Tuesday, August 11, 2009

That place in Tokyo

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Tokyo is a pretty splendid place really, lots going on, interesting nightlife, music, art (more on that later), all the bright lights you could ask for but also plenty of quieter suburbs with a real sense of community. But if you’re ever in Tokyo and find that you’re just enjoying yourself too much and want to put a downer on the whole thing I suggest a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in the centre of Tokyo.

This is the place that Japanese Prime Ministers occasionally visit to howls of outrage from practically every other country in the region and we wanted to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about. The shrine pays tribute to the Japanese war dead since the Meiji period and has two main parts, the shrine itself and the museum. You can go through into the shrine proper if you want to pray, but not having a burning need to pray for the souls of dead fascists we gave that bit a miss.

The museum tells the military history of the last 100 years or so from the point of view of Japan. Of course the history of wars tends to be told by the victors and it is perfectly reasonable for the Japanese to point out that the history of the Second World War (which is the most controversial part of the museum) is more complex than perhaps the Hollywood version might allow but the museum doesn’t take the perspective of saying “OK, we did some terrible things but things are more complex than just that” and instead seeks to deny that Japan did anything wrong and indeed portrays Japan entirely as the victim of aggression by others.

There are some valid points that are made in the exhibition, for example they note the fact (which has also been documented elsewhere) that during the Boxer Rebellion in China that it was widely reported how well-behaved and disciplined the Japanese troops were compared to the raping and pillaging British and American troops. The important question of course is what changed in the intervening years that led to Japanese troops committing such appalling atrocities during the Second World War, but of course the exhibition does not address this question because it completely fails to mention any Japanese wrongdoing at any time. Every single incident where Japanese are mistreated is talked about as an insufferable and unbearable wrong but those who died at the hands of the Japanese are never even mentioned.

The continual attempts to portray Japan as the victim are pretty ludicrous. Apparently, the war with China was forced on Japan by the Chinese obstinately and unreasonably refusing to welcome the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour was caused by the Americans unreasonable refusal to give the Japanese everything they wanted in pre-war negotiations and Japan’s invasion of countries in South-East Asia was forced on Japan by those other countries having resources that Japan really, really wanted (yes, they really couldn’t come up with anything better than that for that section).

The most ridiculous section is the final panel in the museum where it is stated that Japanese action in the Second World War was an inspiration to “other oppressed Asian countries” and even argues that because their experience of Japanese occupation was such a positive and inspiring one it was this that inspired them to set up their own independence movements later on. The panel then has picture of the Asian independence leaders who were supposedly inspired by Japanese militarism, including Ghandi, that well known supporter of violent fascism.

What is particularly disturbing is that this shrine is not some small entity visited by only a few far-right nutters (although a van belonging to one of the far-right parties in Japan was parked inside claiming Yasukuni to be the heart of Japan) but is a huge presence right in the heart of the most prestigious area of the city.