Now that classes are over for the term, I finally feel free to take the time to go out and do things like go to the beach, and otherwise explore the island. Today’s quest was to visit the USS Missouri, which was in dry dock and unavailable the last time I was out at Pearl Harbor, last August. So, I made my way down to
Pearl Harbor The “World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument“, as if that’s not an absurd mouthful of political nonsense, and attempted to purchase a ticket and check out the historic battleship where the official Instrument of Surrender was signed by Shigemitsu Mamoru, Umezu Yoshijiro, Douglas MacArthur, Chester Nimitz, and representatives of eight other Allied countries on September 2, 1945.
Alas, I neglected to bring a valid government-issued ID, so I was refused admittance. Boo. Thanks, Terror Alert Level Bravo! (EDIT: I did finally end up visiting the Missouri many months later. See my post on that visit.)
But, I ended up visiting the totally free and open to the public museum exhibits, which were recently renovated and overhauled. If I remember correctly, they opened the new museum on December 7, 2010.
The museum consists of two exhibition halls – one on the historical context, background, and lead-up to war, and the other on the attack itself, December 7, 1941. I vaguely remember the old one feeling quite old-school, musty and staid. It was poorly lit, and had an overall aesthetic, if I remember right, of dark wood panels (how 70s!), and just lots of text and lots of black-and-white photos. The new exhibits, by contrast, feel quite shiny and new, with a beautifully sleek aesthetic. Of course, five, ten, 15, 20 years from now, these too might feel old, and old-school, but at least for now, they look and feel cutting edge.
The displays contain tons of details and information, including lots I didn’t know, highlighting individuals such as Japanese spies on Oahu and loyal Japanese-American soldiers, for example. There are a good number of interactives, as well as videos, and flip-books providing even more information. But, while there is lots of information to be found here, none of the labels are too lengthy, and they are always balanced with large pictures with quotes in large font, which provide emotional effect or impact. These helps create atmosphere or mood, and keeps the exhibit from being boring, or overwhelming in its degree of detail. As serious a place as this is, Pearl Harbor, a war memorial and war museum, a site connected to great sadness and suffering, and to great controversy, it is also inescapably a site where people come as part of their island paradise getaway vacation, and so it needs to be, if not light in content (because, frankly that would be wholly inappropriate), then well-balanced in the way it does not demand too much intellectual focus. In short, it needs to be attention-getting, attention-keeping, engaging, and attractive. And these huge photos and short quotes do a great job of that.
These exhibits come as the result of extensive controversy, debates and discussions. There was much at stake, and many voiced their opinions – the design of the exhibits, ultimately, needed to satisfy the military (Pearl Harbor is still an active military base), the National Parks Service which runs the exhibits & interpretation, veterans groups, local & native Hawaiian interests, the interests of patriotic Americans who have never been to Pearl Harbor and may never come but who nevertheless felt the need to write in to express their opinions on what the site should be & what the exhibits should be like, Japanese and other foreign visitors, and many others as well. Curators and others pushed for a more balanced narrative, that was a little less pro-US propagandistic in its feel, and for the Japanese voice to be expressed as well. Many foreign visitors – not just Japanese, but Europeans, Australians & New Zealanders, and others – also expressed an interest in seeing a less US-focused narrative, and in hearing the Japanese side of the story. If I remember right, the military was actually on board with this, but veterans groups and many others were staunchly against it.
Part of what makes this complicated is the fact that the Arizona Memorial is a memorial, not a museum. Are these exhibits, back on shore, and not physically literally located at, on, or immediately connected to the Memorial also part of the memorial, or are they “a museum”? One could write pages and pages and pages about the issues involved, but there are others who can, and have, articulated them better than I would. Two good places to start, addressing the same issues though not exactly the same incidents, are the following articles:
*“Moving History: The Pearl Harbor Film(s)” by Geoffrey White, in White, Geoffrey et al (ed.) Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Duke University Press, 2001, discusses the efforts by the same museum/memorial/national park in 1991-92 to come up with a new, more balanced, short film to show visitors immediately before they visit the USS Arizona Memorial.
