Sunday, March 18, 2007

On Fascism

This post is a slightly edited version of an email I sent 18 months ago, when I visited the Yushukan in Tokyo during my holiday. This was before I moved to Japan, when I still almost no Japanese and no Japanese people. A year in Japan has not changed my view of the fundamental wrongness of the material I discuss here, and I would like to present it as a counter to my perhaps overly forgiving interpretation of mainstream Japan's view of the war...

...a few days ago I mentioned that I visited Fushimi Inari shrine amongst a horde of people on New Years Day. Today I read in the newspaper some crowd estimates for the period 1-3rd January, which put the attendance at Fushimi-Inari shrine over the 3 days at 2.7 million people. This makes it one of Japan`s most popular shrines. One of Japan`s least popular shrines overseas is the Yasukuni shrine, which Koizumi Junichiro (the Japanese PM) visits every year. Here are enshrined the souls of Japanese citizens who died fighting for Japan at any time since the Meiji restoration. These souls become "kami" or "tutelary spirits" or some such, and there is a bit of concern about this fact since the shrine includes the souls of 14 war criminals, one of whom is responsible I think for a great deal of torture and horrific crimes towards prisoners of war. Although torture is now something of a popular tool of justice in the west, I thought I might visit the shrine to see what the fuss was all about, and particularly I thought I might go to the "Yushukan", which is a big fat museum of Japanese war history on the grounds of the shrine. I have alluded before to my suspicions that there is a fascist tendency in this country, and the locals have certainly implied this to me - on my Shinkansen to Tokyo I chatted to a real estate company director, who told me that many Japanese refer to Koizumi as "the Little Fascist", and don`t like what he is doing. My experience of foreigners here, and foreign ideas about Japan, suggests that there is more to ideas of racial superiority than war criminals, but since Yasukuni has become such a focus for the debate about Japanese fascism, I thought I`d give it a go.

If enough people are still reading my blog to constitute an audience, I think I can safely describe the audience as mostly Australian, and so I think I can summarise for you the experience of the Yushukan by telling you about the first thing one sees upon entering the museum - a steam engine for a train. For the briefest of moments when I saw this steam engine I thought that the Yushukan was going to be one of those weird japanese museums with bad exhibits, which would in this case blend trainspotting and war history (not a novel combination). However, after this brief moment of hope I realised the truth was far, far more disturbing. I didn`t even have to read the explanation with the exhibit to know that this train was straight from the Burma railway. Here it was, presented at the entry to the war museum as a great feat of human engineering rather than a terrible feat of human cruelty. There was no mention of any of the POWs who died building the railway, just the importance of the railway itself and how brilliant the Japanese were to build it.
The Yushukan consists of a series of exhibits laid out in separate rooms, starting with the history of the empire and progressing through the Meiji restoration (the foundation of modern Japan 150 years ago) to the "Greater East Asian War". The early stage subscribes to beliefs about history which I believe many modern scholars think are based in mythology, and it also refers regularly to "bushido", which I have heard is a fiction concocted during the Meiji restoration (I am starting to think the truth of this is a bit more sophisticated). I have no way of knowing what the truth of the Yushukan`s version of Japanese history is, but I think I can present to you some evidence that the narrator for this museum is far from dispassionate. After slogging through 10 rooms of Shogunate history I finally reached the room which contained the exhibit about "the Incident at Nanking", which we in the West know as "the Rape of Nanking". This gets a very very small space in one room. Rather than saying that "thousands of the citizens of Nanking were brutally raped and murdered", the information on this "Incident" tells us that after it was over "the citizens of Nanking could return to a life of civil order, peace and security". It also suggests that the Chinese army fled and Nanking was taken quickly, when in fact I think it involved a large-scale and drawn out battle with (I seem to recall) tens of thousands dead.

