Being a Japanese-Amurrican in Japan has its perks: I can usually complain to anyone who tries to give me bad service because they think I’m a baka-gaijin. However, it took a trip to three of Kyoto’s most famous museums before I realized the extent to which I identify as American, over Japanese.
The Ritsumeikan Peace Museum very candidly shows the atrocities that Japan committed during WWII; for international visitors, who are already likely aware of the victors’ stories, this helps to explain Japan’s actions without going so far as to excuse them. What’s significant is that a good number of the museum’s various artifacts and documents focuses on the civilian experience during Japanese warfare, which ties in nicely to its overarching emphasis on grassroots movements and political awareness at the individual level.
The Yasukuni Shrine and Yushukan Museum were clearly meant to spread a revisionist history to an international audience, as well as nationalistic Japanese. Hundreds of portraits of fallen soldiers lined the walls, giving a face to the Japanese side of wars. The perfect English translations and strategically chosen documents – depicting nationalistic pride and willingness of the soldiers to fight, not flee – caught my eye after weeks of seeing almost comical Engrish and bad grammar (does anyone else remember the signs on the ferry we took to Miyajima?).
The Atomic Bomb Museum went for graphic detail and shock value, with an overarching message to younger generations to avoid human-made destruction and future conflict. Not shying away from the most grotesque of exhibits, this was not exactly the most kid-friendly museum – yet, most of our Rits. friends had visited it as children (and likely had run away screaming). The museum itself used various viewpoints – the Japanese and Allied governments’ to explain what let up to the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man, but also a highly visual setup to emphasize the experiences of victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
More than anything, I was interested in the people that the museums attracted. Smaranda and I met an old man at the Yushukan Museum who referred to the second floor as ‘Japan’s true history’ and overheard an older woman telling her grandchild how proud a mother must have been that her son had died so honorably, serving his country on the battlefield. A younger man brought his son to the Atomic Bomb Museum – when the son shrank away from the gory exhibits, he held him back, saying that this was something that had to be seen. The Ritsumeikan Museum’s controversial acceptance of Japan’s historical war crimes may be a factor in its deserted halls at the time that we visited, though even its location was rather disheartening: it’s a university-affiliated exhibit, yet it is hidden away in the basement floor of the museum. From my Americanized point of view, I can’t tell how the Japanese view the museums themselves: do they understand the historical significance of the museums in the same way that we do, or do they simply choose different sides to believe (rather like how many Southern states in the US still call the Civil War the War of Northern Aggression…)? Seeing how little I understand Japanese politics and society, and how little explanation American monuments give about our place in international conflicts, reminds me that we as individuals need to be aware of the history behind any exhibition someone pushes into our faces – whether it’s a peace-seeking organization, a school or a nationalistic government.