The Perfect Sword

Lest I leave Japan with the naïve impression that all heritage interpretation is of either the elegant temple-and-garden variety– or the idealism of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum— I got a good dose of reality in visiting the Yasukuni-Yushukan compound in the heart of Tokyo today.

The Yasukuni Temple is a famous and central Shinto shrine, dedicated to preserving the souls and spirits of the dead.  The controversy has arisen because of its association with a cult of military martyrs of World War II, from war factory workers, to nurses, to soldiers, to kamikaze pilots, to the notorious General Tojo himself.  If the nationalist right has become associated with this shrine, the insistent commemoration of Japan’s military tradition is raised to absurd heights at the Yushukan Military Museum.

Its narrative not only contradicts the message of the Hiroshima, it entirely evades the theme of Japan’s industrial transformation and imperial ambitions in the early 20th century– except when the industry produced ever-more powerful weaponry and the imperial ambitions achieved military victories.

This is skillfully done by essentializing the spirit of the samurai as the timeless, never-changing, heroic tradition of Japan.  Moving relentlessly from the armor, swords, bows, and extravagant helmets of the Heian Era (794-1185) to the human torpedos and dive-bombers of World War II, the exhibit texts create a narrative in which the spirit of the samurai faithfully motivated Japan’s leaders to resist western encroachment and inspire the peoples of Asia to rise up and claim liberation themselves.

Military reverses are seen as the result of simple bad luck or miscalculation by Japan’s leaders.  There is no reflection about paths not taken or peoples exploited; the hundreds of pictures of boys who were persuaded to go to their deaths in various horrible ways for the honor of the emperor are seen as latter-day samurai martyrs.  The “bridal dolls” on display were dedicated as the symbolic wives of those who died before marriageable age. 

What a narrative, what a story, whose own implicit logic, ends with a map of Asia and a claim that the fierce fighting spirit of Japan inspired others’ liberation.  Japan’s disarmament after its 1945 surrender is seen as an unfortunate (and implicitly temporary) historical reverse that in no way dims the nobility of the cause.  The exhibit concludes: 

Not until Japan won stunning victories in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War [the Pacific Theater in World War II]  did the idea of independence enter the realm of reality.  Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation, it did not fade away, even though Japan was ultimately defeated.  Asian nations fought for their independence and eventually triumphed.  

This text stands beneath a map of “Postwar Independence Movements,” in which the Japanese military tradition supposedly bore fruit, despite Japan’s bitter defeat.  Talk about historical revisionism.  How ironic and self-delusional is the placing of the image of Mahatma Ghandi among the rows of Asian leaders said to have been inspired by the razor-sharp edge of the samurai sword.

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