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Remembering War – 3 World War II Museums Worth Visiting

The Second World War looms large in many countries’ histories of the twentieth century; Japan is no different as it was the final stage of the conflict and the world’s first (and only) uses of atomic weapons on populated areas. This article highlights three museums located in different corners of the country: Tokyo's Edo-Tokyo Museum, Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum, and Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum.

Edo-Tokyo Museum: A City on Fire

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Located in Eastern Tokyo, the Edo-Tokyo Museum is a massive complex that showcases the long history of the world’s largest metropolitan center. The permanent collection guides visitors through the urban, societal, and cultural transformations of Edo, now known as Tokyo, over hundreds of years straight through to the present. The advantage of this chronological format is the ability to witness change over time and the long-term consequences of historical peoples and events. As you make your way through the early decades of the twentieth century, you learn about the development of global empires and the conflicts that these powers created in the name of territorial, economic, and political gain. The section on World War II highlights the local impacts of these international battles. Using life-like and -sized recreations, visitors can see the interiors of Tokyoites’ homes as they brace for the next Allied air raid, which devastated the city. Furthermore, video footage, archival photographs, and personal belongings help to flesh out the visual record of wartime Tokyo. The sirens announcing incoming bombers ring in the background of this portion of the exhibition and compliment other sounds captured during this catastrophic period. As a result, the museum’s carefully crafted displays allow people to revisit the past visually and sonically. Finally, as WWII was just one of many episodes in this city’s history, visitors will also learn about reconstruction after the war and how the city rose to become one of the world’s most powerful economic and cultural powerhouses. 

Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum: The First Victims of the Atomic Age

Photo by M M from Switzerland.

Visitors to Hiroshima will find a beautiful city that carries all the characteristics of Japanese urban centers: cleanliness, plenty of shopping, an efficient public transportation system, and more. However, after a tour of the Peace Memorial Museum and its surrounding area, you will never forget that present day Hiroshima was rebuilt from the ground up after the catastrophic detonation of the first atomic bomb over the city.

Outside of the museum, the serene greenery dotted with trees and covered with lawns is punctured by the sight of the bombed-out remnants of the A-Bomb Dome, a building granted World Heritage Site status which has come to symbolize the material and human destruction that the city suffered in August 1945. The Main Building of the Peace Memorial Museum is a contrast to the peacefulness of the exterior with its displays of the bomb’s immeasurable damage to the city’s inhabitants, including photographs of the deceased and survivors, as well as a collection of origami cranes symbolizing hope for a peaceful future. The East Building showcases the development of atomic weapons in multiple countries before and during the war, and the dangers that the world faces with the existence of these weapons. Here, the museum takes a strong politically activist stance as the resounding message is clear: nuclear weapons are horrific and should never be used again. On display are dozens of letters written by past and present mayors of Hiroshima to world leaders urging the dismantling and eradication of these weapons. 

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: The Last Battles of WWII

Photo by Syohei Arai on Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few hours away from Tokyo by plane is the island of Okinawa. Like Hiroshima’s pristine urbanscape, the beauty of the Okinawan natural landscape can obscure the history of the island’s destruction during World War II. Again, outside the museum is a large open green space, this time marked with slabs of stone recording the names of Japanese and non-Japanese people who perished. As the last site of ground combat in the war, tens of thousands died in close quarters combat, a reality recreated in the museum’s interior through a combination of photographs, video footage, sounds, and artifacts. Visitors hoping to delve even deeper into Okinawans’ wartime experiences should listen to recorded life stories made available for educational purposes. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of this museum, like Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum, is its political message. Here, there is a powerful critique of Japan’s imperial government of the past for not doing enough to protect the island’s inhabitants. This political angle has its echoes in other public forums throughout the island in sites of protest against American military bases in the prefecture and the central government.

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