*“History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Insitution’s Enola Gay Exhibition” by Richard Kohn (Journal of American History, 82:3 (Dec 1995) pp1036-1063) similarly discusses the conflicting agendas and attitudes which resulted in a complete stalemate for efforts by the Smithsonian to put together an exhibition around the Enola Gay (the plane which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima).
If anyone knows of any good articles on the more current debate over the 2010 overhaul of the Pearl Harbor exhibits, I would love to hear about it. But, I do believe that the attitudes and issues raised in those two articles surely apply 100% to these exhibits as well, and I kept what I read about in those articles in mind as I walked through the exhibitions.
The overall effect is, I think, more or less perfectly balanced. No exhibition is perfect, of course, and this one did not blow me away, did not amaze me with how perfectly it succeeded in balancing these matters. But, all in all, they did a good job. Though I am sure there are those who would wish otherwise, the exhibit does not exude an attitude or atmosphere of yee-haw, “we got them Japs” chest-thumping patriotism. But neither does it cater to what those people vehemently opposed – the exhibition does not evoke an atmosphere of moral relativism or moral ambiguity, asking the visitor to reconsider whether what Japan did was so wrong, or whether what the US did was right. Not at all. And in the end, even without any flag-waving chest-thumping yee-ha’s, the US is definitely still painted in a more positive light.
The exhibit portrays the US as defending its own interests and those of free and democratic allies, while the Japanese seemed set, determined, on empire-building. Telling the Japanese side does not take away from the idea that the US was the good guys – quite to the contrary, it portrays even more clearly why Japan was in the wrong, and does so in a way that comes across as more objective, more authoritatively scholarly & accurate, and less propagandistic. Less “hoo-yeah cowboy”, and more the US as a country which gave due consideration to matters, and did what was right, and what was necessary.
The historical background of the lead-up to war is portrayed wonderfully on opposite sides of a single display, creating a parallel, or rather, a contrast, between the US and Japan in the 1930s. And, again, I don’t feel that telling the Japanese side of the story makes the US victory any less righteous, or the attack on Pearl Harbor any more justified. If anything, it simply illuminates the extent to which the Japanese government and military were set on empire-building, and the extent to which totalitarianism built up in Japan at this time. Yes, it does humanize the Japanese, portraying them as (god forbid!) human beings, with normal lives, playing baseball and going to the movies, dressing up for parties, and playing with their children. And, something I think is a very important point, it shows that the Japanese were not hellbent on war, least of all war with the US, which Admiral Yamamoto did not believe could be won if it lasted more than six months. The Japanese, the exhibit tells us, absolutely would have wanted to avoid war – but, they were not willing to abandon their expansionist actions in Manchuria, their alliance with Hitler, or certain other moves as the US government demanded. I’m sure that Japan, too, would have loved to avoid war with the US, except that in their minds that meant being left alone to do as they wished, not the abandonment of their imperial project. So, in the end, the rabid patriots get the militaristic, imperialistic, villain they’re looking for; they just get a more historically objective or accurate (and, yes, I know those are dangerous words to throw around) view of them, being forced to understand Japanese motivations as being more complicated, and in a way more reasonable, than simply being evil and hell-bent on the destruction of democracy or something like that.
The exhibits include a lot, too, about Native Hawaiians, the infringement upon their land by the US military (and civilian) presence, and the question of the military buildup at Pearl inviting an attack. All of this would, I am sure, make my museum studies professor here at UH happy, though I am sure there are those who think it does not go far enough. The argument being that if the US military (outsiders, invaders, occupiers) had not built up their military presence here, Hawaiian people and Hawaiian land would not have become the target or the victim of Japanese aggression. Which is, of course, a valid question. What if? The official reasoning given by political and military leaders at the time was that by moving the Pacific Fleet from California to Hawaii, they were trying to do the exact opposite – to intimidate and discourage Japanese attack against any American targets. … Meanwhile, I am sure there are those who think that addressing this issue at all goes too far. If you ask me, more than the issue of the Japanese voice, it is the addressing of the Hawaiian voice that is more truly controversial – for me, at least. Have they gone too far, or not far enough in my personal opinion? I don’t know. I think the question of inviting attack is one relevant not only to Hawaii, but to the US as a whole, and so it is more than okay to address it, and not omit it. And the way these local issues are separated out and placed in between the main sections of the museum, rather than being made to be in any way the center of attention, is also good in my opinion, though I am sure there are those who would argue against it.
