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Posts Tagged ‘okinawa peace memorial park’

Yesterday, June 23, marked the annual Okinawan observance of Irei no Hi 慰霊の日, an official holiday in memory of those many, many Okinawans and others killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

The Cornerstone of Peace.

I figured this an opportune time to finally post something about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park & Museum (Okinawa Heiwa Kinen Kôen / Shiryôkan 沖縄県平和祈念公園・資料館), which I visited several times during my time in Okinawa this past year. I took extensive notes the last time I was there, and went back to my notes to build this post, but found that what I had written was quite descriptive, and strangely I’ve found myself kind of struggling to write something more interpretive about the museum. I guess it’s been too long since I’ve been in a Museum Studies frame of mind.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum is located within the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park at Mabuni, near the southern tip of Okinawa Island. In many ways it reminds me of the memorial park at Hiroshima, and also of Holocaust Museums I have visited in various cities around the United States, and of Yad Vashem, the chief Holocaust memorial site in Jerusalem. The park itself is quite extensive, and includes a number of different memorials. The main one is a series of rows of black stone slabs, inscribed with the names of all those killed in the Battle, whether they be Okinawan, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, or American; the slabs are organized in rows, fanning out from an eternal flame, known as the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no ishiji, 平和の礎), and beyond that, the sea. The whole arrangement creates the impression of waves, waves of peace, emanating out from the Cornerstone, emanating out from Okinawa, into the world. I must admit, when I first read that this was the intention of the design, and first truly felt that image in my mind, in my heart, I started crying. Far too many people are unaware of Okinawa’s story, and of the lessons it has to teach; far too many people are as of yet untouched by those waves of peace, emanating out from Okinawa, trying desperately to bring peace to the world.

As for the museum itself, it begins with a very detailed account of the 1930s to 40s, the economic and political situation in Japan, in Okinawa, and the world, setting the stage, described in a way that strikes me as “objective” in voice, or at the very least, with a detached sort of perspective. And by this I mean that I did not sense within the phrasing of the labels, or the organization of this first part of the exhibit, blatant lionizing or villainizing; I did not sense a blatantly, boldly, pro- or anti-Japan perspective. Rather the exhibit basically just explains what happened, what events took place, what decisions were made; it provides the background situation amidst which Japan made the decisions it did – in terms of both domestic and international considerations, and so forth. All of this set-up is given in a series of labels, displays, objects, short videos, packed into the displays around the edge of the first, circular, room.

I think this is a really good approach for a Memorial Museum. Maybe I’m too biased (in favor of the Okinawans) and thus was blind to the biases in the exhibition, but, really I think it took a rather objective or distanced stance. And this is a smart move because, unlike at so many other museums – e.g. the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, the Yûshûkan at Yasukuni Shrine, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery which I’ll post about soon – where the bias is blatant and obvious, thus making the whole thing all too easy to dismiss out of hand, here the Museum is telling you, in cold hard facts, this is what happened. This is real, this is true. It’s not being blown out of proportion or taken out of context.

In truth, I think there’s a lot to be taken away from this first room, alone. I’m not as expert on this period as some of my colleagues, and I am not expertly familiar with all the various nuances and complexities of the different narratives, different versions, different approaches, to understanding Japanese imperialism, but from what I have seen, I really think this is about the best. It presents the context, the pressures upon the Japanese government (both real and perceived), the reasons the government did what it did – even if those choices were, to be sure, horrible and worthy of being condemned – thus presenting the Japanese certainly as oppressors, aggressors, but not as irrational monsters, while also not going too far in the other direction, portraying the Japanese as merely victims of world circumstance. Imperial Japan had real reasons for choosing the path that it did – they were regular human beings, not monsters – but still, the path they chose was one of violence and oppression. We must understand the circumstances, the choices made, and the repercussions, the outcomes, in order to learn the lessons of the past, and to be able to work more truly towards building a better future, a better path, such that similar events should never happen again.

Because I found this exhibit so well done, I was quite frustrated on my first and second visits to the museum that they don’t allow photographs. And, as you’d expect if you know me, I’m still quite frustrated about that. But, on my third visit I found, what I had not seen previously, a museum catalog book of the permanent exhibition for sale, which essentially contains much of that same content, in easily purchasable and keepable form, for less than 2000 yen. Now that I own this book, I very much hope that I find the time at some point to read it all and write it all down – in English – into a form I can use for lectures, whether it be World History, Japanese History, or East Asian History.

Another way the museum did an excellent job in making their story more accessible, more meaningful, is that they don’t really limit it to the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan perspective. Yes, the succeeding rooms are specifically about Okinawa, but the set-up, this first room of 1930s-40s Japanese and world historical context, is broad enough, general enough, that it really works as a quality account applicable and useful in general, for anyone discussing Imperial Japan & the Asia-Pacific War – perhaps even the best account I’ve yet seen at all. Hopefully, it speaks to visitors from all around the world, and not only to those interested in the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan position. Hopefully, by telling the story this way, it should be able to successfully convey the message of the dangers of militarism, of ultranationalism, in general, no matter who is doing it (not just the Japanese).

A view of the first gallery, courtesy OkinawaClip.com.

After making one’s way through this detailed and well-presented background behind the origins of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and imperialism, a short video in the center of the first room summarizes the progression of the war itself, from one battle to the next.

To the side of this room is a special exhibit corner, which at that time had a small exhibit on the Japanese colonies in Nanyô/Micronesia. And also on comparing history textbooks not only between US, Japan, China, Korea, but also with Palau, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Really interesting to see – not something we normally get exposed to.

