The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage

By Austin Smith

This post is an edited version of content found in the Japan Fieldwork Diary 2016.

The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage.

The Tokyo Centre for Air Raid Damage  is an unassuming building located in Kōtō-ku (江東区) in an area identified as the epicentre of the firebombing of Tokyo (known as the “Doolittle Raid”) on 10th March 1945. This area of Tokyo is a world away from the internationalised districts of Ginza, Shibuya and Asakusa many foreign tourists will be familiar with and as I walked along the canal attracting curious glances in the baking heat I felt as if I had landed back in Tokushima rather than in one of the twenty-three wards of one of the world’s “Global Cities”. The centre, which opened in 2002, is open five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and includes exhibits, a library of material relating to bombing and the broader wartime experience and space for public lectures about the event over three floors. There is also office space used for staff and researchers.

On entering the centre I got the impression that the staff were surprised to see a foreign visitor and it soon became clear that I was in fact the first visitor of the day, despite the fact it was almost lunchtime by the time I arrived. The second and third floors of the exhibit were opened for me and I was encouraged to watch a fifteen minute DVD titled “What is the Great Tokyo Air Raid?”/ 『東京大空襲ってなに?』(2016) before walking around. While the sections narrated by survivors had English subtitles provided there were long sections of film in Japanese language only. This included an extremely graphic clip from Imai Tadashi’s War and Youth『戦争と青春』(1991) in which scenes of firebombing had been remastered. The narration emphasises the importance of looking beyond the death toll and damage statistics to consider the individual experience. The death toll, which is estimated at close to 100,000 people is presented as being of a similar magnitude to that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima despite the fewer efforts being made to publicly commemorate the event. The final message of the DVD is the need preserve and promote the memory of the Great Tokyo Air Raid to future generations in the name of peace.

After viewing the DVD I took in the two floors of exhibitions starting from the entrance by the television and working around in an anti-clockwise direction. The first section was a small display of images from other bombed cities such as Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Fukui, and Kawasaki. The next display was an interactive Tokyo Air Raids Oral History Map produced in 2014 by a team of researchers supported by the Japan Science and Technology Agency.

The next two displays placed the Great Tokyo Air Raid in context by including details of the war in Asia and the Pacific region and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” followed by images of instances of civilian bombing from across the world such as Dresden, Guernica and Chongqing. This served to show that the Japanese were not the only victims of bombing in the period and that they were also perpetrators of bombing foreign cities during that period.

The second half of the room was filled with seating arranged for public speaking. The walls of this room were dominated by artwork, some were children’s impressions of bombing and others were done by professional artists. One artist that particularly caught the eye was Onozawa Sanichi (1917-2000) as his artwork looked very similar to the work of Iihara Kazuo, an artist who has painted scenes of the Great Tokushima Air Raid. Onozawa helped rescue victims of air raids during the war and his own house in Koishikawa District was burned to the ground during the Yamanote Air Raid. One of the most remarkable images showed the victims of the air raid as angels looking down on the prosperous modern cityscape along the Sumida River. The artwork was accompanied by a map showing the extent of damage done to Tokyo during the air raids with death tolls represented by circles of varying magnitude.

The third floor of the centre was an exhibition space broken down into sixteen sections which were introduced by both Japanese and English panels. The sections had an overwhelming focus on education and the wartime experience of civilians and children and I got the impression that this was because the exhibition was being pitched to an elementary school children audience.

The sections were as follows – 1. ‘The beginning of the expansion of the war’ including currencies and ration books introduced in countries occupied by the Japanese,  2. ‘Air Defence’ including air defence booklets, air defence uniforms, air defence hoods and gas masks, 3. ‘Early Air Raids’ including scorched statues of Ebisu and Buddha, 4. ‘The March 10th Raid’ including photos of the extent of damage and charred bodies, 5. ‘The Yamanote Raids’ included a scorched air defence hood, diaries, tactical mission reports and children’s clothing along with maps of war damage, 6. ‘Introduction of Kokumin Gakkō’ information about the education system which was introduced from April 1941, 7.’A new war begins’ were information is provided about the attack on Pearl Harbour (with the date given as 8th December 1941), 8. ‘I don’t need it till I win’ references to patriotic songs and slogans, 9. ‘Patriotic Media’, 10. ‘School Drills’ showed preparations made for air raids from 1935 to 1942, 11. ‘School Evacuation’, 12. ‘The War Ends’, 13. ‘Education Policies of New Japan’ showed changes made to the education system during the Occupation, 14. Kokumin Gakkō system ends’, 15. ‘War victim compensation campaign’ states that campaigns for compensation for war victims and pensions for veterans were rejected by GHQ, 16. ‘Message of Peace’ accompanied by a large print of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and a small collection of diaries, letters and books.

