The Yin and the Yang of Japanese Militarism and Pacifism

Anyone wanting to experience both extremes of Japanese politics as they concern foreign policy and military affairs could hardly learn more than by visiting Hiroshima’s Peace Museum one day and the Yushukan museum on another day.  I just did that this week, and here’s some points that come to mind.

On Thursday morning we went all over the Hiroshima bomb site, including the Peace Park, the flame that will only be extinguished once all nuclear weapons are destroyed, the A-Bomb dome, and the Hypocentre. The museum had two temporary exhibits in the basement consistent with its overall message, one with drawings by survivors of the Black Rain in the wake of the bomb which gave radiation poisoning to tens of thousands, and one featuring certain artifacts (bomb raid hood, US government aid shipments, etc) and the famous “Barefoot Gen” comic book series. This comic book was authored by a Hiroshima survivor, and was bitterly anti-war in outlook. There were translated versions of the series, and in it he took on militaristic teachers, the WWII Japanese leaders, and those who pushed for war in general. It’s a heart-rendering series (and worthwhile reading) which reminded me of “Maus” as much as anything else.  One could do worse than teaching them both side by side, perhaps alongside “Superman” for cultural comparison. The comic book features a kid who stood up for his anti-war father in front of a authoritarian schoolteacher, survives the blast, tries to save his father and brother from the rubble of their house before the flames consume them (he fails),  saves his mother from suicide, and then sees maggot-infested carcasses in all sorts of poses in a tram.

There was also a rotating exhibit of items turned in by survivors’ estates or family members in the past year — an exhibit that apparently gets changed every year. This included drawings, melted artifacts, clothing of blast victims, last letters, etc. The most tragic was perhaps the painting of a baby trying to suckle at its dead mother’s tit (a theme I’ve noticed elsewhere, incidentally).

The museum’s permanent exhibit had a brief introduction to the history of Hiroshima, a discussion of the US deliberations regarding the bomb, the anti-nuclear movement that Hiroshima leads, the effects of the blast, the effects of the radiation long term, and the story of the 1000 crane girl — a 12 year old who died in the 1950s after being diagnosed with leukemia and trying to fold a thousand cranes to get her wish fulfilled (she failed). There’s a monument to her in the park outside the museum.

From this permanent exhibit, a lot can be learned. First of all, and I didn’t know this at all, Hiroshima had quite a militaristic tradition dating back to the 19th century, and had quite a military presence when it was bombed. It had a navy port, an army HQ, an army logistics center, and the HQ of the Western command of the Japanese home defense army. The division (army?) based there (one of six Japanese divisions in total at the time) had served in all of Japan’s post-Meiji wars, and served WWII in New Guinea (where only one in ten Japanese soldiers returned home after the war).

The section on US deliberations was also fascinating, where you could see snapshots of the committee decisions that went into target acquisition. Some points:

1) It was decided early on that Japan would be hit, not Germany (no reason was given, but it’s one of the hotly debated topics beyond the museum).

2) There was discussion of bombing Tokyo and/or Kyoto, but the committees decided that they wanted a fresh target so that they could evaluate the effects of the bomb, and the general in charge decided against targeting Kyoto and/or Tokyo because he did not want American atrocities to make Hitler’s look minimal by comparison, and because they wanted Japan to be an ally after the war, and bombing either city would encourage Japanese to turn to the USSR. So, in a nutshell, they wanted a big city, but not too big a city.

3) Japanese diplomats were trying to negotiate an end to the war, but the US insisted on “unconditional surrender,” meaning the emperor’s status would not be guaranteed. Considering he was a god at the time, it was no small point. After Nagasaki, they agreed to terms — and then MacArthur preserved the emperor’s status after all.  MacArthur was far smarter than Paul Bremer.

4) Following Potsdam, the Soviets were scheduled to enter the war on August 7. Hiroshima was August 6. Although the museum didn’t make a connection explicit, it seems pretty clear that there was one, especially since the main point of Hiroshima was to start the Cold War off right. Incidentally, according to the Yushukan Museum, the Soviets invaded Manchuria, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands starting on August 7 — so things definitely looked bad for the Japanese that week.

5) The U.S. committee decided to drop the bomb without warning, which set off a letter of complaint by some 20 or so leading Manhattan Project scientists, who thought the Japanese should have been warned. There was also discussion of a demonstration bomb at Truk or elsewhere, but that wasn’t discussed in depth at the exhibit.

