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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

War exhibits offer ammo for Japan critics

By Richard Halloran

On display at Yushukan, the military museum near the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, is a locomotive made infamous by the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai." Glossed over is The Rape of Nanking, in which tens of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered in 1937.

Richard Halloran

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TOKYO Standing near the Yasukuni Shrine memorial to Japan's war dead is a monument to a continuing ambivalence among the Japanese over the actions of their nation and soldiers during the militaristic period that began with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Visitors entering this military museum called Yushukan are greeted by a huge black locomotive that once steamed along the Thai-Burma railroad built by Allied prisoners during World War II and made infamous by the movie "Bridge on the River Kwai."

Next to the locomotive are two cannons salvaged from the battlefield on Okinawa, the climactic battle with U.S. forces during that war. And in front of the guns is a Zero fighter similar to those flown in the surprise attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that brought America into the war.

In contrast, the museum's main exhibit opens with a poem inscribed in elegant calligraphy on a tall hanging scroll that conjures up memories of Winston Churchill's stirring defiance of Nazi Germany: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds ... we shall never surrender."

The Japanese verse, written by the poet Otomo no Yakamochi in the eighth century, says:

We shall die in the sea,

We shall die in the mountains.

In whatever way,

We shall die beside the Emperor,

Never turning back.

More evidence of an honorable military tradition is displayed in the Yushukan, a name taken from an ancient Chinese essay. The craftsmanship is superb, for instance, in several curved swords that the Japanese believe reflect the noble spirit of the samurai warrior.

A well-done map marks four centuries of Western incursions into Asia: the British, French, Dutch, Spaniards and Portuguese from the south, the Russians across Siberia from the north and the latecomer Americans from the east into the Philippines.

Much of the history on display here could have been taken from any standard scholarly work. Exhibits assert that Japan was brilliant in defeating Russia in 1905, the first time in modern history that an Asian nation bested a European power. Others are frank about Japan's loss to the U.S. in the naval battle of Midway in 1942 that was a turning point leading to Japan's devastating defeat in 1945.

Here the ambivalence emerges. Many Japanese appear to believe that their nation was threatened by the West, whose flags flew over almost all Asian nations before World War II and needed to fend off the West by building an empire. An equal number appear reluctantly to acknowledge that their nation was unjustifiably aggressive and thus suffered retribution.

Japan's neighbors in China, South Korea and North Korea have asserted, in the most contentious terms, that Japan has not confronted its recent history and needs to repent. Yet Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, lists at least 35 occasions on which a Japanese emperor, prime minister, foreign minister or other senior official has expressed remorse over Japan's past.

Japanese officials say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has compiled an official account of all the occasions on which a senior Japanese has expressed regret over their nation's actions in what they call the Greater East Asia War. They said, however, that the ministry has so far declined to publish the record for fear of stirring more controversy.

In the military museum, several questionable exhibits give ammunition to critics of Japan. The Rape of Nanking, in which uncounted tens of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered in 1937, is glossed over. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor "succeeded in destroying the U.S. fleet" is inaccurate: U.S. aircraft carriers escaped the assault, some ships survived and others were repaired to fight again.

Perhaps most indicative is the exhibit contending that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's strategy to propel America out of economic depression was to maneuver Japan into bringing the U.S. into the war. Roosevelt, the explanation in English says, "imposed an embargo to force resource-poor Japan into war. The U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war."

In this allegation, the Japanese are not alone. Before, during, and after World War II, conspiracy theorists abounded in America, including some in the Republican Party, who contended that FDR had perpetrated what one author called "the mother of all conspiracies." The Internet today has, literally, tens of thousands of entries making that argument.

The contentious dispute continues.

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia. His column appears weekly in Sunday's Focus section.