The next room is set up to evoke the atmosphere of the so-called Typhoon of Steel – that is, the Battle of Okinawa. It is dark, with steel girders and concrete protruding here and there. A large 3D map of Okinawa sits in the middle of the room, with various things about the battle marked out on it. And hanging above the map is a large video screen, on which plays a short video about the Battle. This, for me, was probably one of the centerpieces of the entire exhibition. The museum provides the background, the set-up, in the previous room, and the aftermath in the following rooms. Here, it provides the story of the event itself: what happened to Okinawa that this museum as a whole (and the memorial park outside) is memorializing – what suffering, what death and destruction, took place here. It brings you in, it makes you understand. It makes you feel, the death and destruction, the sadness.

Then, we move into the following room, and the museum shifts dramatically, from historical narrative, to a memorial mode. I suppose, sitting and writing this out now, that this is still historical narrative, but it’s shifting from a “big picture” mode of the history of politics, economics, and war, to a far more personal level. We see large photos of individual people and individual scenes of death and destruction, and next to it, a walk-in reconstruction of the gama, the caves in which people hid during the Battle. Mannequins are set up to show how people suffered and survived in the caves, and committed some truly horrific acts in order to survive, including killing crying babies so their screams wouldn’t alert soldiers outside to the presence of the civilians hiding inside the cave.

The Testimonials Room at the museum. Image again thanks to OkinawaClip.com.

The next room of the museum is a Testimonials room. I don’t know if it’s actually more brightly lit than the previous rooms, but it gives a feeling of starkness, whiteness. Desks are arranged in perfect rows, and books/binders provide numerous first-hand accounts of people’s experiences during the battle. I only read a very few, but they were horrific. People who were just small children at the time, witnessing their siblings or parents killed right in front of them, whether by soldiers, or by suicide. People who hid in caves and were so terrified to come out, for fear of what might happen to them. Reading these individual stories, of individual people, often young children, who had lived such (relatively) normal lives up until then, and who we can imagine might have had such bright futures ahead of them, thrown into this world of suffering and death, and all because of war, because of militarism and imperialism and ultranationalism, and in the specific case of Okinawa, because two world superpowers based in capitals thousands of miles away decided that their tiny island should be the place to battle it out.

A bank of small viewing rooms sits on the back side of this Testimonial hall. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to sit and watch any of the the video testimonials, though I really should.

A poem, written on the wall outside the Testimonial room:

Image again from OkinawaClip.com.

Whenever we look at
The truth of the Battle of Okinawa
We think
There is nothing as brutal
Nothing as dishonorable
As war.

In the face of this traumatic experience
No one will be able to speak out for
Or idealize war.

To be sure, it is human beings who start wars
But more than that
Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars?

Since the end of the war
We have abhorred all wars,
Long yearning to create a peaceful island.

To acquire
This
Our unwavering principle,
We have paid dearly.

From here on, we are led through a chronological narrative of Okinawa’s post-war history. The Testimony room is followed by refugee camps 収容所. Dark wood poles and canvas tent sections overhead evoke the feeling of being in such a camp. Along with laundry hung on barbed wire fences. This is followed by a section made up to look like a 1950s commercial shopping street, with barbershop, bars, nightclub, tailor shop… And then, as we enter the next section, it turns to barbed wire fencing, with a mannequin in US military uniform looking as though he is asking for your ID. Exhibits include detailed descriptions of the progress of developments in politics, economics, protests, and so forth, from the US Occupation of Okinawa, to the eventual “freedom” from Occupation, and rejoining Japan in 1972, up to the present, as the military presence and protests against it continue.

I made sure to take extensive notes on my last visit to this museum. While I had known about the prewar and wartime history to a certain extent, I had very little sense of the date-by-date chronological developments of the post-war period. Seeing it spelled out was really quite interesting, moving, and impactful. There’s just so much here, so many twists and turns, that add such depth to the story. We learn about the refugee camps and the evolution of semblances of Okinawan self-governance from the 1950s through the 1970s to today; how the US Occupation ended so much earlier in the Amami Islands; the visit of the head of the ACLU to Okinawa; the way the military forced people into leasing out their land for exceptionally low, unfair, rates; the way bayonets and bulldozers were used to physically remove people from their land; and details of how the resistance and protest and independence movements rose and fell; connections to Communism and to US anti-Communist crackdowns; and the progress of developments in how the US Occupation authorities dealt with political opposition, and how they deal with crimes and scandals today.

I know I haven’t said much in this post of an analytical or interpretive nature. There are formal Museum Studies academic journal articles, and exhibit reviews, out there, I’m sure, which articulate far better what I wish I could here. But, as much as I wish I knew how to articulate all that myself, I think that for now, I’ll just leave it by saying that this is truly an excellent Memorial Museum, an excellent history museum, and while I know it’s a bit out of the way, I really wish more people – I wish everyone – would go and visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum. This is not just a niche story relevant only to those with interest in Okinawa; nor is it in any way what you might expect from a local, out-of-the-way, provincial museum. Truly, this is a top-notch, world-class World War II Memorial Museum. I think the lessons it has to teach are of immense importance for everyone around the world, and that this museum does an excellent job of conveying those lessons (including by making the exhibits quite accessible, with labels and video subtitles in multiple languages).

On this Irei no Hi, let us take a moment to think, to remember, and to sympathize. Let us picture in our minds waves of peace, flowing out from Okinawa, waves of people trying desperately to reach out, and to wash over the whole world, such that what happened in Okinawa, and tragically in so many other places all around the world, might someday truly cease to ever take place again.

The Mabuni cliffs, just outside the museum, where in 1945 a great many people, pressed down to the southern end of the island trying to flee the violence, had nowhere left to go, and threw themselves off the cliffs, to their deaths.

All exterior photos my own.

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