The Magazine

Japan's Memory Lapses

A visit to the war shrines of Tokyo.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By MAX BOOT
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NINE YEARS AGO, the Smithsonian Institution caused a furor by planning an Enola Gay exhibition that embraced revisionist views of the atomic bombing of Japan, which many scholars now depict as an act of racism and barbarism. After protests from veterans' groups, the museum amended its displays to make them more neutral. That decision was a good one, but even if the atomic bombing was justified (as I believe it was), it nevertheless does us credit that many Americans remain troubled by our military's incineration of hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians.

What does it say about the Japanese character, then, that their most prominent war museum expresses a total lack of repentance for the actions taken by their armed forces in what they call the "Greater East Asia War"?

On a recent visit to Tokyo, I stopped by the Yasukuni-jinja shrine located not far from the imperial palace. Its bland name, which translates as "for the repose of the country," conceals an incendiary content. Enshrined here are Japanese war heroes, including a number who were branded as Class A war criminals by the Allied occupation.

Every year Japanese cabinet ministers and members of the royal family make a pilgrimage here, which always causes a certain amount of international consternation. The unvarying defense of these visits--akin to a German politician visiting an SS cemetery--is that the dignitaries come in their individual capacity only, and, in any case, they come to celebrate valorous deeds, not to endorse the cause in which they were committed.

The adjoining Yushukan Military Museum shows how unconvincing these excuses are. It is, in essence, a two-story apologia for everything that Japan did between 1895 and 1945. During those years, Japan started at least four major wars and committed numerous atrocities as it attempted to annex Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Tens of millions of people died as a result. Nothing the Japanese did compares to the systematic genocide carried out by the Nazis, but their crimes were bad enough, not the least being those carried out against helpless American, British, and Australian POWs, who were lucky if they survived captivity as emaciated shadows of their former selves.

There is no hint of any of this at Yushukan. The captions alongside tattered uniforms and rusting helmets are a study in amnesia. The museum all but blames the Chinese for the massacre carried out by Japanese troops in Nanking in 1938, though the actual atrocities (which killed more than 200,000 people) are never referred to. The caption, conveniently offered in both Japanese and English, merely mentions that the Chinese defenders were "soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties." The result? "Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace." The ones who were still alive, that is.

Americans may think that Japan started World War II in the Pacific (remember Pearl Harbor?), but the museum has a different view: It was all FDR's fault. According to another caption, the crafty American president schemed to enter the war to end his country's economic malaise, "but was hampered by American public opinion, which was strongly antiwar. The only option open to Roosevelt, who had been moving forward with his 'Plan Victory,' was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war. The U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war."

Unsettling as all this is, the creepiest exhibits are those highlighting Japan's suicidal resistance in the last days of the war. The museum proudly displays a human aerial bomb ("Oka") and a human torpedo ("Kaiten"), replicas of those employed in attacks on American ships. There is even a giant painting depicting the "Divine Thunderbolt Corps"--aka the kamikazes--"in final attack mode at Okinawa," framed against beautifully lighted clouds. There is no hint that this fanatical failure to accept defeat--which amounted to a national religion in Japan--consigned hundreds of thousands of civilians to an early grave, and for no good purpose.

One can understand, sort of, the glorification of men who willingly gave their lives in attacks on enemy military targets. But what about Japanese soldiers who raped Korean and Chinese women? What about those who killed liberal Japanese politicians in the 1930s? The Yasukuni's official website makes no distinction: "All the deities worshipped here at this shrine are those who . . . sacrificed themselves as the foundation stones for the making of modern Japan." That's like saying that Confederate soldiers were the foundation stones of modern America--which they were, but only because they were defeated. If they had won, modern America would have been unthinkable. Likewise, modern Japan--peaceful and rich--would never have come about if the militarists who dictated policy until 1945 had remained triumphant.