Takashi Yoshida, From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014)
Because news from Japan is filled with stories about textbook censors routinely downplaying the aggression of the imperial Japanese military during World War II and politicians visiting Yasukuni Shrine 靖国神社, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are countless people across Japan actively invested in remembering the experience of World War II from an entirely different perspective. Most people know of Japan’s culpability during the war, but there are activists across the country who actively seek to remember the difficult parts of history that nationalist politicians are quick to leave out. By creating dialogue about Japan’s aggression on the mainland and its disastrous results, these grass-roots activists hope to inspire the population of Japan never to want to engage in war again. They seek to overturn textbook accounts of the war and show that the war was not just something that happened to Japan; the war was something Japan created.
My friend and colleague Takashi Yoshida’s new book From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2014) examines the history of public displays about World War II. Discussions of war-related displays in Japan usually focus on the Yūshūkan 遊就館, the infamously nationalist, pro-military museum located at Yasukuni Shrine, which glorifies World War II and selectively passes over Japanese atrocities on the mainland. Yoshida travelled through Japan to countless small museums and public displays created at the grass-roots level in order to remember the war. He finds that, if anything, the nationalist Yūshūkan is an aberration. The majority of museums dedicated to war memory in Japan seek to forge a new culture of peace.
In examining the history of those places, Yoshida looks at newspaper articles, editorials, histories of governmental support, and public debates about the display contents in order to better understand the ways that people have talked about World War II as part of their own contemporary sociopolitical projects. In addition, Yoshida visited a number of similar sites in China and South Korea, showing once again that there is sometimes a sizeable gap between the official rhetoric of politicians and the beliefs of ordinary citizens.
This important book should, I hope, begin the process of bringing the work of postwar Japanese peace activists to the forefront so that Japan’s image on the international stage is not fashioned only by the actions and rhetoric of politicians seeking to earn support from well-funded, politically active nationalist groups.
Prof. Yoshida is a professor of history in the Department of History at Western Michigan University and one of the core faculty of the WMU Soga Japan Center. He is the author of The Making the “The Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), which examines the differences in the ways that Japan, China, and the U.S. remember the Nanjing massacres of 1937. As one might expect with such a difficult subject, Yoshida finds that contemporary political realities are always at play within the process of remembering the past. The new book published this year is an extension of Yoshida’s ongoing interest in war memory and the ways that the use of a reified “past” continues to inform current thinking in Japan and its neighbors.