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Museum Paints Different WWII History

August 14, 2002

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TOKYO (AP) _ The buzz of cicadas casts a soothing summer lull at Yasukuni Shrine. But next to its weathered worship hall lies a darker side _ a sprawling war museum featuring rocket-propelled kamikaze planes, one-man ``human torpedo″ suicide subs and a history lesson on World War II from a distinctly Japanese perspective.

Every August, controversy swirls around the shrine, where nearly 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals, are worshipped as deities.

Thursday marks the 57th anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender during World War II, but Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says he has no plans to pay respects at the shrine. His surprise visit last year sparked protests in China and South Korea, where Yasukuni is a painful symbol of Japan’s militaristic past.

The shrine’s Yushukan war museum opened its doors last month after a $33 million renovation that doubled its size and expanded its chronicle of Japan’s military expansion.

Its lessons aren’t those found in the typical American schoolbook.

It depicts 1930s China as overrun with anti-Japanese terrorists, portrays President Franklin Roosevelt as plotting to trick Tokyo into war and describes World War II as Japan’s attempt to liberate Asia, rather than conquer it.

``This is where people can learn the real history of Japan,″ museum curator Yasuhira Noda said. ``Today’s generation doesn’t understand the circumstances of the war. They only understand it in terms of Japan doing wrong.″

A statue of a kamikaze pilot stands sentry outside the museum, while the entry hall greets visitors with a Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane and a locomotive used on the Thailand-Burma railroad, which earned the nicknamed ``Death Railway″ for the thousands of slave laborers and Allied war prisoners who died building it for the Japanese.

Critics say the museum underlines lingering insensitivity toward Japan’s role in World War II and venerates the military regime that made Tokyo feared by its Asian neighbors. Shrine staff say it gives a balanced view of the war and pays homage to those who sacrificed their lives.

But those who lived through the war sometimes recoil at the exhibits.

``This glorifies war a bit too much,″ said Yoichi Nakamura, 75, as he inspected a ``human torpedo″ suicide submarine in the main atrium. Nakamura lost two 18-year-old friends to the suicide attack forces in 1945, and was himself slated for duty in Manchuria that October _ had Japan not surrendered.

``Back then, even my mother and teachers were telling me to go to war and die for the emperor,″ he said. ``Now I wonder whether we need this kind of museum at all.″

The Yushukan features gleaming samurai swords, suicide notes and farewell flags for soldiers going off to war. Per the era’s custom, well-wishers would prick their fingers to dye the flag’s rising sun emblem blood red.

The museum skims over Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, and rationalizes military forays into China as crushing ``terrorists.″ The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is written off as an inevitable outgrowth of U.S. pressure.

As for the 1937 ``Rape of Nanking,″ it maintains: ``The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.″ Historians estimate that Japanese invaders killed at least 100,000 there.

Hisao Ishiyama, of Japan’s History Educators Association, criticizes the museum for painting a distorted picture and said it is indicative of a deepening division in the way Japanese are dealing with _ and sometimes ignoring _ their past.

``The museum simply tries to justify the war,″ Ishiyama said. ``I think it’s successful in softening people’s attitudes and that can be dangerous.″

The droves of visitors attest to the museum’s pull. About 1,000 people pass through its halls daily, more than double the pre-renovation crowd.

``I don’t think it glorifies war,″ said 25-year-old Kazunori Kajiwara, who’s great-uncle fought in the Japanese Imperial Navy. ``But I can’t help but wonder if all those young people with bright futures really wanted to sacrifice their lives.″

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