not those of other countries — in particular mothers and orphans who survived years of poverty and hunger during and after the wars.

The exhibits consist of everyday materials, such as food ration tickets, kitchen utensils, magazines and books, battlefield letters from Japanese soldiers to their families, gas masks for citizens and a “sennin-bari” belt — a soldier’s good-luck charm with stitches made by 1,000 women.

The exhibits have drawn harsh protests. Members from 18 peace groups jointly held a news conference after reporters were given a preview of the hall Thursday.

They argued that the hall ignores the war victims of other countries and Japan’s war responsibility.

“(The exhibits) only focus on the suffering (of Japanese people), which is a very bad habit of the Japanese,” said Tetsuro Takahashi, secretary general of a society of former Japanese soldiers who survived Chinese battlefields. “We need to reflect on the vast damage we inflicted on the people of Asia.”

The groups also protested the management of the hall — entrusted to the Japan War-Bereaved Families Association, which openly argues that Japan fought wars in self-
defense, not in aggression, and claims apologies to other countries are not necessary.

Debate over Japan’s responsibility for the wars flared up at home and abroad around 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, when many victims in other countries, including former “comfort women,” the euphemism for military sex slaves, demanded compensation from the Tokyo government.

Many Japanese argued that the government should issue a straightforward apology, while others stuck to the claim that war compensation issues were settled by bilateral treaties. Some argued Japan was forced to wage war in self-defense.

Health and Welfare Ministry officials said it is impossible to “objectively display exhibits of the war,” given the deep rifts in the interpretation of history among Japanese.

Even the name of the hall is subject to criticism. The seven-story building had been tentatively called the War Dead Peace Memorial Hall, but it was recently named Showa Kan.

The late Emperor Showa, who reigned from 1926 to 1989, bore ultimate responsibility for Japan’s wars against other parts of Asia and the Allied powers, many historians argue.

The health ministry said the hall was so named because the wars were characteristic events of the Showa Era.

Shigenori Nishikawa, a representative of a citizens’ group protesting the building, argued that if the memorial hall bears the name of an era, it should show what the era means to the Japanese.

“Instead, it simply avoided giving any interpretation of the era and the wars,” Nishikawa said. “To us, the hall is a complete failure.”

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