To my shame, I am a bit of a cultural relativist, so I am always willing to consider the possibility, however slight, that maybe our view of history is just as warped as everyone else`s. After all, don`t the victors write the books? I had heard that in fact the Yushukan holds examples of schoolbooks which claim Japan did not start the war with America, but I am afraid this too must go down in history as a great Myth about Japan. In fact the Yushukan makes it very clear that Japan started the war with America by bombing Pearl Harbour. It spends a great deal of time, however, detailing why Japan was forced to do this. Apparently America was intervening in Japan`s possessions in China (which is bad) and had moved to embargo Japan`s oil supply. I am inclined to believe this tale, since the western view of the war has always been a bit wierd to me - Japan just decided one morning to bomb the shit out of a bigger and richer country. Everyone who is taught the history of the European war is taught that Germans had lots of reasons to go to war (due to the Versailles treaty) while absorbing the clear moral lesson that what they did was wrong - I don`t see why it should be any different for Japan. If German fascism can have a historical context then so too must Japanese fascism.
So what context does the Yushukan give us for all this bombing and dying, and the necessary restoration of "peace and security" to Nanking? It gives us 15 rooms of exhibits all presenting the standard whining fascist self-exculpation, that the pure-hearted and good nation of Japan was constantly beset by nasty outsiders who continually forced it to go to war to defend itself. Oh, those poor beknighted Japanese souls who died defending such an innocent nation ... of course there is a grain of truth in this, Japan having been forced at gunpoint to open her doors to the west in the 19th century after years of isolation, and being close to a very large and increasingly chaotic nation (China). But our rather overly subjective narrator continually intervenes to assure us that the Japanese were entirely blameless, and something about the tone of the exhibits leads me to question their veracity. Perhaps I would be more inclined to believe the narrator had I not been presented with that train ...

Finally however, this exhibition of the warlike achievements of the Japanese nation ends in a sad tale of self-destruction. The Yushukan has to present the righteous nature of the Japanese war dead within the context of their complete and utter defeat by the Americans, a quandary for all fascists I think we can agree. It was easy for the Germans to escape this trap - they just admitted they were wrong. For some reason Shinto Japan isn`t going to take this easy option. So instead we have two whole rooms full of exhibits focussed around the kamikaze, or as the Japanese call them, the "Special Attack Squadrons". Suicide being a ritual here they developed a whole technology for suicide bombers and they make very clear that this practice was very noble and good. The exhibits included a full-size suicide bombing submarine ("human torpedo", of which the inventors, we are told, were "very proud"), and a rocket-bomb with a human pilot. They even had a sculpture of a guy in underwater apparatus holding an explosive device on a bamboo stick (to destroy landing craft - "many soldiers died testing this ultimately unsuccessful device", a fact that is stated with no sense of guilt). I think the attitude towards these kamikaze is best described by two exhibits: a scale model of an anti-aircraft destroyer, and a diorama of a kamikaze attack. The former is a small model, perhaps 3 feet long, of a boat whose sole purpose was shooting down enemy planes. The boat is bristling with guns, all anti-aircraft weaponry, and was part of a carrier group ( i.e. its job was defending the aircraft carrier). In 1944 the entire fleet to which this boat was attached was sunk in a sea battle, leaving the anti-aircraft destroyer the sole survivor. Rather than surrender this ship turned on the American fleet and attacked, even though it was outnumbered 16-to-1 and had no weapons capable of doing any damage to ships. The boat was, of course, destroyed, and "all the crew shared its glorious end". The diorama of the kamikaze attack takes up a whole wall, and depicts a squadron of fighters escorting four bombers, each of which carries a kamikaze rocket-bomb. They are descending towards Okinawa, with the islands of Okinawa visible in the background against a setting sun. The whole thing is sombre, beautiful, glorious and of course completely senseless (this is the picture shown at the top of this post, taken from the Yushukan website).

So this is the final lesson of the Yushukan. Fascism leads to self-righteous war that ends in glorious defeat. Unbowed, we can invite our Prime Minister to come and honour our war criminals even though they were torturers and mass murderers, and then we can rise again from the ashes of our own defeat ... after all, none of it was our fault, we only wanted to live peacefully on our island (and the half of the pacific which we conquered). Ultimately I left the Yushukan saddened by the tale it told, and saddened also by the way the "righteous war dead" were having their souls used so self-righteously by Japan`s modern fascists. But then, some of the tales of sacrifice in this museum make me wonder whether the men who died in this war would really have objected to the way their story is presented; and that, I suppose, is the nature of fascism in modern Japan. If ever you are in Tokyo, gentle reader who hails from a country that has clearly never done anything bad - only made a few mistakes here and there, such as the Vietnam war and that small matter with the Aborigines - I recommend a visit to the Yushukan. Only rarely in modern life do we get to see both sides of a story (whether true or not), and the opportunity is worth taking.


Anonymous bakka na gaijin said...

London Diary?
Have you make a trip to the Hiroshima bomb museum? In a way the story is told in the same manner as the explanations at Yasukuni.
One day out of the blue the US dropped such a horrendous weapon on us! You would be hard pressed to detect that a war was occurring from the exhibit.
Your discussion about the apologies given by various japanese persons is also interesting but should include some specifics about the use of formal language , the actual words (ideographs chosen) spoken that indicate sorry rather then apology and the use of the explanation that many of the apologies are given "as an individual " rather than being from the Government.

11:02 AM  

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