History is a loaded term that’s tossed around a lot in every day conversation. With this in mind, it’s no wonder so many students are surprised that it’s such a complicated term.
I first learned about this term “history” in a seminar class back at Michigan, and I’ll be honest, it took the entire semester for me to wrap my head around it. From visits to art museums around campus to the 20-page semester paper, I became more aware, more critical about this thing we call “history”.
One shrine in particular made me re-question what I know about Japan.
Our Comparative Cultures brought us to Yasukuni shrine, the national shrine dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives in the war. At a glance, it seemed harmless. It looked like any “normal” shrine you’d see in Japan, so I wasn’t sure what the big controversy was.
That is, until we went to Yushukan, the museum next to the shrine.
Yushukan brought us through Japanese history from the Meiji period to World War II. Katanas, artifacts, and famous quotes from figures such as Motoori Norinaga were found throughout the early exhibits. I’ll admit, the katanas and armor were not rusty and broken so it was entertaining to read about the history of swords and how to identify one type from another.
However, moving onto the 20th century exhibit, I started questioning the information I was reading more and more. Instead of World War II, “Greater East Asia War” was used. “Incident” was used in place of massacre too often. The “Japan” constructed within the museum was for Japan. “Japan propelled the independence movements in every other Asian country [including Ghandi]“. “The Chinese were defeated and suffered casualties [in reference to the Nanking Masscare]“.
Exhibit after exhibit of quotes such as the above made it uncomfortable for me to read the information near the end. The history portrayed wasn’t the one I learned and the other AIKOM students expressed the same feelings. I rushed out of the museum towards the end, unable to be critical anymore — the information was getting ridiculous.
Which is why, this time around, going to the shrine and museum was an eyeopener. The recreation of history and how it’s constructed in museums…I never once thought about these concepts when I was in Japan three years ago.
This ideology of Japan portrayed by Yushukan is not shared by a majority of the Japanese population, but its continuing existence and its purpose makes one think not only about Japan, but about one’s own country as well. How is America portrayed in its museums and why is it portrayed in that way? What is at stake if we take this to be the sole “truth”?
Looking around the museum, I saw two children running around, laughing, and I couldn’t help but wonder…wonder about the kind of history they’ll learn, what they’ll learn about Japan and the world.
I’ll continue to struggle with this throughout the year. But for now, I’ll end with this: understand why people think the way they do, understand the history they’ve been presented, understand it, respect it, but in the end, make them think a little. A little awareness can go a long way.