Monday, May 16, 2016

Hang on to Your History: Visiting WWII Museums in Japan

One of the most thought-provoking and interesting things I've found to do here is visit historical museums, specifically, museums dedicated to World War Two. My grandfather and his brother both served in the U.S. military in WWII, my great-uncle in France and my grandpa in the Pacific theater. Only my grandpa came back. He didn't come back "to tell the tale" though--the memories proved too painful to share completely. Since I've been aware of my family history, I've been interested in things WWII--I've read a lot of books, journals, first-hand accounts, and novels from both the Allied and Axis sides. And I've visited a handful of museums here in Japan. It's harrowing and humbling to visit these sites where history actually happened. I'll introduce three of the most notable museums I've been to.


Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum 広島平和記念資料館


The Peace Arch with the A-Bomb Dome just visible through it
This is by far the most famous memorial museum in Japan, built in 1955 right on the site of ground zero, where the nuclear bomb that leveled the city detonated. It was interesting to learn of the park and museum's construction: when the city was being rebuilt, it was decided early on to build a memorial park and museum on the site--the idea was opposed  "it's too soon" but construction went forward, and now the far-seeing wisdom of that decision is apparent I think.

The architecturally appealing museum is divided into two wings; one details the history of Hiroshima and WWII in general, and the other is devoted to artifacts of the damage caused by the atomic bomb and accounts of the suffering of the victims. The surrounding park is home to various peace memorial events and monuments such as the A-bomb Dome (a domed building left as-is after the bombing), the Children's Memorial (a statue of Sadako, the girl who died of radiation poisoning before she could fold 1000 paper cranes) and the Peace Flame, which has been lit continually since 1964 and will stay lit until all nuclear bombs in the world are destroyed. The exact hypocenter, where the bomb detonated as it fell several meters from the ground, is nearby in a little narrow side-street it shares with a clinic, a parking lot and an apartment building, marked only with a small plaque.

The black rectangular object on the right is the little plaque that marks the hypocenter
I found the museum completely sobering, and it offers a unflinchingly thorough look at the destruction and suffering caused by the atomic bomb. Many of the exhibits have English translations and it's an easy museum for foreign visitors to get around and learn from. The day I visited the museum with a friend, soon after the Tohoku earthquake and as the drama of the nuclear power plants was unfolding, it was raining and grey, creating a solemn mood. An elderly survivor was there folding paper cranes, and gave one to me. It's one of my greatest treasures of my travels in Japan, because it struck me as such a great gesture of hope and forgiveness. The elderly lady sits there in the museum, daily surrounded by memories of the horrors she witnessed, and slowly and carefully makes symbols of peace she gives to visitors, demanding nothing in return. She is there because the museum is dedicated not only to the preservation of artifacts from the time, but to peace now and for the future, and actively supports the end of nuclear weapons. It is hard to come away from the museum with a different view. However, I found the explanations of the history of the War and WHY the bomb fell out of the bright blue sky that day in August 1945 a bit lacking in depth--but exploring that topic is not really the primary purpose of the museum anyway. "This is how we suffered, please never let it happen again" is the main message.


Former Navy Underground Headquarters 旧海軍司令部壕

During fun travel to tropical Okinawa with a friend, I went to a very eerie and dark place: the Former Navy Underground Headquarters in Naha—the place where the last resistance of the Japanese military holed up at the end of the Battle of Okinawa. I had had to decide given our limited time between there and the Peace Memorial Museum located nearby, but thought rather than nice plaques in green lawns I wanted to see something a little more real. The tunnels were bare and dimly lit, with very little to no furniture or any original structures left inside, though I loved the pen-and-ink artists’ sketches of what life must have been like in the tunnels. The little above-ground museum emphasizes the sufferings of the Okinawan civilians, who between the Japanese mainland and American forces, got the short end of the stick throughout the War (and arguably even to this day). The Battle of Okinawa is depicted as a living hell, with the Okinawa people the worst off: starved, enslaved, and sometimes forced to commit mass suicides, with at least one Admiral (pictured in this sketch) portrayed as sympathetic to their plight, as per a final telegram he wrote to Tokyo. The destruction was worst in the southern part of the main island of Okinawa, and ghosts of it are everywhere--when we visited reconstructed Shuri Castle, there was a little exhibit of dusty piles of rock lit under glass, the only remnants the Battle left of the original structure of the castle.

"This is how the Okinawans have fought the war..."
But the Imperial Japanese sailors suffered too. In one room I put my fingers into pock-marks on the plaster wall before reading the sign “Damage to walls from hand grenade of suicides.” The Japanese military had been indoctrinated to fight to the last man and when defeat was imminent to end their own lives rather than surrender, and the officers in the tunnels had done just that, right where I was standing, a lifetime ago. I the felt hairs all over my body stand up!

I remember that the narrow hole of the steep staircase to access the tunnels was lined with something I would see a few weeks later at the museum at Hiroshima, and the only bright, colorful thing in the whole place: paper cranes tied in bundles of thousands, symbols of prayers for peace.


Osaka International Peace Center 大阪国際平和センター

Unfortunately I couldn't find any photos I took of this place! I went to this museum, located near the Osaka Castle park, in 2010 with some German and English friends. We all agreed it presented a balanced (i.e., liberal) view of the history and the whys of WWII, in that it fully included exhibits of Japanese aggression and warfare in Korea and China and the suffering that ensued. The fire-bombing of Tokyo and Osaka (extremely devastating, but often overshadowed by the atom bombs) were also well-represented, heartrendingly so. Living in Kyoto, which remained largely untouched during the War, it's easy to forget such large parts of other major cities like Kobe, Osaka, and Tokyo were destroyed so cruelly. The museum is not large, and easy to get through in an afternoon, though I remember it being visually impressive (old bombshells poking out of the ceiling as if falling onto your head) and highly interactive, with plenty to see, touch, and listen to, in Japanese and English, sometimes of scenes too grisly to linger over for long.

However, in researching this museum to write this blog post, I came across this piece of news: the exhibits of "Japanese aggression" have been removed. I haven't visited since this new development, so I don't know what the mood and information presented is like now, and personally I find this change extremely unfortunate, but at the time I visited it was a great museum. It is fascinating to me to see the presentation of WWII from Japanese points of view, through the lens of a different culture. It raises questions about my education of WWII and other historical events--naturally I learned most everything from an American point of view, out of American textbooks. It is sobering to see current political issues influence the way people want to remember what happened in the past, and how they want to display history for the education of younger generations.

I must add that the topic of WWII is sensitive in Japan, especially as it relates to issues like what goes into textbooks and how fair/truthful neighboring countries (Korea and China) think the material is. I don't often bring my interest in WWII history into everyday Japanese conversations. I will bet you most museums dedicated to the subject in Japan purposefully just try to present this is what happened, leaving more provoking conclusions about why or who's to blame? to the viewer. But I personally think that the more voices and experiences you listen to, the clearer picture you can get of what really happened. The more voices and experiences you include in your study, the closer we can get to the truth of the time.

If visitors to Japan can take time out of their schedule of temples and tourist sites, I highly recommend adding a peace museum to the list of stops to make, and take a moment to see our shared history from a different point of view.

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