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Yushukan 2016: honoured heroes of honour


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So on my recent trip to Japan (protip: don't fly for 19 hours with your kids), I took some time out from family to visit Yushukan museum.

 

To bring you all up to speed, this place is the museum attached to the controversial shrine that Japan and China are in a perpetual snit over. The shrine itsef is actually pretty anodyne, if fairly imposing and charmless.

 

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The museum, however, is pretty fucking sinister. Anyway, I'm sure you didn't click this just to see me repost content, so here are my impressions.

 

1. Revisionism deluxe

 

If you've gotten the impression by now that this place has an agenda, you are absolutely correct. Japanese soldiers are always described in glowing terms ('honourable actions', 'noble warriors', 'honoured dead' etc.), war crimes are ignored whenever they aren't completely rewritten as laudable or necessary (Manchuria is described as an operation to bring regional stability, for instance) and the Emperor was a saint. It gets to the point of being almost admirably ballsy, such as the train from the Burma railway parked at the entrance without any comment whatsoever. Or when the brochure specifically highlights a Japanese flag signed by 25 of the most well-known ‘alleged’ war criminals as a key exhibit.

 

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In terms of the content of the museum, it is at pains to remind the viewer about Japan’s glorious martial past (glossing over the whole civil war aspect), how it was pushed into a hopeless war by the perdifery of the US/colonial powers, and how the noble sacrifice of its people/Emperor lead to... something, I guess? Sadly, a lot of the place is off-limits to cameras so I can’t show you some of the truly egregious stuff.

 

Finally, the amount of memorialisation gets to sort of strange levels. There are statues, displays and plaques commemorating the brave souls who died in the war – including, and I can’t make this stuff up, a special statue depicting the sailors who died testing a suicide diving suit that the empire was working on in its final hours. There is an entire wing of the museum dedicated to photos and mementos of dead soldiers, sailors and airmen. There is also a section devoted to providing bibliographical accounts (including displays of uniforms and equipment) of the men – again eliding any reference to crimes or atrocities.

 

2. Suicidepalooza

 

Part of this focus on heroic struggle seems to be to include every possible reference to suicidal actions that it can. Every field gun displayed, for instance, helpfully included a note on how the crew had fought to the last man.

 

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This also extended to suicide weapons. The museum has an Ohka sitting up in the hall (which I wasn’t supposed to photograph, but did anyway), a Kaiten at the centre of the same room, a Shinyo sitting to the side and a model of Kairyu sitting next to it. Each helpfully notes the exact number of airmen/sailors who perished during testing or use.

 

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Finally, the Zero sitting in the entranceway and the Judy sitting in the hall both make mention of their later careers as planes intended for ‘special mission’ purposes. There was also an interview with one of the surviving kamikaze pilots playing on repeat in the main hall.

 

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My suspicion here is that the obsessive focus on suicide craft has some special meaning to the Japanese nationalists who effectively fund and run the place that I am unable to grasp. This is interesting, as I’ve generally found that the best possible way to get people to contemplate the insanity of total industrial warfare is to talk about Japanese suicide craft and the reasoning that went into their creation. Generally, once you’ve explained this stuff in detail to a person they’re, like, 50% of the way to either total pacifism or a wholehearted embrace of America’s post-war role as the most munificent empire in history.

 

3. Odds and sods

 

Every museum has some interesting little bits and pieces hidden away, and this one was no different. For me, it was seeing the astonishingly crude nature of pre-Edo bows (which were, sadly, verboten for purposes of photography). One of them was literally a bronze-capped branch (complete with copious knots) about 25mm in diameter at the handle and steamed into the familiar yumi shape. The others were various iterations of brutalist single-piece bowering, culminating in a square cross-section bow that looks like a direct ancestor of the modern Japanese bow.

 

For the small arms nerds, there are a few machineguns and cannons to look at.

 

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There was also a single, lonely Chi-Ha to give the armour nerds some succour.

 

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Finally, outside of the museum there was an example of a weirdo-gun: a bronze cannon which was taken in an re-rifled at the end of its life.

 

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4. Conclusion

 

All in all, I found the visit interesting but a bit ominous. Worse, I fear that this sort of thing is more portentous in terms of where Japan is headed than anyone wants to admit. I guess I can only hope that the country, which seems to be going through some sort of transition, doesn’t begin indulging in its worst tendencies again as pax Americana wanes.

 

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I enjoyed myself at Yushukan. Going inside the Type97 for the first time as a younger person was pretty exciting.

Don't know how much it has changed from years ago.

 

Well for starters there wasn't any way to climb into the Type 97.

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