Remembering Wartime Japan

It has long been said that history is written by the victors. There may have even been a time when that was true. But no longer. In our modern age, there are many perspectives to the telling of history, including the history of Japan at war in the first half of the 20th century, a war commonly known in Japan as the Pacific War, while elsewhere it is referred to as World War II (different perspectives apparent already!).

August 15 marks the 75th anniversary of the date on which Japan announced its surrender, the end of hostilities. In Europe, it is referred to as VJ Day (victory over Japan day). In Japan, August 15 is “war’s end anniversary”, or, by a 1982 government decree, “the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace”. (In the US, September 2 is the more commonly observed date for the end of the war as it is the date on which the instrument of surrender was signed aboard the Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay.)

Whatever you want to call it, August 15 seems a good date to examine Japan’s version of this troubling history. I can suggest two museums in Tokyo where visitors can learn more: The National Showa Memorial Museum (also known as Showakan) and Yushukan which, apparently, has no English name.  The former examines the lives of ordinary people on the home front during the Pacific War and in the postwar years of reconstruction.  The latter is focused on Japan’s modern military history. Both are located near Kudanshita subway station and can easily be visited on the same day, particularly if you want to make a day of it.


Showakan is a government-sponsored museum operated by the Japanese War Bereaved Families Association with exhibits focused on the lives of Japanese citizens during and immediately after the war years. The museum’s name derives from the reign name of Hirohito, who was on the Chrysanthemum Throne from 1926 to 1989. Connect to the building’s wifi and download an app that provides English explanations through the museum. Expect to spend at least an hour, but one could easily take longer.

The exhibits begin on the 7th floor, with exhibits on life during the war years. The entry hall is lined with displays relating to young men being called up for military service, ranging from induction papers to senninbari belts and flags.  Senninbari belts are a unique Japanese tradition, a cotton belt to be worn by a soldier under his uniform. The belts have a design stitched onto them; each of a thousand stitches made by a different woman, each with a prayer for the soldier’s safe return. Japanese flags with signatures of men are similarly meant to imbue the soldier with strength.

The remaining displays on the war years reveal what life was like in Japan, beginning from 1937, when a dispute between Japanese troops and Chinese troops led to the Japanese invasion of China that eventually grew to Japan’s aggression across Asia. But in this museum there is no discussion of Japan’s military. The focus is entirely on civilian life and how people coped as Japan’s resources dwindled.

The first exhibits focus on homes of the 1930s and how they operated. One of the most interesting features are the number of appliances that did not require electricity.

From the next exhibit, the hardships begin as shortages began to bit. The government appealed to civilians to undertake various austerity measures. Even as early as 1941 the first day of every month was designated as a day for companies and people to donate their metal objects to be melted down and recast as war materiel.

Next, the museum examines the lives of children in these years, noting their indoctrination to Japan’s cause through militaristic books and games. By 1943, classroom education was halted in favor of having children help out in factories. The risks of enemy bombings of large cities also resulted in the mass evacuation of children to the countryside.

The final exhibit on the war years is about air raids and the measures taken to keep civilians safe when their homes came under attack by American bombers. There is even a replica air raid shelter (although sadly it is currently closed off due to concerns about contagion). It is estimated that 400,000 civilians died in American air raids even before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are not really touched on at this museum.

All of these exhibits tell the story of the hardship and deprivation experienced by Japanese civilians, their “contribution” to Japan’s war efforts.

The exhibits continue one floor down. The landing on the staircase has a display about the “Jewel Voice Broadcast”, when, on August 15, 1945, Emperor Hirohito spoke directly to his subjects for the first time, telling them “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable”.

The sixth floor exhibits provide details about live in the first decade after the war, when occupied Japan was recovering and rebuilding. Clearly those first few years were the toughest.

Several exhibits include black and white film clips to enable visitors to see actual conditions. Most of Japan’s cities were badly damaged by bombing, so that for a time, many people were living in shanties aid rubble. Shortages of food and other daily necessities were common, as were vermin and disease.