6)  The final list of bombing targets included Hiroshima, Kukura, Nagasaki, and some other place. Kukura was going to be bombed second on August 9, but the crew couldn’t find it due to cloud cover. Instead, they moved on to their second target, and hit Nagasaki instead (actually the northwest suburbs of Nagasaki, which is why the bigger bomb killed fewer people). We passed Kukura on the bullet train after Hiroshima, and there’s not much to love — it’s a depressing looking industrial port with a massive shipbuilding plant. The Japanese apparently have an expression: “to have the luck of Kukura,” in reference to their cloud cover that day.

More items from there. Apparently nobody thought much of the parachuted items that day, which included monitoring equipment for the pending blast (did that technology exist then?).

About one in ten bomb victims were Korean workers, effectively slave laborers working in the Hiroshima area.

I’m not sure the Enola Gay crew was all that good, in that the bomb was about 200-300 meters off of their intended target. I think my grandfather trained to do the bombing in New Mexico, and he’d describe competitions where they’d put a bomb in a space the size of a house.

The hypocenter spot gets a minor plaque about 200 meters from the museum, right outside a car park. In Nagasaki, all there appears to be from the guidebook is a plaque and a church exhibit. Hiroshima stole the show.

By the end of the visit, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of tragedy, loss, and perhaps some anger. It puts America’s “greatest generation” in a new light, and makes one think about U.S. foreign policy yet again. The Japanese perspective is completely anti-war, and full of shame — very self-critical.

For a completely different Japanese perspective, try the Yasakuni Jinja shrine and the Yushukan museum attached to the shrine. The shrine was established in the immediate wake of the Meiji Restoration, and seems to serve the dual purpose of advancing the deification of the emperor’s line and remembering the now-deified dead who preserved the peace of the Japanese people through the ages. In a sense, it’s a bog standard martyrs’ memorial, like those found in many countries. However, there are a few unique twists. One, those memorialized at the shrine are not merely war dead, they’re ancestors who are now deified spirits. That’s no small incentive while fighting. Since all who die preserving the homeland count for inclusion, there are several war criminals included in the list of deified spirits (and yes, there is a list). I don’t know this specific factoid, but I wonder whether those Japanese officers executed after WWII are included in the shrine’s lists.  I suspect they are, if only because so many Asian neighbors get pissed off when a Japanese PM visits the shrine (since Koizumi in 2001?).

The shrine is definitely a contingent piece of history, in that it only dates to the 1870s or so. Although the Shinto practice of venerating ancestors goes back at least 1500 years, this shrine venerating war dead and keeping a list is a much more modern beast, dating back only to the bureaucratic possibilities of this late 19th century Asian empire — and the recently restored imperial family that it serves to elevate and protect.

While it’s clear that the shrine is controversial, and has gone through some tough times since WWII, it is equally clear that it represents a significant segment of Japanese society, as it is well-funded and quite active as an institution.

There is a wonderful gift shop for the Yushukan museum, which reminded me about one of my major beefs about today’s Japan — I can’t afford squat. They have all sorts of WWII mementos, including model ships and planes, 1940s Japanese music CDs, cups, picture books, etc. I was especially upset about the CDs, since I wanted to buy about 6 of them, but at $35 a pop, that simply wasn’t going to happen. The same thing happened at Hiroshima, where I would have loved to get some of the anti-war comic books, but they were $20 each.

The museum is not afraid to present a Japanese view on not only WWII, but also several preceding conflicts. It’s unapologetic about several points (with some of which they’ve got a point), including:

1) there’s a contemporary Japanese drawing of Admiral Perry, where he’s portrayed resembling the devil himself — fantastic piece of art, actually.

2) During the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese were the largest military contingent to rescue the Peking legates, with 21,000+ troops — and one of their officers was the commander of the Peking troops who defended the legation for 55 days.  In the Hollywood film “55 days in Peking,” filmed as Vietnam was just ratcheting up, there’s no Japanese commander, and I don’t remember there being any Japanese contingent even (although I’m not sure about that last one). Hollywood airbrushing at its level best.

3) The Nanking Incident of 1937 is completely airbrushed, although it is mentioned briefly.

4) The Roosevelt administration’s aggressive diplomacy forced the Japanese government to declare war on December 8, 1941 (note the different day, due to the International Time Line).

5) The U.S. forces in the Pacific were put on a war footing as of late November, 1941 (true, as far as I can tell, and probably the major reason why the U.S. commanders resigned after Pearl Harbor).

