For military historians, walking a battlefield is a special experience. That’s where things previously locked away in books happened, the hill that blocked an advance, the river that defended an important city and altered the course of human history. Historians visit Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Normandy all the time.
Things work differently for those interested in the final days of World War II. Absent the bloody struggle for Okinawa, the real end days of the war were conducted from the air. The firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the greatest civilian loss of life in a conventional air raid, left no signs some 70 years later in the modern city. There is nothing to indicate a million people were left homeless because one-fourth of the urban area was destroyed. And that is exactly as the Japanese want it. It was all cleaned up, buried, as if it never had happened.
The only indication in Tokyo that any war at all took place is tucked away in the Yushukan War Memorial Museum. Attached to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s war dead reside (including some who committed war crimes), Yushukan is in its own way a marker of things cleaned up and things buried. The building houses carefully curated artifacts from the war. The choices speak of things almost no Japanese person, and few Japanese textbooks, will otherwise talk about.
There’s a locomotive from Burma, the rail line it traveled constructed by slave labor (as shown in part in the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai). It is not a symbol of shame, however, like the locomotives displayed elsewhere in the world that pulled train cars into Auschwitz, but a point of pride: Japan brought modern train service to the jungle. Also in the museum is a kaiten, a human-guided, suicide torpedo. Not a symbol of the madness of war, but one of martial spirit. There’s an aircraft like one that bombed Pearl Harbor. A video shown claims Japanese forces were liberating Asia from western colonialism and that Japan’s troops were warmly welcomed into Manchuria. Located inside the stigmatized Yasukuni Shrine grounds, the museum is almost purposely not easily visited. Certainly not by foreign tourists or young people out for day’s entertainment.
Otherwise, there is little to see, even less to experience, of the war, all across the country. Small towns lack the plaques and displays to the fallen you see in rural America, and certainly nowhere is there evidence of the self-reflection one sees across Germany. Elsewhere, the museum and peace monument at Nagasaki are small, a bit out of the way and well, tatty around the edges. There’s almost nothing of a world war in Japan.
Nothing except Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is the place that has not been buried, the place not allowed to heal fully. The Peace Park and Museum at Hiroshima were created for the Japanese as a symbol of their victimhood, but they end up, against all plans, exposing raw edges of a war everyone otherwise wanted to go…