This concluded the exhibition. On leaving the centre I asked the staff which of the books on offer were the most popular amongst visitors and they introduced me to the Illustrated Great Tokyo Air Raid.

Photographs of Tokushima city during the post-war period (1946-1961)

The Tokushima cityscape was transformed during the post-war period.

The fifty-one photographic images contained in this post are recent additions to the Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive showing the reconstruction of the city during the Occupation and post-war period (1946-1961). These English translations have been provided to mark the 71st anniversary of the Great Tokushima Air Raid. This selection includes images from the first Awa Odori festival of the post-war period, improvements made to the city’s transport infrastructure and efforts to redevelop the city centre.

Every effort has been made to retain the essence of the original Japanese text and all of the information provided. The responsibility for any inaccuracies is entirely my own.

The original Japanese language version of this archive can be found here:

The photographs in this collection are courtesy of the Tokushima Prefectural Archives.

Scenes from Tokushima city centre in 1946

Citizens walking along the old Shinmachi Bridge (29 January 1946).
The Jeep was a symbol of the Occupation forces (1946).
Awa Odori staged for the first time after the war (1946).
Bon Odori at Kuramoto Market shortly after the war (1946).
Awa Odori staged for the first time after the war (1946).

Scenes from Tokushima city centre in 1949

Looking towards Tenjin Shrine from Shinmachi Bridge (13 August 1946).
The Motomachi area viewed from  the station (9 July 1949).
The view from the station in the direction of Shinmachi (9 July 1949).
A trailer bus that ran from Tokushima Station (1949).
The view from what is now Daiku-machi towards Shinmachi Bridge (13 August 1949).
A view of Bizan from Shinmachibashi 1-chome (13 August 1945).
The new Shinmachi Bridge under construction (1949).

The opening of Shinmachi Bridge [the former bridge] (1 January 1949).
Scenes from Tokushima city centre in 1950

Shinmachibashi Kitazume (1950).
A view of Shiroyama from Shinmachibashi (1950).
Marushin Department Store (1 January 1950).
Tokushima Station Square: A view of Tokushima Station Square from the diagonal road (9 May 1950).
Tokushima Station Square: A view of Tokushima Station Square from the diagonal road (9 May 1950).
A view of Shinmachi from Shinmachi Bridge (25 January 1950).
A view of Shinmachi from Shinmachi Bridge (January 1950).

Scenes from Tokushima city centre from 1952 to 1955

The view of Higashi-Senba from Shinmachibashi Kitazuma (1950).
A view of Mt. Bizan from Shinmachibashi (1952).
Green space by the banks of the Shinmachi River (1952).
Transplantation of Washington palms (June 1953).
Shikoku Broadcasting’s Shinmachibashi office (1953).
A commemorative photograph taken in front of a trailer bus to mark the crossing of the new bridge (November 1955).

Scenes from Tokushima city centre from 1956 to 1957

A news flash about votes being counted in the southern part of Shinmachi (June 1956).
A female engineer (1957).
Taxis in front of Tokushima Station (1957).
Mt. Bizan cherry blossom viewing bus (1957).
Buses in front of Tokushima City Hall (1957).
Shinmachi Bridge (1957).
Water-skiing on the Shinmachi River (1957).
Tokubus New Year preparations (1957).

Scenes from Tokushima city centre from 1958 to 1959

Station square in its present form (13 June 1959).
From Shinmachi Bridge to the station (13 June 1959).
Station square in its present form (13 June 1959).
Station square in its present form (13 June 1959).
Shinmachi River Bank Park and Shinmachibashi (1959).
The view from Tenjin Shrine (1959).
Shinmachi River Bank Park (1959).
Shinmachi River Bank Park Shinmachi Bridge (1959).
The view from Marushin Department Store (1959).
Station square in its present form (13 June 1959).
Shikoku Broadcasting viewed from Shinmachi Bridge (5 April 1958).

Scenes from Tokushima city centre from 1960 to 1961

The Shinmachi area viewed from the “driveway” (February 1960).
The new and old Shinmachi bridges after completion (1960).