6) The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was not only genuine in intent, it was a spark that led to post-WWII independence movements throughout Asia (also, interestingly, somewhat accurate, as far as I know).

I’ve taken photographs of several of the exhibit items here, even though photography was not allowed. Since the prohibition on photography made no sense in this context (aside from perhaps a sense of sacred spirit to military history), I took several photos, which I hope to post here soon enough.

Before entering the exhibit space, we watched an 80 minute film entitled “Mitama o tsunagu mono,” a film about a shiftless youth who discovers himself after visiting the shrine and museum. While not the most brilliant sample of cinematic drama, and too long by about 20 minutes, this film offered a fascinating glimpse into the current Japanese psyche — from the viewpoint of the backers of the Yushukan museum.

In the film, a useless youth named Takanobu can’t seem to hold onto a job, more because he doesn’t want to than anything else. His grandmother lives in his house with his reasonably successful “salaryman” father Koichi and his classic housewife mother.  The grandmother, who was a nurse during WWII, has an alter in her room (where she lies in an assisted care hospital bed) devoted to her brother who died in New Guinea in WWII and her husband, who died of natural causes much later.

Takanobu’s chick is the straight up Manami, with whom he used to go clubbing until she found meaning working at a home for special care youths. Her uncle is a former student radical who now runs a coffee shop, and her grandfather is a WWII veteran who watched Takanobu’s grandfather die.

So, at some point Koichi (salaryman father) gives Takanobu the money to go to the shrine, where his boring chick Manami’s journey began, and where his now begins. At first he’s bored, but he eventually learns the true meaning of sacrifice, like the sacrifice of those who gave all in WWII so that Japan could be free, prosperous, and independent.

While Takanobu’s on his journey, his father Koichi is desperately trying to get his useless son a corporate job. At some point, he manages this with a client who had screwed up an order. The fix is in, and all Takanobu has to do is go to the interview — the job is his.

The day before the interview, Manami’s uncle and grandfather teach Takanobu how to roast coffee beans while telling him about their ongoing loyalty to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Basically, along with looking for remains of WWII dead, the uncle started helping the New Guineans grow coffee while teaching the values of independence, hard work, and thrift (etc.). As they joked, they were the “last believers in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere…”  While continuing on this rift about the GEACPS, the film cut to a quote by a Thai Prime Minister praising the Japanese sacrifice during WWII for inspiring them to take their independence (from whom? they weren’t colonized, were they?). Along the way, the film — like the museum — claimed credit for all Asian independence movements, including the Indian one.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, the son Takanobu declines the corporate job, his father throws a fit, Takanobu says that he’s inspired by the sacrifice made by his ancestors in WWII to think for himself and not just work for money, his grandmother stands up for him, the father learns a lesson about the value of things beyond money, he becomes like his boring girlfriend Manami, and the film closes with a Peace Corps lookalike of Takanobu in New Guinea helping the savages grow coffee for his chick’s uncle.

I’m verklempt.

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2 Responses to The Yin and the Yang of Japanese Militarism and Pacifism

  1. Tomoko Sasaki Craig says:

    Hi, this morning, when I was googling “Militarism to Pacifism” for my writing of today’s anniversary for Japan, I found your site.

    I’m quite impressed about your article except this line” We passed Kukura on the bullet train after Hiroshima, and there’s not much to love — it’s a depressing looking industrial port with a massive shipbuilding plant. ”

    I’m originally from Kokura ward , Kitakyusyu city, Japan and living on Prince Edward Island, Canada almost 20 years.
    2009, during my research of my grandfather who was a WWII veteran, my dad told me that August 9th, 1945 was not cloudy, actually sunny sky which was discovered in the weather records recent year. Why the cloud over the city that day was the smoke from next ward, Yahata, burned town where was air raided a day earlier killed many people. if you know how many people were burned to death and lost their houses during the air raids over the years, you won’t be sorry too much about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They lost too many before that and the air raids continued after Nagasaki.

    Anyway, I’d like to share with you about my story “One thousand paper cranes for world peace”, so you will not think the same way about my city as you noted as before. Kitakyushu city is a beautiful city and hopefully, you want to visit there someday. We pray for Nagasaki every year especially on Aug. 9th. We won’t be never forgotten about them.

    Looking forward to hearing from you soon.


    • naltikri says:

      Thank you for commenting — my impression of the city was based on nothing more than 30 seconds from the bullet train. I’m sure there’s much I could not see without stopping, and thank you for the clarification. I would also welcome your story.


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