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Fabricating the Memory: War Museums and Memorial Sites Essay

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Updated: Mar 14th, 2022

Memory and history are fundamentally opposite, although they seem to be similar (Nora, 8). History is a profound truth, and memory is “shifted and sorted historical traces” and “resemblance” of the facts (Nora, 8). Memories are powerful and “magical” (Nora, 8), and sometimes even more effective than history. Museums can easily be involved in controlling the memories and even “changing” history.

In Les Lieux de Memoire, Pierre Nora argues that memory and history are fundamentally opposite, although they seem to be similar (Nora, 8). History is a profound truth, and memory is “shifted and sorted historical traces” and “resemblance” of the facts (Nora, 8). Memories are powerful and “magical” (Nora, 8), and sometimes even more effective than history. Museums can easily be involved in controlling the memories and even “changing” the history. Especially war museums and memorial museums are places of memories. Commemorating the war is closely related to national pride and identity, thus war museums often describe the war as dead heroes, who automatically maximize the value of the nation. Contents of war museums involve political powers and social intentions, and it is tempting to eliminate some parts and display only one side of the history. This essay will compare how Japan uses their war museums to seal the shameful history to how Germany operates holocaust museums to convey the truth to future generation, and furthermore, study the true value and role of war museums by exploring the problems caused by teaching fabricated history in Japan.

Japan has been trying to wipe out its evil acts conducted during WWII. For instance, Japan still claims that the Nanking Massacre is fake, even with Chinese and foreign survived eyewitnesses (Chang, 4) and photos of brutal scenes. Nariaki Nakayama, the head of the group created to study WWII historical issues, argues that only 20,000 people were killed in Nanking (New York Times), opposed to not the widely cited number of 300,000. In 1982, the Ministry of Education started distorting the history of WWII in high school textbooks and described the Nanjing Massacre as a “minor incident”, thus not worth mentioning in textbooks (Cheung). A French journalist who covered Japan in 2005 was displeased by the fact that Japanese Institutions did not teach history after 1920, saying in excuse that “there is not sufficient time for that” (Lee).

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Japan characterizes Japan only as a victim of atomic bomb. There was no information on why the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima until 1994 (Northeast Asian History Foundation, 97). Due to the high international criticism, a very tiny portion of the East Wing is dedicated to explain the context, yet visitors easily overlook the section after the dense display of tragedies after a-bomb in the West Wing and recoveries in the East Wing. The museum avoids displaying the feature of Japan as perpetrators, and its website lacks information on the cause of the atomic bomb.

A war museum revives the memory of the war, and its fabrication causes conflicts between countries. War Museum Yushukan in Yasukuni Temple in Japan presents Nanjing Massacre as “liberation”, while omitting the display of Japan’s use of chemical weapons, human vivisections, and Korean sex slaves (Pilling). Japan buried and enshrined 14 Class A Criminals at Yasukuni Temple in 1978 along with the war victims, which is shocking as Adolf Hitler buried at German national cemetery. To make matters worse, prime minister’s annual visit to the shrine on August 15th, the independence day of former Japanese colonies, has soured the relationship between Japanese and neighbor countries such as China, Korea, and Taiwan. U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, a holocaust survivor, described the Yasukuni visits as “the most egregious example of Japan’s historical amnesia”, and compared it to “laying a wreath at the graves of former Germany Nazi leaders such as Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess and Hermann Goering” (Japan Policy and Politics). Pierre Nora claims that memory would be swiped away soon (Nora, 12), in other words, Japanese prime minister keeps justifying Japan’s evil acts during the war by commemoration of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. As a result distorted display of Yushukan Museum and deification of war criminals at Yasukuni Temple, Japanese believe that they liberated East Asian countries from Western colonialism; therefore Asians should thank Japan for invading them, and Japan is superior to other East Asian countries (Lee). French weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur expressed their disappointment at Japan’s own distorted interpretation of the history (Lee). It is an irony Yasukuni temple, which meaning is “the land of eternal peace”, is causing numerous international conflicts.

On the other hand, German’s attitude towards facing its history is opposite from Japan’s. In Germany, a person who says, “there was no Auschwitz” is subjected to five years imprisonment (Kim, 17). In 2004, Holocaust Memorial was built at the heart of Berlin, a short distance from the place where the Hitler’s bunker was located (Kim). This is a reflection of German’s deep introspection and clean liquidation of the past, which consequently soared the national prestige of Germany. Still, Germany feels sorry for all the committed crimes. Though this country admitted all the evil acts that its citizens did and said sorry to all the countries that suffered from Nazis.

