War memorials: how the past is spun

Sanne van Oosten

While traveling through Asia we have come across various memorials to the atrocities of the Second World War. The two most notable were definitely the memorial of the Nanjing Massacre in China and the Yusukuni-Jinja shrine in Japan. Both had completely different ways of presenting history, they didn’t only show a completely different perspective, they also showed a different style of presenting the past.

The Massacre of Nanjing memorial is a huge museum showing the atrocities that took place during the Japanese occupation, of course with special attention for the famous Massacre of Nanijng of December 1937. It is estimated that 2-300.000 people were slaughtered by the Japanese who were besieging the city, for the largest part these victims were civilians.

Even though the museum is very moving, we couldn’t help but be somewhat annoyed at the captions throughout the museum. Usually about half of the story were words of heroism and victory. We didn’t feel that this was necessary, by plainly stating the facts that had taken place they also would have had an extremely compelling story to tell. If they would have left out all of the words of disgust towards the Japanese we would have felt disgusted anyway.

A few weeks later our trip took us to Tokyo, where we visited the highly controversial Yusukuni-Jinja museum. This museum commemorates all the Japanese soldiers (and even animals) who died during all the wars since the Meiji restoration. The largest part of these victims fell all across Asia as Japan was colonizing “their” continent. The museum shows absolutely no remorse for the war crimes committed, the only remorse there was to be found was that they ended up surrendering to the United States in 1945.

They also discuss the history of the Nanjing Massacre, or as they call it, the “Incident of Nanking.” One caption stated the following: “General Matsui told them [the soldiers] that they were to maintain strict military disciplines and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished. The defeated Chinese rushed to Xiaguan, and they were completely destroyed. The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.” This way of depicting history shows no need for superlatives and heroic words, these are supposed to speak implicitly from the facts presented. But what are the facts that are presented? Are these the facts that the Chinese would agree on?

Are these the facts that the body count in Nanjing would agree with? The Japanese state that there were “only” a few thousand people killed in the “Incident of Nanking.” The Chinese say there were about 300.000 people killed. Neutral experts still contest the number of 300.000, but the most modest estimate is 200.000. Even though the Japanese don’t use outrageous superlatives in their captions, they spin the past by changing the facts, a much more deceitful way of shaping your history.

The way the Yasukuni-Jinja museum presents history is quite different from China. Of course they have a totally different perception of who was right and wrong, but they also word the captions completely differently. Whereas China uses superlative upon superlative to make their point, Japan does nothing like that. They plainly state their version of history without too much ado. Japan might spin their history with less obvious language as China, but it is spun nonetheless.

The language of the Chinese makes an unknowing spectator skeptical. Why are they using such over the top language to make their point? There must be something wrong with this information if they are going to so much trouble to make me believe it. But the language of the Japanese is much more dangerous. The unknowing spectator might believe it if they don’t have any reason not to do so. Well, these are the facts, so why should there be anything wrong with it?

Since the Japanese captions and explanations aren’t obviously spun like China’s were, it is even more dangerous. If you aren’t educated to be critical of the Japanese during the war you’ll take all the “facts” at face value. You’ll believe it and start believing in the implications as well. And don’t think that the children in Japanese schools are educated to be critical of the role they played in the war. There is no way they’ll be able to put their history into perspective if nobody speaks up.

10 responses to “War memorials: how the past is spun”

  1. ljlckiq@gmail.com says :

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  2. morgancutbush says :

    Nice post

    I live in China and I find it’s not only the war memorials that are over the top. This is part of the historic narrative that has been drummed into the Chinese since the 1980s. The super-heroic deeds of the PLA against the evil Japanese. The Party as saviour from the foreign oppressor. It is reinforced in the media and in the schools (in Patriotic Education classes) in such a black and white, good vs evil way that sadly there is little place for forgiveness.

  3. slightlyreworded says :

    Interesting post. I visited the Nanjing Massacre Museum earlier this year and also found some of their exhibits and language (particularly the use of the phrase “mass massacre”) to be over the top.

    Here’s a link to the post I wrote.



    • Sanne says :

      Dear Jimmy,

      That is so interesting to hear that you had pretty much the same reaction to the Nanjing memorial hall. It was definitely over the top, even more over the top than it needed to be considering the shocking story they have to tell.

      How did you find our blog?


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