TOKYO -- After years of controversy, Tokyo now has a national museum chronicling the events of World War II. But it is a portrait cleansed of Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and almost any direct reference to the front lines.
The transformation of the Showa Hall museum, which opened in March, from a war memorial into a bland exhibition of wartime life shows how difficult it still is for Japan to reckon with its past.Half a century after Japan's surrender, debate still rages over attempts to designate the widely used national flag and anthem as the nation's official symbols. Attempts to bolster the role of Japan's postwar military meet heavy criticism.
The roiling passions aroused by the Japan's role in World War II has proven too much for the museum, according to Hirokazu Ishida of the government agency overseeing the $101 million project.
"The people on the left wanted wartime responsibility addressed," he said. "The people on the right protested they didn't want an anti-war memorial. It became impossible to display anything historical about the war."
By the time the museum opened, a decade after the project began, officials had backed down from plans to deal with the responsibility issue, and instead settled on the safer theme of the hardships suffered by civilians at home.
Food-rationing tickets are exhibited next to worn-out letters sent to troops. Black-and-white movie footage shows people digging bomb shelters.
The only exception may be a large photograph that shows a part of Tokyo razed by U.S. airstrikes. But there is no caption that speaks of the bombing.
Interviews with survivors of the war are replayed on monitors. But none of the survivors are soldiers. Shown instead are their children and wives, who remember being lonely, afraid and, most of all, hungry.
Not surprisingly, the toning down of the museum's message hasn't pleased activists on either side of the issue.
A Tokyo-based group representing veterans' families, which pushed for the museum, says the museum fails to do justice to the war, which left nearly 2 million Japanese dead, 672,000 of them civilians.
"It's like touching the elephant's leg and thinking you've seen the elephant," said Hitoshi Nakayama, an official with the association. "You have to talk about the war."
On the other side, Hidehiko Ushijima, a professor at Tokai Women's College, says the museum reflects how Japan has never fully dealt with the emperor worship and glorification of death that were wartime pillars of the Japanese psyche.
To pacifists, the site of the new museum, which has so far attracted 44,000 visitors, has disturbing rightist and militarist undertones. It is within walking distance of Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto memorial that has been highly controversial for including war criminals among its enshrined.
Even the museum's name has been criticized.
Showa, which means "bright peace," refers to the 1926-1988 reign of wartime Emperor Hirohito. But the museum has nothing displayed on Hirohito, except newspaper clippings of his radio address to the people announcing Japan's surrender.