Nittō Airlines was founded as the Japan Tourism Flight Association on 2nd April 1952 and renamed Nittō Airlines co. ltd. on 1 March 1959. The airline operated regular passenger flights across Japan using seaplanes. The company had its headquarters in Kita-ku, Osaka and the first service ran between Osaka International Airport and Shirahama in Wakayama Prefecture on 1st January 1955. The company offered scenic flights in the direction of Nanki and Setouchi. From 1960 the range of destinations was increased to include regular flights to Tokushima, Kochi, Nanki-Shirahama, Kushimoto, Shima (Mie Prefecture) and Niihama (Ehime Prefecture). There were also irregular flights to places such as Beppu. The good thing about using seaplanes was that the destinations did not have to have an airport because the planes could simply take-off and land on water.

Nittō Airlines airplane (1961).
Nittō Airlines airplane named “Swallow” (1961).
Nittō Airlines airplane (1961)

Remembering the Great Tokushima Air Raid on the 70th Anniversary

By Austin Smith

An onsen in Sako in the aftermath of the air raid.
The Sako area of Tokushima in the aftermath of the air raid.

While the seventieth anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Battle of Okinawa and the firebombing of Tokyo have received international media attention, the war experience in Japan’s smaller cities has gone largely uncovered.

July 4th, 2015, marks the seventieth anniversary of the Great Tokushima Air Raid. Sixty-two percent of the city was destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped from low flying B29 bombers, approximately one thousand people died and about two thousand were seriously injured. The victims were mostly women, children and the elderly as most of the able bodied men had been conscripted.

An aerial photograph of Tokushima City taken by U.S. forces the day after the air raid, 5th July 1945.
An aerial photograph of Tokushima City taken by U.S. forces the day after the air raid, 5th July 1945.

Every July, the “Tokushima Air Raids Archive”, a low-key photographic exhibition, is held to commemorate the event on the banks of the Shinmachi River. The building in which the exhibition is held was one of the few structures in the area to survive the bombing. The photographs in the collection span the twentieth century history of Tokushima, including pre-war, wartime and post-war images. The Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive was launched in 2013 and is available all year round and, last year, I wrote English explanations for the collection to coincide with the 2014 exhibition.

The former Takahara Building on the banks of the Shinmachi River, Tokushima.
The former Takahara Building on the banks of the Shinmachi River, Tokushima.

This year, a group of JET Programme participants, including myself, have been voluntarily translating a collection of fifty-nine Personal Accounts of the Tokushima Air Raid in time for the seventieth anniversary. This collection was compiled by the Tokushima City Government to mark the 65th anniversary in July, 2010. At that time, it was estimated that more than seventy percent of the population of Tokushima had not experienced the war firsthand. These accounts cover a broad spectrum of experiences from across the Greater Tokushima area. The contributors provide an insight into the lasting trauma caused by the air raids and subsequent war defeat; some of them were just children at the time of the bombings. These accounts are seen as the perfect complement to the photographs and descriptions provided in the Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive and, together, these resources can provide a broader understanding of the event to the international reader.

In addition to these digital collections, there is currently an exhibition of art work by Iihara Kazuo, relating to the air raid, on display at the museum in Tokushima Central Park. This event will run until August 16th, the day following the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender. Iihara Kazuo has spent his life working to preserve the history and culture of Tokushima prefecture for generations to come through his artwork.

The Great Tokushima Air Raid, Iihara Kazuo.
The Great Tokushima Air Raid, Iihara Kazuo.

The Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive, Personal Accounts of the Tokushima Air Raid and the Iihara Kazuo Digital Collection can be found below with links to the full texts in both English and Japanese:

Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive

Personal Accounts of the
Tokushima Air Raid

Iihara Kazuo Digital Collection

Introducing the Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive

By Austin Smith.

The former Takahara Building on the banks of the Shinmachi River, Tokushima.
The former Takahara Building on the banks of the Shinmachi River, Tokushima.

Tokushima was one of a number of Japanese cities bombed during a major assault which coincided with American Independence Day. The bombing began on the evening of 3rd July 1945 and continued throughout the night. Sixty-two percent of the city was hit by incendiary bombs from B29 bombers. Approximately one thousand people died and about two thousand were injured.

The Tokushima Air Raids Exhibition is a small photographic collection which is exhibited every July to mark the anniversary of this event. The exhibition is held in the former Takahara Building, a western-style building that survived the bombing. It stands on the banks of the Shinmachi River and the room in which the exhibition is held retains the original windows which were cracked on that night. The photographs in the collection span the twentieth century history of Tokushima City, including pre-war, wartime and post-war images.

