July 31, 2005
Black museum of Japan’s war crimes
Michael Sheridan, Tokyo
THE keepers of the Yasukuni shrine, where rising sun flags stir in the summer breeze and towering gates salute the souls of fallen soldiers, have a new rival in the battle for Japan’s conscience.
A group of Japanese women braved threats from right-wing extremists this weekend to open a museum exposing the crimes of the imperial Japanese army. Their aim is to force the public to face the facts about sexual slavery in the second world war.
It is a politically loaded gesture, one week before Japan commemorates the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which led to the announcement of the country’s unconditional surrender on August 15, 1945.
“It’s the 60th anniversary and yet right now I see a movement to wipe out the memory of the war of aggression,” said Nishino Rumiko, the woman behind the project.
“The failure to bring the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) to account for the war continues to haunt Japan today and it’s still a taboo,” she said.
Her centre is small compared with the grandeur of Yasukuni, whose museum was recently renovated at great expense to present an impassioned and unrepentant view of all Japan’s wars since 1866.
However, Rumiko, 53, hopes her exhibition will show the world that many Japanese understand the violent fury that has gripped China and South Korea in recent months about visits to the shrine by Junichiro Koizumi, the prime minister.
“It’s natural they should be angry,” she said. “Our soldiers had contempt for people in colonial Korea and in the occupied countries.”
One living witness has her fight for justice chronicled in the exhibit. She is 82-year-old Song Shin Do, a Korean who was trapped into sexual slavery in one of the notorious “comfort stations” provided for Japanese troops in China.
“I was only 16,” Song recalled last week. “I was so shocked that I had no tears. I serviced Japanese soldiers. Sometimes there were 50 or 60 a day.”
In a 10-year legal case in which she has demanded an official apology, Song testified that she saw one woman drink poison and another murdered for refusing to have sex with a soldier.
“I had three babies,” she said in a bleak, flat tone. “All were boys. One was stillborn. The other two were left behind in China.” She never found her sons, who if they survived would now be in their sixties.
The Supreme Court finally ruled against Song in 2003, but she said she would fight to the end of her days to force the Japanese state to utter the word hansei, which can be translated as reflect, repent or regret.
Over the years Japanese politicians and Emperor Akihito, the son of Hirohito, have repeatedly offered apologies for the wars of the 1930s and 1940s. Japan has paid compensation and has just announced a project to clean up toxic waste left by infamous chemical weapons units in northeast China.
However, a resurgence of conservative patriotism in Japan, centred on Yasukuni, has stoked the flames of national pride in China and Korea. Like Song, millions of people in those nations think that such veneration makes the apologies insincere.
In the museum halls at Yasukuni, the word hansei is not conspicuous. The names of Hideki Tojo, the wartime premier hanged by the allies, together with 13 other war criminals are honoured in the Shinto shrine.
Officials at the shrine declined to be interviewed. But it is easy to see why its version of history incenses the Chinese. This, for example, is what the museum says about the Nanking massacre of 1937, in which most historians agree at least 300,000 died: “General Matsui Iwane issued orders to observe military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”
Matsui was executed after the war for his crimes.
A video presentation prepares visitors, most of them Japanese, for elaborate displays that highlight foreign colonialism, present Japan as a liberator and glorify the sacrifices of kamikaze suicide pilots.
The imperial army’s wars in China from 1931 to 1945, which claimed millions of lives, are described merely as “the China Incident”.
Britain and Holland, it is explained, were the “main obstacles” to Japan’s rightful possession of oil and iron ore in Asia.
President Franklin Roosevelt the display says, starved Japan of resources to provoke it into action and at a cabinet meeting on November 7, 1941 set in motion “the US plan to force Japan into the war”.
It repeats a long-discredited claim, namely that the “Hull note” sent later that month by the American secretary of state was an ultimatum that destroyed the chance for peace. In fact Japanese records show the fleet had already sailed to attack Pearl Harbor before the note reached Tokyo.
“Yasukuni is a crime,” said Professor Kenichi Asano, 56, of the Doshisha University in Kyoto, who was visiting the shrine last week.
“The problem is that young people don’t learn the history and my generation wants to forget.”
The introduction of revisionist textbooks that excuse the war has made matters worse.
The women’s museum, situated inside a Christian institution in northwest Tokyo, seems a lonely gesture. Rumiko, who dedicated herself to the cause after raising a family, is under constant menace of attack.
“I no longer live in my own home,” she said. “These threats are an attempt to repress freedom of speech ? just like in the years before the war. They say that I’m an enemy of the Japanese state.”