These aspects tell an important element of the story, but, for the American or Japanese visitor, for the WWII historian, a decidedly secondary aspect. Only for locals and natives, and historians of Hawaii, would this be of primary concern. And, the post-colonial discourse of this place being what it is, everything becomes an issue. Whereas in Ohio you might still have controversies over local history versus national history, here it immediately becomes so much more than that, tying into issues of race and of occupation and imperialism. Pearl Harbor is a National Park, and a historical site of national significance, so it makes sense that it should be addressing the subject from a national point of view. Except that, as a National Park of the United States, and as a military base of the United States, which is an imperialist, colonialist, Occupying power (according to many people; I’m not sure quite where I stand on this), the very matter of its existence recalls, some would argue, the idea of the Hawaiian people being pushed off their land and their voices being silenced, and thus the entire museum/memorial/park must be held accountable, and the Hawaiian people’s perspective, their suffering, the impact upon them of Dec 7 must be put above all else because after all this is their land.
You can see, I hope, how just about everything here in Hawaii becomes a controversial and touchy issue. While I am sure that there will be as many different opinions on this as people who see it, for my part, I think they’ve done a fine job of making sure the issue is addressed, present and visible (and not shoved off to some dark corner), but is also not given undue prominence.
The exhibition also touches upon another, similar, matter, and one of great importance to many locals here in Hawaii. That is, the matter of Nikkei (i.e. Japanese-Americans) in Hawaii, and their fight to prove their loyalty. Again, very well done, addressed, given visibility, given validation, but not given undue prominence.
Turning from the Japanese-Americans and returning to the matter of telling the Japanese side of the story too, in the section on the attack itself, yes, there are videos of Japanese survivors telling their side. But it’s not a political thing, excusing or justifying their country’s actions. Rather, from what little I saw, it’s mostly Japanese veterans telling of their immediate experience that day, talking about smoke and fire, about dodging bullets, and so on.
Sure, it’s not like the old exhibits, which related a more explicitly patriotic message of how horrible the attack was and how much we were right to be angry. The quote “a date that will live in infamy” is still present, but is not featured in huge massive letters as the core concept of the exhibition. It’s not a memorial museum anymore, so much as a war museum. The exhibits strike a good balance, too, I think, in presenting a military narrative that’s full of details (at 6:37AM, Hawaii Standard Time, the USS Ward sank a Japanese midget submarine, the first American shots fired in World War II) but that never reads to me like a “military museum” in the sense of being aimed at the kind of audience who are absolute nerds about technical details of military stuff, nor in the sense of celebrating American might, per se.
The exhibit’s narrative is still very much told from an American point of view, though, and as I said before, while it’s not the kind of “hoo-hah we got them Japs” nationalistic sort of thing certain interest groups (veterans, Tea Partiers) may have wanted, neither do I think it is in any way morally ambiguous – the exhibits are not asking us to question what we did, or implying it was wrong. Not at all. The exhibits do not inspire in me anger towards the Japanese, but neither do they make me feel at all uneasy about my patriotism, and in that, I think a fine balance is struck.
The museum ends with a brief treatment of the Japanese Internment (very visible, but not angry, not beating anything over the visitor’s head), a model of the Arizona Memorial as it looks today, and a very brief treatment of the rest of the war, deftly avoiding the controversial topic of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while not omitting it entirely (as that could potentially be too obvious, inciting controversy after all).
You can find all of my photos of the museums and memorials at Pearl Harbor here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/toranosuke/tags/pearlharbor/.
I am sure that closer looking, multiple visits, and visiting with different companions (not to mention interviewing visitors and staff) could yield deeper insights, or could inspire a change of opinion on my part about the meanings expressed by the exhibits, and as to how well done they are, but, for now, these are my thoughts. I would be eager to hear yours – have you recently visited any controversial museums or historical sites and were impressed, disgusted, intrigued, or surprised by how certain topics were handled?