War and its horrifying tragedy have taught mankind enormous lessons. However, are we learning it the right way, is the learning a continuous process, perhaps a museum remains as a mirror reflecting the flaw mankind has committed in its past actions? Museum curators, contributors and researchers associated with museums have kept polishing their insightful updates like a living entity. It is the effort of these dedicated people that we are able to see our past more clearly to reflect on our present. After a brief information and personal take on Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, Tokyo, I would like to share about some other museums I visited in Japan.
2. Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, Tokyo
Magazines, books, journals and documentary films play a major role in WAM which is also an independently run museum without any government support. Testimonies by women survivors and Japanese soldiers on the systemic sexual violence during the war bring back the horrors of the war befalling women. As many as 150 photos and names of women survivors from across the continent are displayed at the entrance of the museum. Some photos are decorated with a red rose indicating that the person has passed away. We were also informed that it took a lot of courage for the women to speak out and their efforts has brought about a unified stand by creating Women’s International War Crime Tribunal which was a dream for Yayori Matsui (1934 – 2002), a prominent journalist and women’s activist, brainchild to the museum. A leaflet on WAM mentions that the goal of the museum is to apply gender justice to all issues of wartime sexual violence, starting with the so-called “comfort women”. It is a very active museum with continued research on the locations of comfort stations and holding seminars from time to time, inviting survivors, former soldiers and experts for a better understanding of the museum. We also saw four to five staff members that were busy working on something or the other during our visit. Their library is tiny but excellently maintained, and the staffs were so kind to assist us to photocopy pages from the books. I happened to read one or two articles from a selected magazine they have kept at a reading space. It was very insightful as it delves into individual stories of victims. It seems to me that the museum sticks to their goal– to be a place for women working together for a peaceful world.
3. Yushu Kan War Memorial Museum, Tokyo
Yushu Kan War Memorial Museum is maintained by Yasukuni Shrine and dedicated to the souls of soldiers who died fighting for the Japanese Emperor. At the shrine, more than 2,466,000 “divinities” are enshrined, and the museum honors those enshrined “divinities” of Yasukuni Shrine by displaying their historically important wills and relics according to the official website. We came across a chapter on the Imphal Campaign too.
Huge aircrafts, submarines, warships and tanks used by the Japanese Imperial Army are in display along with bones of the fallen Japanese soldiers collected from various part of the continent. Among the displays, I was struck by bride dolls contributed to the museum by parents of the deceased soldiers wishing that their bachelor son would be getting married even after he passed away. A palanquin which is much like the one in lailam thokpa during lai haoaroba rituals of the meeteis in Manipur is also kept in the museum and we were told that the palanquin became heavy during rituals indicating that the souls of the deceased in war came together into the palanquin. The mythical belief in Asian countries seems to be similar to some extent, like in Manipur we believe that God’s spirit also rides on palanquin in the ritual march when palanquin bearers started moving directionless. The Director of the museum while taking us around informed us that Asia was already facing a lot of aggression from the Western countries until Japan decided to fight them back. The museum also displays images of soldiers wearing smiles as they pose before a fighter aircraft. We have been told that the photo was taken just before the young boys in their teens were about to fly knowing that they would not fly back alive in the next 24 hours which is widely known as ‘Kamikaze’ attack. Such sacrifice by the soldiers and their gripping stories are some of the key messages displayed in the museum. Going by the story of the museum, the Director insisted that the involvement of Japan in the Second World War was justified which appears to be completely a different story from the rest of museums we visited in Japan delivering strong anti – war messages.
4. Himeyuri Peace Museum, Okinawa
At the museum, one of my companions was in tears listening to the stories of the Himeyuri students’ corps – a group of 222 students and 18 teachers of the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School. They were recruited by the Imperial Japanese Army as nurses during the Second World War and forced to serve in army hospitals constructed within tunnels which also functioned as bomb shelters. Many of them were killed, while some of them committed suicide fearing systematic rape by American soldiers. Altogether 123 students and 18 teachers lost their lives while serving the ailing soldiers at Himeyuri cave. A diorama cave, where Himeyuri students were working and eventually sacrificed their lives are located at the entrance of the museum. It triggers the sorrowful calling of those souls who passed away and makes one realize that the tragedy is still alive and those girl students are waiting to tell their unfinished stories of hope and expectation. Moreover, hundreds of testimonies of the survivors kept in a dark room setting make us feel the howling days in the cave. The surviving friends lived to tell stories of their deceased friends. With their smiling photos, those episodes help us to feel what kind of person ‘she’ was so vividly. A prayer site within the museum complex, where people can offer flowers and candles to the departed souls, gives a touch of solidarity. Some survivor students, currently in their 80s and 90s, have also contributed in assisting visitors at the museum by telling their stories. Group photos of the students and school buildings in display gave us a feeling of fun school days for the girls. According to the stories, many of them carried books in the caves as they were falsely promised that the assignment was for a matter of few days and the Japanese were winning the war very soon.
5. Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Okinawa
Established by the Okinawa Prefectural Government in 1975, it is a huge museum located by the sea side where the final battle of Okinawa took place. The museum tour ends with a calm blue sea view where one can reconcile oneself after going through the human tragedy in display. The museum offers not only audio visual testimonies of war survivors and documentaries on the battle of Okinawa, but also pictorial representations of postwar socio-economic struggles faced by Okinawa people, which I think is a major asset of the museum.
During our visit, the curator shared an interesting story on its opening day. The museum was forced to shut down following a massive protest from the local people who disagreed with the contents of the museum, displaying only war-related relics, such as arms and uniform.
The people claimed it looked as if the museum was promoting war, overlooking Okinawan people’s history. Until it reopened, the team thoroughly reshaped the whole concept of the museum by setting up a committee, incorporating various opinions of local experts, such as academics, local leaders, war veterans and artists, etc. At the entrance of the building, there is a huge library with full of books and a science centre for children. Beyond the museum building, a large green park with typically ten feet high trees are catching visitors’ eyes. This space is called the Cornerstone of Peace, a monument to remember and honor the more than 240,000 people who lost their lives during the Battle of Okinawa. Underneath these trees, hundreds of stones bearing the names of the war victims—military and civilian alike regardless of nationality (including the US)—are placed where people can offer prayers to their families and friends. At the edge of the park, we could observe the cliff above the seashore where many people are considered to have jumped to commit suicide during the Second World War. (To be continued)