The Tokushima Air Raids Digital Archive was launched in 2013 and is available all year round. I have written English explanations for the collection to coincide with the 2014 exhibition and to make the modern history of Tokushima accessible to a wider audience for years to come.

Every effort has been made to retain the essence of the original Japanese text and all of the information provided. Some contextual information has been added to aid understanding for the foreign reader. The responsibility for any in-accuracies is entirely my own.

Here are some of my favourite images from the collection along with their English explanations (these images are courtesy of the Tokushima Prefectural Archive) –

Awa Odori at Shinmachi Bridge
Awa Odori at Shinmachi Bridge

This photograph shows a line of Awa Odori dancers passing over the Shinmachi Bridge. Bon Odori was re-branded as “Awa Odori” by the Tourist Association of Tokushima in 1932 to promote the event nationally as a tourist attraction.

The Sako area of Tokushima.
The Sako area of Tokushima.

There was almost nothing left of the Sako Otani area. Yet, surrounded by the misery of war, an elderly couple relax in an open-air bath. Beautiful colours usually grace Sakoyama in spring but this wartime scene is desolate.

Awa Odori in front of City Hall after the war (1946).

The famous dance festival which had been suspended during the war years was restored in 1946. This is a scene from that time, in front of Tokushima City Hall. The presence of occupying soldiers watching is a symbol of the post-war era.

Problems Presenting History to Both National and International Audiences in Modern China

By Lewis Tatt.
“Many people side with the government when foreigners criticise it, believing that, no matter how corrupt the government is, foreigners have no right to make unwarranted remarks about China and its people.” – Zhao Suisheng on Chinese nationalism.

Often, criticisms from international observers towards China are interpreted as attempts to “demonise China”. This defensive stance applies not just to present day China and its government, but also to its history.

Chinese history textbooks condemn mid-nineteenth century Western powers and Japan as imperialist (帝国主义). Although such criticisms are justified, any suggestion that China’s own territory might have at some point in history been enlarged through imperial expansion will, more often than not, be met with hostility.

Meanwhile, the defensiveness of many Chinese with regards to their own history is reflected through their expectations of how Westerners view their’s. This stance appeared particularly apparent at a recent exhibition of art from Mogao Grottoes.


The Mogao Grottoes are a series of hundreds of manmade caves and temples located in China’s western province of Gansu, close to the ancient city of Dunhuang. The site is historically important as it lies on the Silk Road, at a crossroads between between Tibet, Mongolia, Turkestan and central China.

As a Chinese frontier town during the Han dynasty Dunhuang became a melting pot of Asian civilisation. This is reflected in the artistic and architectural styles of the Mogao Grottoes which were elaborately carved and decorated during a one thousand year span from the 4th to 14th centuries.

After the decline of the Mongol empire, and of the Silk Road, the site became largely neglected, with many of the caves falling into a state of disrepair and others becoming completely buried in sand.

At the turn of the twentieth century there was a renewed interest in the site after Western explorers became aware of its existence. Due to the growing museum and exhibitionary culture in Western Europe it is safe to say that more was known about the site among Europeans than Chinese. Although to talk of the site’s “discovery” would be rather Euro-centric and somewhat insulting to the local population that were well aware of its existence.

It was not until after many of the most valuable documents, statues and other works of art were removed by Western explorers that the existence of the Mogao Grottoes was brought to the attention of China’s ruling Qing dynasty. Even then, the chaos brought about by the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, perhaps combined with indifference among Chinese officials, meant that it was not until the 1940s that a research institute was established to look after the site.

The sites murals were restored and protected whilst copies were made; the copies becoming part of an exhibition publicising the Mogao grottoes throughout China.

In 2014 Zhengjiang Art Museum in Hangzhou, hosted an exhibition of the copies of the Mogao murals with reconstructions of several caves. The main exhibition halls were visually impressive but there was less to attract visitors to a smaller hall on the second floor. From a historical perspective, however, this area was no less significant.

The exhibition hall in question simply featured information boards narrating the history of the Mogao Grottoes after their existence was brought to the attention of Chinese and Western explorers in the early 20th century.

Shortly after entering the exhibition hall I was surprised to hear a woman, with a certain level of resentment in her voice, informing her young son that foreigners are always attacking China and stealing things from China, and that the Mogao Grottoes belong to China.

