This site is a description and review of the Yushukan musuem in Tokyo, Japan. This site has been developed primarily for students, and especially those who already have completed some background study of Japan's modern history, issues of war and memory, or the controversy surrounding the Yasukuni shrine. Some background information is included here, but this site is best used when accompanied by other related materials.
The Yushukan museum is attached to the Yasukuni shrine, not far from the Imperial Palace grounds, a host of other museums and parks, and the headquarters of the Japan Bereaved Families Association, which helped fund an extensive renovation of the museum. The shrine itself is known all over the world, and especially within Asia, for its controversial role as a central, but not the only, place of worship for the spirits of Japan's war dead. Among these dead are what the shrine calls the 1,068 "Showa Martyrs" who were added to the millions already enshrined there some decades after the end of the war. These "martyrs" were all tried and convicted as war criminals in the postwar period.
A Different Narrative of Modern Japan's History
This web site is not about the shrine itself, or the controversy surrounding the visits to it by several Japanese prime ministers. Instead, the goal of this site is to introduce a particular narrative of modern Japanese history, a way of telling the story of modern Japan which, we must admit, is growing ever more popular in Japan. This narrative, like many other national historical narratives in the region and around the world, portrays the rise of the nation as a story of resistance to the imperial powers of the West. Unlike many other similar narratives, however, this story does not end with a triumphant victory over colonial oppression, unequal treaties, and the achievement of a strong modern state. The story of Japan's resistance to the West is not one of a lone fight for its own freedom. Instead, it is the story of Japan's leadership in a rebellion that spans the continent of Asia. It is this story which the museum Yushukan tells with almost perfect precision.
The story of modern Japan told by Yushukan is a tragic story, like the many tragic heroes of Japan's tradition, which ends in military defeat and psychological collapse. While Japan suffered a devastating loss and a long and shameful occupation, a new and independent Asia was born out of the ashes. Countries from India to Indonesia cast off the shackles of imperial rule and found national liberation, much in part, says this story, to the thankless efforts of Japan.
This story is not, of course, the one most of us are familiar with. Nor are, in fact, many Japanese familiar with it. As one Japanese visitor to Yushukan wrote in its guestbook, "I have never heard the history of Japan described in such a way." However, it is recounted in dozens, if not hundreds of Japanese books and indeed enshrined in the memories of many Japanese who lived through this period.
Some things to keep in mind
The surprised visitor above didn't say what was so different about the museum's approach. Most of the events we are familiar with in any chronology of Japan's modern history are represented by the panels and displays in the museum. To find the differences we need to consider carefully:
- What questions and themes dominate in the historical displays?
- Who or what is the subject? Who or what are the objects of investigation?
- What questions about modern Japanese history are not asked at all?
- What facts and explanations are left out in the descriptions of the events of modern Japanese history?
Next >> From Meiji to the Russo-Japanese War