German statesman Willy Brandt said, “no people can escape from their history” (Time). He believed that one cannot see the future without facing the past. This attitude is shown in memorial sites such as Dachau. Dachau was a concentration camp for political prisoners and a model for all later concentration camps. The memorial site on the grounds of the former concentration camp was founded in 1965. (KZ-Gedenkstatte Dachau).

It is unique because the aggressor, Germany, built the site, while the victims built Auschwitz in Poland. The inscription on a statue says, “Never Again,” reminding the dark history.

In addition, Germany consistently shows a clear gesture of repentance and apology. On December 7, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeled in front of the monument in Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (Facing History and Ourselves). This is a commemoration that differs from that of Japanese prime ministers; the act of Willy Brandt has become “a symbol of accepting the past and of understanding it as an obligation for reconciliation”, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in his speech (Facing History and Ourselves). This commemorational act awoken the recognition of the holocaust for Germans once again and will be a consistent reminder for future generations. More recently in 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel kneeled down at the 64th anniversary of the end of WWII at Gdansk, repenting and emphasizing the responsibility for the past (Jang). Moreover, German students go on school trips to Auschwitz to learn their history (Lee-sa), which is interesting to compare to Japanese high-school textbook falsification.

German government’s effort to face the past branches out internationally. In Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Israel, visitors can see the photos of Nazis executing the Jews and burning the dead. Likewise, videos are available in United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC. How could Israel obtain these pictures that Hitler strictly controlled? The answer is simple: the German government donated the photos to the Israeli government and U.S. holocaust museums (Lee-sa).

The results of fabrication and omission in war museums are serious. In Japan, young generations have not properly learned the true history, thus they do not understand neighboring countries’ attitudes towards WWII. They not only do not understand their nation’s history but also do not want to think back. French magazine La Liberation points out that the Japanese barely know about the darkest part of their own history (Lee). There was an incident in 1988, which shows the problem of ignorance: in 1985, China donated a peace monument with an image of a girl, placed near Urakami Prison where Korean and Chinese people were hunted for forced labor. In 1988, a young Japanese man threw red paint to the monument, claiming that Japan never did bad things (Jun).

As the role of museums becomes more important in representing national power, their distortions and related acts are becoming international issues. For instance, regarding Japanese Politicians’ repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Henry Hyde, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, addressed these visits as offensive to American veterans of WWII as well (Soh). However, as former Japanese colonies exposed Japan’s evil acts at the beginning of the post-Cold War era, some Japanese began to face truthful history. As museums affect people’s notions, changes of awareness affect the exhibitions as well. For instance, with the support of Chinese civil groups, Japan displayed a traveling exhibition titled “Unit 731” in 142 regions from 1994 to 1997 (Yuh, 146): Unit 731 is a Japanese military troop that conducted human experiments during WWII. They experimented on how long humans can survive in extreme temperatures, injected horse urine into human kidneys, and tested plagues on prisoners.

War museums should be as objective as possible as they can be and educate the truth. To convey successfully the memory of the war to the generation who did not experience it, museums should precisely display both sides of stories, victims and aggressors. Osaka Peace Center in Japan is a bright example of an objective war museum. Local citizens and news media are built the center to remember the tragedy of the war in Osaka. In order to explain why the city was attacked several times, the planners decided to show Japan as not only the victim but also the aggressor: exhibition room 1 displays the agony of people in Osaka caused by U.S. attacks during WWII. At the same time, exhibition room 2 represents Japan’s invasions to East Asian countries and their pain (Yuh, 170).

War museums and memorial sites are not only cultural places for education but also political places that represent national identity (Yuh, 7). As political tools, war museums tend to select the memory and omit certain points of history, yet this is a disrespectful act, betraying the public trust. Museums are one of the most effective tools to show the tragedy of wars and pass the painful memories to the future generation. Today’s world is still struggling with army conflicts. Due to the advanced technology and weapons, the results of the wars are catastrophic. In order to protect future generations from the miseries of the war, museums are responsible for presenting precise history and disasters of wars. Museums should show the solutions for the problems of peace and wars, and help construct a peaceful international society. Facing the truth shall let people put the past behind and move forward.

Past cannot be avoided or hidden in a bag so that no one can see it. And eliminating the most terrible facts of history can lead only to repeating the mistakes of the past. I believe, no one wants to see WWII repeated. And such brutal violating of historical events committed by Japan shows only disrespect and unwillingness of Japan to admit the true history and all the evil deeds they made.

