TOKYO – A five-minute walk from the Takebashi subway station in northwest Tokyo, the imposing Imperial Palace is the home of 80-year-old Akihito, the 125th Emperor of Japan who can trace his unbroken lineage to 660 BC.
But my column today, which falls on the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence that proclaims America’s independence from Great Britain and its King George III, is not about the palace or Emperor Akihito, who ascended to the throne in 1989 following the death of his father, Emperor Hirohito.
It is about two other Tokyo historical landmarks:
The nearby Yasukuni Shrine and its Yushukan Military Museum which glorify Japan’s wartime aggressions, in particular the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, that plunged the United States into World War II to save us from another enemy nation ruled by a monarch... the Empire of Japan.
Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the Yusukuni and the newer Yushukan museum honor the souls of approximately 2.5 million Japanese civilians and soldiers who have died in Japan’s wars up to and including WW II.
Entering the Yasukuni through its monstrous “torii” or gate that bears the yellow chrysanthemum seal of the emperor, we found ourselves surrounded by lush gardens, teahouses and bookstores as well as nearly a score of shrines, monuments, statues and purification fonts that extol the the nation’s military and the ravages it has wrought through the centuries.
The Yasukuni Shrine has become highly controversial both here and abroad because among the Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen it honors are 14 “Class A” World War II war criminals, including the notorious Gen. Hideo Tojo, who were convicted by an international tribunal following the war of the starvation, rape, torture and deaths of countless civilians and allied forces during WW II.
The controversy was heightened last December when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the shrine, and more recently, by his ceremonial offering of a potted tree to the shrine and a shrine visit by 150 members of Japan’s parliament.
Many Japanese have expressed anger at the visits of Abe and the legislators as have the U.S., its WW II allies, and several Asian nations such as Korea and China whose citizens suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of the Japanese during the war.
The U.S. embassy here and Vice President Al Gore also denounced the visits. And so did pop idol Justin Bieber, who visited the shrine as a tourist and said he had a “great time” there. But he later apologized, stating he had no knowledge of its historical significance when he made his appearance there.
The exhibits at the Yushukan War Museum, which lies down a long pebbly path connected to the Yasukuni Shrine, also repel American and most foreign visitors who are familiar with Japan’s WW II conquests and barbarities.
When Ludie and I entered the Yushukan, we were greeted by a Japanese volunteer guide who appeared to be in his late 60s. Smiling and bowing low, he handed us his business card that bore his address, telephone and email numbers, and his name and title: “Glichi Hamada, Captain, Japanese Navy, retired.”
He led us to a large gallery displaying historic Japanese newspapers that highlighted stories and photos depicting the Pearl Harbor attack, a collection of models of WW II Japanese Navy battleships, a large statue of a Japanese soldier in battle gear brandishing a rifle affixed with a bayonet and other photographic and textual exhibits that portray Japan as the innocent victim of WW II which was forced on the Japanese people by U.S. and allied military and economic interests.
The most memorable exhibits were a restored WW II Japanese Navy “Zero” fighter aircraft, a “Kaitan human torpedo” kamikaze submarine and an anti-aircraft gun.
Also displayed is a Japanese-made steam locomotive used by the Japanese Army in the early-1940s to pull freight trains loaded with troops, tanks, trucks and large guns along the 258-mile Burma Railroad that ran from Rangoon, Burma, to Bangkok, Thailand.
The railroad was built by the forced labor of allied prisoners from the U.S., Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. More than 12,000 of these prisoners met their deaths from starvation, disease, torture and executions during the railroad’s construction.
Called the “Death Railroad,” it was featured in the 1957 motion picture “Bridge on the River Kwai” that starred William Holden, Alex Guiness and Jack Hawkins.
We then saw a 15-minute film in the Yushukan’s auditorium that depicted Japanese troops engaging U.S. and allied forces and a propaganda film that featured grinning Japanese soldiers presented food to starving civilians in China.
What we found in this museum overwhelmed and enraged us. The museum offers blatant, vulgar and revisionist views of WW II, which the Japanese call the “Greater East Asian War.”
Both the museum and Yasukuni Shrine glorify Japan’s brutality and cruelty to millions of people during the war. My wife and I were repulsed by what we saw there and were eager to go outside for a breath of fresh air and then leave.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.