I was having lunch in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan today and my host thought I might be interested in a press conference held there later that afternoon by the City of Minamikyushu about their application for the inclusion of the Chiran archive in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Registry. The Chiran Repository of War Memories began as a memorial site for documents related to the many tokko or kamikaze pilots who flew out of an airfield there late in the Asia-Pacific War. In the last few years they have tried to create a museum that avoided beautifying suicidal war sacrifice, that served to convey the horror of total war conducted by industrialized societies. They have “contextual” material such as diary entries by local schoolgirl volunteers, letters to the pilots and their bereaved families written by community children, and artifacts such as a “mascot doll” given to a tokko pilot by a schoolgirl, intended to encourage him in his mission. They also have letters and poems written by the pilots themselves before they flew off on what was intended to be their last mission. I was particularly interested in this event because the Repository’s historical consultant was M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall, a professor of Japanese History at Shizuoka University who has worked with discipline and compassion on war memories of Japanese veterans for the past 15 years or so.
There was quite a buzz in the room that was packed with about 80 journalists and a dozen or so television cameras. Afterwards, as I was waiting to introduce myself to Bucky, a camera crew approached me and asked what I thought of the whole project. As I was asked in Japanese, I responded in Japanese, though I discovered after the fact that the crew was from SBS, a South Korean outfit. Here is what I wished I had the presence of mind to say.
All the correspondents in the Q & A session were right in their concerns about how the project is a difficult one. However earnest and successful the current curators are, and however independent of state interference they might currently be, there is no guarantee that future Japanese administrations might bring pressure to bear on the museum to change the exhibits to be more in line with statist presumptions of patriotic sacrifice in support of war efforts. Furthermore, any one artifact is subject to different interpretations depending on the disposition and assumptions of the viewer. And there is no getting around the bad timing that this local community effort at UNESCO recognition comes at the same time as the national government’s controversial application for a number of Meiji industrial sites for World Heritage designation.
I wasn’t really able to speak to Bucky, but I wanted to tell him his was a noble effort, and that such a repository is suitable for inclusion in an international repository such as the UNESCO registry. Yet one shouldn’t imagine that establishing the proper context is a one-off operation; it will require continuing effort and no illusion otherwise.