Dokodemo Door!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yasukuni shrine and revisionist history

As I mentioned, the major place I wanted to visit in Tokyo was Yasukuni. The shrine itself seemed typical of the larger Shinto jinja, with the most impressive buildings invariably being tucked out of sight. Elsewhere on the grounds was the Yasukuni museum of Japan's past wars. Having gone through it, I can now see why it would be controversial.

The collection of artifacts was well worth seeing. They ranged from vehicle models to fragments of submarines to a pair of restored aircraft. Special attention was given to kamikaze pilots, with several thousand of small head-shots on display. So if you're interested in the Pacific War, those displays were quite decent.

The real problem was the narrative which was laid-out before you got to the artifacts. The purpose of the museum is to portray Japan in a positive light, perhaps going so far as to justify past colonialism. In this regard, it succeeded quite well but it could only do this at the expense of honesty. And although the museum's narrative did not contain outright lies, the presentation of material was extraordinarily selective. I approached it as a kind of game: How many problems could be spotted?

The narrative was about every post-Meiji military adventure and the first third was not objectionable. It provided an overview of western colonialism in Asia and how it led to the disintegration of the Tokugawa shogunate and the civil war which ensued. The Satsuma-Choshu rebellion, the last attempt by feudalism to reassert itself, was also covered competently. (The shrine does not commemmorate dead Japanese of the losing sides for either case, of course.) All of this is fairly uncontroversial; the brittle Tokugawa system could simply not withstand encounters with modern nation-states and it collapsed pretty quickly.

The Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese war were also presented reasonably, but the nature of these two conflicts made it easy to do so. Considering that naval historians regard the battle of Tsushima as one of the greatest one-sided victories of all time, I suppose a bit of bragging is to be expected. But the effect of both of those conflicts was to lay the groundwork for the annexation of Korea, the subjugation of which lasted 35 years. But there was almost nothing about this. There was plenty about the causes, scarcely anything about effects. It was as if Korea was fought over, but anything which happened afterwards was incidental.

World War I, focusing on the seige of German fortifications at Qingdao, was also given decent treatment. This was another "good war" for which it is not hard to portray Japan in a positive light. But after this point, the narrative became problematic...

For starters, there was the Siberian expedition which lasted from 1918-1922, Japan's direct intervention in Russia's Civil war on the side of the Whites. This is a significant event because Japan was the first foreign nation to send troops into Russia and was the last to withdraw them. In the presentation, there was conspicuous mention of an atrocity called the Nikolaevsk incident in which a rogue unit of Bolshevik-affiliated irregulars captured a Siberian town full of Japanese civilians and executed hundreds- Hold on, why were so many Japanese civilians living in a Siberian town?

Right. And, true to form, the museum never mentioned this. The answer: they were there to establish a colony or a buffer-state. This wasn't exactly a secret at the time, ultranationalists in Japan were very open about their desire to do so, and this also explains why Japanese forces stayed-in longer than those of other countries. So NOW you have a more complete picture of what was going on.
The most problematic portrayals started to pile-up in the 1920s and 30s; responsibility for Japan's repeated incursions into China, from the Mukden incident to the Marco Polo Bridge incident, are unambiguously laid at the feet of troublemaking Chinese. The beginnings of the Pacific war with the US similarly reflected this self-serving nationalist claim that Allied powers maneuvered Japan into a position where they had little recourse but to fire the first shots. The detailed timeline of events didn't really lie per se (relations between the US and Japan were extremely tense throughout most of 1941) but made the Empire look primarily reactive instead of rightfully portraying encroachment into China as the naked aggression that it was.

The selectivity was impossible to not notice the further you went along. To give another example, one exhibit gave a chart of the Philippine campaign of 1941-1942, chronicling the advance of General Homma's forces down the Bataan Peninsula. It was noted at the end of the presentation that remaining American and Filipino forces surrendered at Corregidor. No mention was made about what happened to any of the prisoners afterwards. But if you're interested in the fate of thousands of Japanese prisoners who perished in Siberian labor camps in the years following 1945, there is a well-appointed glass case on the topic.
In a similar vein, there is a restored locomotive in the lobby which once hauled cargo on the Burma railway. Who actually built the railway was not mentioned, and so it went like that.
Although the presentation was selective, it also (oddly) left-out details that might've even strengthened their points. For instance, whenever the US State Department made critical noises about Japan's expansion into China in the early 1930s, the Empire's foreign ministry responded by pointing to America's then-ongoing occupation of Haiti and calling hypocrisy. There was no mention of this, even though it would've fit right in.

I suppose all of that was to be expected. But the only thing that really amazed me was what they had to say about Wang Jingwei, a figure obscure to most Americans.
After 1940, Japan established a puppet government over conquered areas of China and placed a former Kuomintang named Wang Jingwei in charge. (Note: he is not to be confused with Puyi, puppet king of Manchukuo, who you may recall from the film The Last Emperor.) And one of the few things about the 20th century which people in both mainland China and Taiwan agree upon is that Wang Jingwei is the worst kind of treasonous scum imaginable. He is considered absolutely loathesome.

But according to the paragraph about him at the Yasukuni museum, Wang Jingwei was an individual "who wanted peace with Japan"(!) Which is a bit like calling Vidkun Quisling a Norwegian who wanted peace with Germany.
The museum didn't even need to mention Wang Jingwei at all. They left-out so much other stuff, why not leave that out as well? I figure that whoever included that item was either completely oblivious to Chinese sensibilities or was actively trying to be obnoxious.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Welcome to Tokyo...'s your subway map.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Weekend to Tokyo

I look back at the first semester here and decided that I didn't do as much travel in my off hours as I would have liked to.

So, this being the last weekend before classes start, I decided to make a jaunt out to Tokyo. The last time I was there was in 2003, for a total of 1 day.

The length of this trip is going to be barely adequate, but it will give me a chance to see the what has to be the most internationally-known Shinto site: Yasukuni Shrine, which manages to feature notoriously in the news once every few years (though things have certainly been rather quiet on that front lately.)

Yasukuni commemorates the roughly 2.4 million souls who died in the service of Imperial Japan in conflicts going back to the 1860s. This cohort includes a number of Class-A war criminals from the Pacific War who were secretly enshrined in 1978, irreversibly merging them with all the other kami. Or so the priests tell us. (One can't unscramble an omlette, after all...)

Every so often, a Prime Minister will visit the shrine, perhaps even using state money to purchase flowers, precipitating diplomatic protests from South Korea and China. Having read about this place multiple times in the past, I figured ought to have a look for myself.