There is an entire exhibit devoted to war widows and their families, in particular, how these single mother households survived the post-war years, often taking in piece work that could be done at home so that they could simultaneously care for their children. Soldiers’ families were accorded respect and support during the war years; much of that was lost after the surrender.

The experience of children after the war is the focus of another exhibit. An estimated 120,000 children had lost their parents by the end of the war, and many of them wound up homeless in big cities. Educating these children and even children with parents and homes was a challenge immediately after the war, since many schools had been closed or even destroyed during the war.

The final exhibit looks at the beginnings of Japan’s economic recovery as business endeavors slowly re-emerged. The return of creature comforts to the home, and opportunities for entertainment outside the home, gives a sense of hope.

There is a hands-on corner to provide such daily experiences of this period as pumping water and carrying buckets of water. (This section is also currently closed due to the contagion.)

If you have time, stop by the audio-visual room on the 4th floor, where you can access a number of donated photo collections from the relevant period. The software operates in both Japanese and English, making these fascinating insights easily accessible to non-Japanese visitors. One could spend days going through these wonderful collections.

Showakan deftly avoids the controversy of Japan’s militarism while examining what life was like during and immediately after the war years for ordinary citizens and those who had sent their sons and husbands off to fight.

  • Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 5:30 pm
  • Admission: JPY300 (adults); JPY270 (seniors); JPY150 (high school/university students)


Just up the hill from Showakan is Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto shrine which has enshrined the spirits of 2.5 million people who have died fighting for the Emperor since the Boshin War (1868-69) that re-established Imperial rule. The shrine itself is highly controversial for a number of reasons, including the fact that those enshrined include WWII Class A war criminals, Korean conscripts, and even Christians.

Yushukan is a museum on the grounds on Yasukuni Shrine that focusses on Japan’s 19th and 20th century militarism. I’ve also mentioned the museum in the context of a neighborhood walk in this area. Apparently the name means “place to learn about those who sacrificed their lives for the country”. This name alone tells us that the history related here is definitely presented from a particular perspective.

To examine all of the museum’s exhibits takes about two hours; there is a helpful English brochure offering three different courses, depending on your interests and how much time you have. If you have the time, I definitely recommend doing the “entire” course. At Yushukan, too, there is free wifi and you can download an app (of course, it’s a different one!) to guide you.

The lobby of the museum contains a Zero fighter plane and a locomotive from the Thai-Burma Railway, both beautifully restored by returned servicemen.

Once in the museum itself, the exhibits begin with a room of Japanese swords, an homage to Japan’s longer military history and the weapon of choice during the Boshin War.

Subsequent exhibits take visitors through Japan’s modern civil and foreign wars. Those familiar with this turn-of-the-century history will be especially fascinated to see the presentation of the Russo-Japanese War, the first in which an Asian power defeated a Western power, and Japan’s subsequent imperialist expansion into China.

Ultimately, of course, Japan’s expansion into China lead to what the Japanese commonly call the Pacific War, although at this museum it is referred to as the “Greater East Asian War”, in keeping with Japan’s use of the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” marketing of their actions at the time.

There is an entire room devoted to famous people, such as athletes and intellectuals, who fought on Japan’s behalf. These human stories are often quite touching.

The final exhibit is a large hall with another zero fighter, mini-subs, torpedoes and similar large war machinery.

The explanations offered for Japan’s prosecution of the war can be a bit difficult for some non-Japanese visitors, centered as they are on Japan’s desire to “rescue” Asia from Western imperialists (while ignoring how those same Asians suffered at the hands of the Japanese). I once visited the museum with an Indonesian friend who was visibly shaking with rage by the time we finished our visit. On another visit with a friend who had retired from the US Navy, his reaction was to simply shrug and accept that whether he agreed or not, it was a perspective held by someone.

These museums and the reactions I related above underscore the point that history is now told from many viewpoints. Enlightening or enranging, can it hurt to see another perspective?

  • Hours: Daily; 9 am to 4:30 pm
  • Admission: JPY1,000 (adults); JPY500 (university students); JPY300 (jr high/high school students)

Note: this post has limited photos as both museums prohibit photography.

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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