Young generations must know every mistake that made their ancestor that will keep the world safe from repeating them and sinking into the disastrous precipice of wars and crimes. Educating true history without hiding shameful facts will lead to opened national consciousness accepting no aggression. It is clear that war museums are the best tolls of manipulating minds, but they are also the only sources of seeing history as it is, where one can touch it and feel it. And it mustn’t be eliminated.

To my mind, the way that Japan was chosen is wrong. Omitting historical facts can lead to offending other countries who suffered from this unjustified aggression. And this offense may lead to another armed conflict and to another world war. The political tendency of the world is to get rid of all kinds of wars and aggression to preserve peace. All people live on one planet and wars slowly destroy it.

It is quite clear that admitting war crimes is, first of all, an economically unprofitable act. As the country which took guilt must pay compensation for moral and material losses. In 1945 Germany paid all losses to every country that suffered from the actions of the Nazis. Why shouldn’t Japan do this? Why does Japan hide its true history-changing some facts and supporting ideas of the heroic past of the country? Well, not only because of economic disadvantage. Another important point is the politics of Japan. They presented their country and nation as victims of the USA’s aggression.

There are also other memorial sites and museums of WWII. One of the biggest is Imperial War Museum. It is situated in London. Its collection includes military hardware, weapons, things of years of war, a public library, a photo archive and a large art collection dedicated to armed conflicts. The imperial war museum was established in 1917 and possesses the richest collection of the military history of the XX century in the world.

Being established as one of the first institutes devoted to the research of hardly worked out experience of WWI, the museum changed its location several times (it was even located in Royal Asylum of Maria of Babylon). During WWII museum’s collection was evacuated and almost didn’t suffer.

Today the Imperial War Museum is one of the most important national galleries of the country. Also, it is a national archive and research center where 120 people work. Private researchers also can work with collections and the museum’s library.

Museum’s collection is unique, it consists of 19000 artworks, pictures and sculptures, being the second largest collection in the world of British military art of the XX century. Also, it includes 15000 posters and manifests, 119742 ft of movie tapes, 10000 hours of videotapes, 56000 hours of historical audio recordings, more than 10 mln of photos, negatives and transparent films, more than 15000 collections of non-published diaries, letters, memoirs, and other private documents, thousands of objects as uniforms, medals, firearms, and hundreds of big objects such as planes and transport vehicles.

The biggest part of its collection can be found online on the site of the museum. The online part of the museum includes 219000 issues of different kinds.

Many exhibitions of the museum carry traditional characters – the exhibited original showpieces are followed by explanatory commentaries. The traditional way of exhibiting underlines the advantages of every collection – things and documents gathered together, thus creating the atmosphere of the exhibited epoch, deepening the impressions of visitors about widely known events.

The hall devoted to the Holocaust is organized in a special way. The visitor gets to the blacked-out premise where the glazed exhibition spaces are divided by mirror metal surfaces. It includes the spectator in exposition space; this sort of interaction with objects strengthens a psychological involvement. The hall is divided into fenced-off zones so the visitor has a possibility to remain in private with the thoughts, to retire to the public space of a museum. Documents, photos, personal things of prisoners of concentration camps, among objects – short documentary films and removed on interview video are exposed.

A lot was said about war museums. My impression about them is that they preserve parts of history that will never die. All their collections involve us in the middle of the events happening not so long ago. War is a terrible and disastrous experience that should never be lived through again. During XX century humanity suffered from too many wars and too many people died during them. Do we want them to be repeated?

Humanity changes and develops. And with the development of society, arms and weapons also develop. They become stronger, more dangerous and more disastrous. And if a war will start, humanity has the chance to be totally destroyed during it. World War II demonstrated the deathly power of nuclear weapons.

We want our world to be preserved safe and sound for future generations and we are to make it safer today. War museums are conductors to the past. Visiting them we can see, feel and remember forever all the mistakes that our ancestors did. Do we want to make the same? An injection of true facts, unveiled, without eliminating shameful events, must be done to everyone. Hiding some events is an offense to those who died during wars. War museums preserve history as it is to the future, to people who will live far longer after our deaths. Do we want our grand-grand-grandchildren to be killed during another armed conflict that began because of the crime of some small person? Peace is one of the most precious things on Earth and we have to take care of it. It is widely known that cognition comes through comparison. War museums give us the opportunity to compare life during military conflicts and events and now when it’s rather peaceful. We must keep the peace for the future and we must remember the terror of war. And the shade of this terror will never come to our planet again.


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