Japanese War Memories at ASPAC

I’m not going to go though quite the same song-and-dance I did with Japanese Diaspora or South Asian studies because these issues are much more familiar to the readership here. But I did see two presentations that I wanted to share: Noriko Kawamura’s on the new sources and debates about the end of the war and just-graduated college senior Megan Jones’ fantastic project about Japan’s WWII museum/memorials.

Noriko Kawamura has been working on the end of war question for as long as I’ve known her (four ASPACs) and is deeply familiar with the available sources.1 Her overall thesis was a kind of very counter-cultural one: that all the new evidence, despite all kinds of attempts to push the debate one way or another,2 strongly supports Ronald Butow’s conclusion from a half century ago, that the Emperor’s titular authority became more real as the crisis deepened, culminating in the Seiden [sacred declaration] to accept unconditional surrender as the price of peace.3 Her focus this time was on the growing momentum of the “peace faction” within the government: starting with discussions of end of war issues in November 1942 and Spring of ’43, the Emperor seems to have understood the need to terminate the conflict with the US, but continued to support the “decisive battle” idea4 until after the failure of Japanese forces at the Battle of Okinawa, after which the Emperor convened the Suzuki cabinet and charged it with ending the war. At this point, Kawamura is arguing, the momentum is strongly towards peacemaking with Imperial support. Kawamura didn’t address, at that point, the final days questions: she was more focused on the source issues, particularly the importance of critical readings of a Kido Koichi interview from 1967 and the famous “Dokuhaku” monologue of the Showa Emperor. But she did argue that the peace faction needs to be given more credit for their sustained efforts over several years which laid the foundations for the conclusion to the war.

One of the things which I love about ASPAC is the way in which it tries to engage scholars and teachers at all levels. For graduate students, there’s the Esterline prize for best paper5; for K-12 teachers there’s often a seminar, and an open invitation to the panels; there are a fair number of independent scholars and academics at all levels who come as well. One thing you don’t see a lot of is undergraduates, but this time Jeff Barlow organized a panel of his graduating seniors. The best of the batch (I’m not their teacher, so I can say what I like about their work) was Megan Jones’ “Exhibits of Opinion: How Japan’s World War II Museums are used to Further Political Agendas,” which was the result of extensive field work in Japan and resulted in a fantastic collection of images6 She examined the presentation of three issues at a dozen museums, and created a typology of Right and Left presentations.

Right Left
Emperor’s War Responsibility Emp. was controlled by militarists, fooled and betrayed Emperor was a war criminal, and symbol of Japanese culpability
San Francisco Peace Treaty Dealt with all compensation and guilt issues. No more apologies necessary. Lack of Asian participation means treaty an incomplete resolution
Liberator or Colonizer in Asia? Japanese did a service, motivated by anti-colonialism Japanese aggressive, imperialist and self-centered

These are pretty familiar positions, obviously: what’s interesting is the consistency with which they were present in the museums she studied. Megan classifed the museums as follows:

Conservative Kaiten Tokkotai Memorial Museum (opened 1968)
Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots (opened 1975)
Yamato Museum (opened 2005)
Yashukan (at Yasukuni Shrine; opened 1961, renovated 2002)
Middle ground, with a “right wing tilt” Hiroshima Peace Museum7
Liberal/Left Okonoshima Toxic Gas Museum (opened 1988, one room exhibit hall)
Osaka Peace Museum (Japan as victim and aggressor)
Kyoto World Peace Museum (opened 1992, Japan as victim and aggressor)
Nagasaki Atomic bomb museum (opened 1996, good context)

On of Ms. Jones’ interesting findings was that all these museums — liberal, conservative, whatever — claimed as their purpose the fostering of peace in Japan and in the world. Very different visions of peace, of course, but peace nonetheless.

  1. She was the first person I know of who said outright that Bix was pushing his sources too far, distorting their content  

  2. She cited Asada’s “shock of the bomb” thesis, Bix’s personality thesis, Hasegawa’s Soviet entry thesis and Bernstein’s counterfactual scenarios  

  3. I read Butow in graduate school, and I haven’t really read Asada, Hasegawa or Alperovitz in any detail, so I’m thrilled to discover that I’m actually still up-to-date!  

  4. the idea that Japan needed to win a decisive tactical victory so as to negotiate from a position of equality, if not strength. Unfortunately, after 1942, Japan really didn’t have any significant tactical victories to speak of  

  5. submissions have been thin the last few years: have graduate students suddenly gotten so successful that they don’t need prize money, or publication?  

  6. I did strongly urge her to find some way to make the images available to the wider scholarly community.  

  7. I contested this, because my impression in 1995 was that the new historical presentations created in the early ’90s were pretty well contextualized and balanced. She felt that it was still largely without context, and that non-Japanese victims were almost entirely absent.  

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