“When the war ended, the colonial powers returned to their colonies. But those whose desire for independence had been awakened were no longer the obedient servants of their colonizers… the colonizers who had been defeated by Japan in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War could no longer suppress with military might the ideals that Japan had advanced after the First World War but had subsequently been rejected – racial equality.”
This final panel at the Yasukuni Shrine Museum sums up its take on Japan’s role in WW2: the Japanese invaded Asian nations not for the sake of expansion or national gain, but for the sake of racial equality. They were the good guys, innocent victims of Western expansionism.
I cannot stand the patronising foreigners who come to Japan to preach about the superiority of their countries’ liberal ways, and I don’t want to be one of them. Every country has its fair share of bad history, no doubt. So, yes, we could talk about the excesses of European Imperialism, our often cruel maltreatment of or conquered subjects. When the Japanese say that they were pushed into war by the threat of European conquest, they have a point. They equally have a point when they remind us that they pushed for a clause of racial equality in the League of Nations, but that it was rejected by Britain and America, for whom eugenic theory was much in vogue. They also enjoyed heavily one-sided trade agreements with Asian nations, Japan included, on this basis.
It is also quite right and proper to honour one’s war dead and to pay homage to the bravery of those who have died for sovereign and country. We should not question the function of Yasukuni Shrine in this regard. But I would suggest that the Shrine Museum does not salute its war dead so much as dishonour them when it abuses their memory to support its programme of historical revisionism.
Certainly, the European and American empires were guilty of expansionism and racialism. But for the Museum to argue that the Japanese were fighting in order to protect fellow Asians and promote racial equality is a disturbing perversion of the truth. In Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria, conquered subjects were forced to adopt Japanese names and to speak the Japanese language. They were in every respect second-class citizens to the Japanese. Many, especially Koreans, were forced into slavery, including sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers. Given too that the Japanese were allied to the Nazi Germany, whose promotion of racial equality is hardly laudable, the claim seems even more preposterous.
|Japanese poster – the Chinese welcome their ‘liberation’|
Yet the Yasukuni Museum’s revisionism is clever because it is executed only by omission. What is said is by and large true, no doubt: the problems start with silences, and are more marked when euphemism is brought into play. There is no mention at all of the Japanese allying with Germany, and World War Two is systematically referred to as the Greater East Asian War to distance them further from the ideological conflict of the West. None of the well recorded Japanese excesses in administration of their colonies, such as those mentioned above, are even touched upon. Invasions are disguised as ‘incidents’: even the conquest of Manchuria is made to read as though the Chinese were responsible, and that the Japanese imposition of the puppet Emperor Puyi was a boon to Chinese self-rule. This, despite massive military and local opposition from the Chinese themselves.
|The infamous ‘killing competition’ news article|
This leads to more serious omissions. The only reference to the atrocities at Nanking is one line, in which we read that ‘Chinese soldiers disguised as civilians’ were treated harshly. Even Japanese historians allow that several thousand civilians were massacred, while Chinese sources claim a death toll of over 200,000. Iris Chang (The Rape of Nanking) maintains that between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped on order by Japanese soldiers, and shows domestic Japanese newspapers advertising competitions between officers as to how many people they could behead with their swords. There is a wealth of evidence of the massacre from contemporary foreign observers in Nanking at the time, including Christian clergy and journalists, and the Nazi Party member John Rabe, who rescued around 200,000 civilians. There are also the testimonies of Japanese soldiers involved, recorded by the novelist Ishikawa Tatsuzo. Needless to say, none of this information is given even the slightest mention at the Museum.
|Chinese being buried alive|
While the breeze is blowing, it would be easy to pursue this tack with other omissions: brutalities in prisoner of war camps, the slave-driven building of the Burma railway, the encouragement given to the Ryukyu (Okinawan) people to commit mass suicide. These are only examples of the revisionism by omission that one finds in the Yasukuni museum. But it may be more interesting to compare the way similar issues might be handled in our home countries. In Germany, to be sure, such revisionism would be punished severely. Even the victors of the War often wring their hands about their military excesses: the bombing of Dresden, for example.
Certainly, nobody is proud of the two nuclear bombs that America dropped on Japan. For the Yasukuni museum, though, they are a gift. The intense suffering inflicted on Japanese civilians allows the Museum to present their nation as nothing but innocent victims. Whenever any criticism is levelled at Japanese actions in the War, here they have their trump card. And fair enough, you might be tempted to say. But I think there is a difference between the cruelty of dropping the bombs, and the cruelty enacted face-to-face by ideologically brainwashed soldiers on the ground. We should certainly abhor the use of nuclear weaponry in future conflicts and acknowledge our wrong in employing them. But the Yasukuni Shrine also needs to acknowledge the devastating effect of an extreme Right militocracy perpetuating atrocities on civilian populations.
|Emperor Hirohito dressed as High Priest of State Shinto|
Let us just remember for a moment that the museum is not a state institution, but is attached to a place of religious devotion, of worship: a shrine. At no point does the museum care to mention that the state was taken over by the military, who made devotion to the imperial Shinto cult mandatory for all Japanese subjects. It does not care to mention the role of the Shinto hierarchy in suppressing and regulating the worship of all other religions, Buddhism and Christianity included. It does not care to mention that to this end, Shinto was officially declared a ‘non-religion’ so as to maintain the facade of ‘freedom of religion’ among the Japanese people while treating refusal to adhere to State Shinto as treason. Coming from a church which spends so much of its time apologising for the excesses, mistakes and downright evils of its past, the self-righteousness of the Yasukuni Shrine comes as a real shock. Not once do they even imply that their religion, let alone their nation and its soldiers, might have done anything wrong. One can only assume that their silence on these issues indicates approval.
I do not believe that the Yasukuni Shrine is per se an evil place. One should honour the memory of one’s war dead. But the Museum’s glorification of war and its complete refusal to engage with the evils of the nation’s past serve only to dishonour them. The message of the museum to the Japanese must be very seductive, and is all the more dangerous. Japan was not fighting for ‘racial equality’ any more than the rest of us. It was fighting because it was forced to, by an unelected and ideologically repugnant military regime.
To my Japanese friends: I love your country and its people, and I really do not want to come across as preachy or self-righteous. I hope you can understand my frustration at the Yasukuni Museum. If you don’t believe me, please do go there yourselves!