Posts Tagged ‘World War II’

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
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.


Read Full Post »

On my fourth (or fifth?) journey to Pearl Harbor, I finally managed today to visit the USS Missouri. The first time I traveled out there, the ship was in dry-dock for repairs, and was inaccessible. The second time, I was on a group field trip, and didn’t have the time to make it out there. The third time, in my efforts to bring as little as possible – no bags of any kind are allowed – I neglected to bring my passport, and so could not pass the military checkpoint to get onto Ford Island. Today, therefore, I made sure to bring it, and headed out and made it happen. After an unnecessarily long bus ride, I managed to make it there with just enough time to spare, getting to the ship around three, going on the 35 minute guided tour, checking things out on my own for about 20 mins, and getting the hell out of there before I missed the last shuttle bus at 4 o’clock.

The tour, led by Heather, a staff member of the NPO that runs/maintains the Missouri, was really excellent. I realize now I neglected to get a picture of her. She talked about the history of the ship, its tours of service in WWII, the Korean War, and, refitted under Pres. Reagan’s administration, in the Gulf War in the ’90s, as well as some technical specs about the ship’s equipment. It is a massive ship, about twenty stories tall from keel to mast, and about the length of three football fields, but quite narrow, narrow enough to just barely squeeze through the Panama Canal.

I’ve never really been interested in modern warfare or the technical specs of battleships and their guns, though. For me, the most powerful aspect, and the entire reason I was there, was the significance of the Missouri as the ship on whose decks the formal Instruments of Surrender were signed on September 2, 1945, by representatives of the Empire of Japan, and by General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz, and other representatives of the Allies.

There was something about our tour guide’s manner that really brought the scene alive for me, and truly moved me, as she described how the ship was situated in Tokyo Bay that day, an extra platform erected off the side of the ship to provide space for the media, and the guns turned to face the city – in part simply to create more space for the ceremony, but also as a sort of warning should the Japanese refuse to sign the surrender. The British had provided a very nice table for the ceremony, but at the last minute it was determined to be too small to hold the formal documents, and so a table was hauled up from the mess, where the sailors had just finished breakfast, and a green tablecloth thrown over it, hiding cigarette burns, scratches, gouges and stains from years of use. Our guide pointed out where the Japanese representatives stood, and their Allied counterparts, and described MacArthur, Nimitz, and the other top US commanders walking down that very ladder right over there.

The Japanese representatives, we are told, feared they might be killed onboard the Missouri that day, and had their wills drawn up ahead of time. They were surprised, we are told, to instead hear talk about rebuilding. And indeed, as the ensuing decades showed, Japan was indeed rebuilt, as was its position and reputation as one of the great powers of the world.

A flag hanging in a case on the wall (the bulkhead?) hung in (roughly) that same spot on that day in September 1945. It is a reproduction of the flag that flew over the USS Powhatan in July 1853, when that ship sat in that same spot in Edo Bay where the Missouri would sit nearly 100 years later, as Commodore Perry made demands upon the Tokugawa shogunate to open up trade with the United States of America.

(The flag deteriorated badly in the nearly 100 years between 1853 and 1945, and had to be repaired; the repairs were such that only this side, the “backwards” side, of the flag can now be shown. The real thing, of which this is a reproduction, is in the collection of the US Naval Academy Museum.)

Several speeches were made, and broadcast live over the radio, still a relatively new technology and experience. And then Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru became the first to sign the formal Instruments of Surrender. Dressed to the nines in a formal tuxedo, Shigemitsu placed his top hat on the table and sat, as he signed his name at 9:04am that morning. Having represented Japan’s civilian authorities, he was followed by General Umezu Yoshijirô, who did not remove his hat, nor sit down, trying to maintain his military honor even as he surrendered. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), sat and signed next, followed by Adm. Chester Nimitz, and representatives of the various Allied Powers.

The ceremony ended with a speech by Gen. MacArthur, several lines of which remain well-known and famous today.

(World War II Memorial, Washington DC)

It is really crazy to watch the footage of the Surrender Ceremony, and to think that just a few hours ago I was standing on that same deck, in that same place, albeit in a different body of water, and removed by over 65 years.

I wish that I could say that I was moved just by being in that place, just by seeing the plaque in the teak deck of the ship. But it was Heather’s tour, the way she described the events of that day, that really brought it alive for me, and nearly brought my eyes to start watering. I see in this moment, in the events of Sept 2 1945, the end of war and the first steps towards a new world of peace, hope, and cooperation for mutual prosperity. A moment in history so powerful that it echoes to today, filling us with emotions we would have felt as if we were actually there witnessing that ceremony.

I regret not thinking to visit the San Francisco Opera House when I was there over the summer; but, having now visited the Missouri, the Opera House is high on my list.

I have linked here to a number of photos of the Surrender Ceremony; you can find many more on Wikimedia Commons, and an interview with the Missouri‘s captain, explaining many of the tiny details and logistics of the ceremony, at the Missouri’s website.

PS A friend of mine made use of the Missouri in her MFA thesis project, which addresses attitudes about portraiture 100 years ago and today, as well as the constructed identity of the tourist, and the relationship of visitors – often in shorts & t-shirts, or brightly colored Aloha shirts – to this very serious military and historical site. Please take a moment to take a look at Elizabeth Curtis’ project, “The Visitors”.

All photos in this most my own, taken at the USS Missouri, Ford Island, Pearl Harbor on Dec 22 2011, with the exception of the one I took in Washington DC, June 28 2008.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »