The war from a Japanese perspective: Yasukuni-jinja
Sanne van Oosten
“We don’t talk about that anymore” is the standard answer when asking a Japanese person about the Second World War. If there is some kind of response to this question it is somehow related to the atom bombs dropped in august 1945. However, there is one particular place in Japan where the war is discussed in great lengths: the Yasukuni-Jinja museum, Yusukan. A place where you will be shocked by how distorted the history of the war is still being presented.
When entering the museum you are greeted by a huge steam locomotive at the entrance. We didn’t expect that anything grim was going on with this at first, but we soon found out that this was a train that served on “the Taimen railway between Thailand and Burma during the greater East-Asian war.” This is the railway where thousands of prisoners of war were brought to work till their death. There are many accounts of people dropping dead during the work due to the extreme circumstances.
After entering the museum you could watch a film about the war. This film was only in Japanese, so we couldn’t understand much of what was going on. However, even without the language enough was made clear. Whenever America was discussed and or pictures of the White House were shown, somber music was played in the background. Furthermore, Japanese survivors of the war were interviewed and they often showed tears whilst emotional music was being played in the background.
The museum commenced with Samurai and military traditions, but quickly switched to “Age of Exploration”, the time in which European nations were “encroaching upon Asia” and soon after which “Asia was taken over by Western powers.” We thought this was the only way in which the museum could be considered correct. In their own colonial expansionist times they too were repeating what the Europeans had done in Asia, as we already wrote in this blog. By including the European Age of Exploration in their museum they are showing how they weren’t the first to do what they did.
A great proportion of the museum was dedicated to the relations between China and Japan. These two countries have had a long history of war starting with the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. The signs in the museum stressed: “The Western powers competed with each other, making naked imperialistic demands on the Chinese who had revealed their weakness during the Sino-Japanese war. … The Japanese troops advanced and carried out the rescue operations … their military prowess and strict discipline excelled. They were respected and applauded by the residents of Beijing in contrast with the Western powers’ soldiers.” Do you really think that the Chinese also think of it this way? I’m not saying the Chinese applauded interference by Western powers, but they certainly didn’t applaud the Japanese presence in their country either. In all of our other travels throughout China we have never come across anyone claiming this stance. In fact, the only thing that both the Kuomintang and the Communists were fighting against were the Japanese. Only the Japanese see themselves as liberators of China.
Another caption that caught our attention noted that “on August 22  the Korean government approved the terms of the agreement at an imperial conference … The Japan-Korean annexation treaty was signed on the same day.” By using the words “agreement” and “treaty” it seems to be implied that both parties agreed to what was happening on an equal footing, whereas Korea definitely didn’t see it that way. The West also forced such agreements on Asian countries in that time, but these are now rightfully called “unequal treaties.” The inequality of these “agreements” is not stressed making it seem like Japan was acquiring partners instead of overpowering those who they considered to be their subordinates. Even though we also saw a memorial showing how they had apologized to Korea, this makes it seem like they weren’t all that sorry after all.
Every time events were discussed in which the Japanese army was present in other countries than Japan it was never put into question what they were doing there to begin with. “When Chiang Kai-Shek’s Northern Expedition began, Japan sent troops to Shandong in 1927 to protect Japanese residents from the National Revolutionary Army.” But what were the Japanese doing there in the first place? Did their army really only need defending or were they actually the first mover in this situation? Throughout the museum such questions were never asked, it seemed to be natural that Japan was out across Asia ceding property as their own and treating their fellow Asians as inferior.
The Massacre of Nanjing was also discussed, even though they downplay it by referring to it as the “Incident of Nanjing. … General Matsui told [the Japanese soldiers] that they were to maintain strict military disciplines and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished… The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.” Why is it explicitly mentioned that they were told not to commit any unlawful acts? And even more importantly, were these really soldiers dressed in civilian clothes or were these just civilians dressed in civilians clothes?
Many of the torture and rapes that took place in Nanjing in December 1937 were captured through photographs and film footage and are in no way to be denied. Nevertheless, the Japanese constantly downplay this massacre and others and deny what happened, despite all evidence. By denying the brutal massacre in which many Chinese civilians were killed one by one the relations between Japan and China are still sore.
The museum ends with Japanese defeat, or were they not defeated? “Not until Japan won a stunning victory in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War, did the idea of independence enter the realm of reality. Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation it did not fade away, even though Japan was ultimately defeated.” Are the Japanese claiming a moral victory? We think the only reason why “independence entered the realm of reality” was because the Japanese were also brutal that it was underlined once more that they wanted to be freed from either Western or Japanese oppression.
The Yasukuni-Jinja shrine is mostly known for the honoring of Class A War Criminals, but we thought the way history is being spun was much more horrible. They are still convinced that they were the moral victors of the war and deserve praise for all of their deeds. This is a story that needs to get out, only under immense pressure will Japan apologize in a way that will set their political relations with the rest of Asia at ease.
Click here to see pictures of the museum.