Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Remembering Pearl Harbor

Well, here in Japan, people would rather not remember it, since it's a big source of embarrassment and strong feelings. Last Saturday I went to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It's the one that's very controversial because, although it translates as the Peace Country Shrine, it's built to honor the war dead and has several convicted war criminals enshrined there.

To hear about it, it sounds like they have models of heads on spikes and crazy rightwing Japanese running around chanting and threatening war or something. But it's a rather unassuming place, very quiet there and peaceful, just like any other shrine. There's a nice Japanese garden with a pond and stone bridge and carp. Next to the shrine is the Yushukun Museum, which is dedicated to the military tradition of Japan. It's rather fitting overall, since of the past 2,000-plus years, only the last 60 have been devoted to peace. The Europeans who came here in the 1600s were apalled at the scale and level of violence in battles, and the general gruesomeness present in everyday life. These Europeans were certainly not squeamish or pacifist, but the Japanese regularly had battles consisting of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and surrender was never an option.

The ancient history part of the museum is very interesting. They show the tranformation of Japanese swords, archery, and armor. But about half of the museum is devoted to the post-Meiji Restoration period of conquest and expansion. And while it discusses it pretty well, it fails to mention much in the way of the atrocities committed. It's strictly facts and figures only in that respect. But it is a bit revisionist in some places. It tries to explain away the 'incidents' in Manchuria, and hardly even mentions Nanking, or the Korean occupation. It's a far cry from the prison-museum in Seoul that I visited that dealt with how the political prisoners were treated.

The discussion about the lead-up to Pearl Harbor and the US involvement in WWII is interesting. The museum basically claims that Japan was forced into doing it, despite many attempts at peace. I don't know the truth about it, American history books claim that it was a surprise attack, and that we'd never done anything to provoke the Japanese. In fact, I've learned from actually reading modern history books that Americans had sanctions running, and were basically starving the Japanese nation of oil and all sorts of resources. It's really amazing to see how they learn one version, and we learn something completely different. The museum claims that the fleet was wiped out in Pearl Harbor, whereas we're told that many of the important ships were on manoevuers at the time. The atomic bombs don't get very much mention, surprising for all the importance given them in actuality.

Every year, Prime Minister Koizumi pays a visit to Yasukuni, and every year Korea and China issue protests and vehemently denounce these visits. It's something to think about, because the Chinese and Korean perception of Japanese snobbery and insults is one of the key blocks to the region moving forward and becoming more open. Recently, a Japanese Supreme Court justice took 2 minutes to throw out a lawsuit by 2 Korean sex slaves seeking reparations from the government. It's things like these that make the Chinese act so viciously towards the Japanese, like they did at a football game recently.

I don't blame most Japanese for these attitudes and feelings. Like anywhere, it's a small percentage of hatemongers and bigots that ruin it for everyone. But the Japanese government is certainly not trying to change the status quo. From what I hear, the textbooks portray the Japanese as merely victims of atomic attacks, and completely omit anything that might make them feel uncomfortable, like discussing the massacres and atrocities committed against their enemies during WWII. This is a very touchy subject for most, and it's difficult to discuss it with them. It's verboten to talk about it at work with students, probably a firing offense if someone complains. So it's difficult to really find out what people think. But more on this later, it's time to quit for the day & get some rest.

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