I was surprised to hear such resentment because, having skimmed through the English language information boards, there seemed to be very little that would incite such an attitude. In fact, descriptions of non-Chinese exporters seemed in many ways to be cast in a positive light.


Information boards on the French explorer Paul Pellion, who arrived arrived at Dunhuang in 1908, explain in English that “he had worked on the site recording all caves by cataloge number of cave and copy each inscriptions on the walls [sic]”. Furthermore, Pellion is described as “a brilliant Sinologist, with well-equipped languages talent,” who after examining the sites “had chosen the best and essential of them and taken away more than 10,000 scrolls including manuscripts, painting on silk and paper.”

By contrast the Chinese translation simply states that pillion was an expert on china (中国通) and that he copied inscriptions and took photographs (抄录题记并拍摄). Unlike the English translation the Chinese has an explicitly condemnatory tone, claiming that Pellion cheated the monks out of the cream of the crop by purchasing paintings and manuscripts at an unreasonably low price (选取精华,廉价骗购).

This pattern of discrepancy between the English and Chinese language information boards is repeated several times. British explorer Sir Aurel Stein is quoted as being “the most prodigious combination of scholar, explorer, archaeologist and geographer of his generation”; a reference completely missing in the Chinese information boards. Similarly missing from the Chinese is the English language information board’s reference to Stein’s “donations […] to the complete restoration of the temples.”

As with Pellion, Stein’s acquisition of precious articles from the Mogao grottoes is far more condemnatory in Chinese. Whilst the English states that he “paid the incredible price of £130”, the Chinese claims he “used the ignorance of the Taoist monk Wang to cheat him and pay an unreasonably low price” (利用王道士的无知,廉价骗购).

Given the grammatical errors present in the English it is clear the author is Chinese. The question, therefore, is why a Chinese translator would go out of their way to reduce the accusatory tone and present the foreign explorers in a more positive light.

An anecdote might help us to understand. A few years ago, when teaching at a University in Wuhan, I gave students the opportunity to present me with anonymous questions written down and dropped into a question box. One group of students looked highly amused with themselves after spending a few minutes in discussion and I feared their contribution would likely be a question about my marital status. The students in question bore guilty expressions, several wouldn’t even look at me, as I read out the question “what is your opinion regarding Britain’s invasion of China during the opium war?”

It was evident from their reactions that the students thought this was a taboo topic to raise with a British person. They then expressed shock that I was not only unoffended, but that I also quite happily participated in condemning the actions of the British government 150 years ago. The fact the students thought I would be offended at justified criticism of 19th century Britain seemed indicative of how the average Chinese student would be offended at criticism of China at any stage in its history, no matter how justified that criticism might be.

It was perhaps this very same mind-set that influenced the author of the information boards on display at the Mogao Grottoes exhibition. Assuming “foreigners” are as sensitive to their own countries histories as the average Chinese student was quite likely a factor behind the translation discrepancies, and is almost certainly a product of China’s patriotic education system.

The Taiping Rebellion and Problems Memorialising Internal Conflicts Pose for Modern China

By Lewis Tatt


The actions of the Japanese in Nanjing can, and arguably should, be placed on the same regional timeline as the Qing dynasty’s brutal suppression of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1860s. The Taiping Rebellion triggered a large scale civil war, with the death toll estimated to be in the tens of millions, yet the event does not recieve the same level of national or international attention as the actions of the Japanese in the 1930s. The Taiping Tianguo (literally meaning “Heavenly Kingdom of Peace”) was finally crushed in 1864 having failed to overthrow the Qing. A massacre was subsequently carried out against the population of the Taiping capital, Nanjing.

Within the current climate of Chinese patriotic education it is easy to overlook the fact that in the mid to late nineteenth century China’s ruling dynasty were largely considered a foreign elite – due to their Manchu ethnicity. This provides a contrast to the international narratives surrounding the Nanjing massacre, discussed in a previous article,  from a regional perspective Western powers and Japan were not the only “foreign” invaders that the city has suffered at the hands of.

In 1896 Han Chinese intellectual Tan Sitong wrote – “How were we able to allow the vile tribes of Mongolia and Manchuria, who knew nothing of China or Confucianism, to steal China through their barbarity and cruelty? After stealing China, they dominated the Chinese thanks to the system they had stolen, and shamelessly used Confucianism, which until then had been unknown to them, to oppress China, which until then was foreign to them.” Contemporary commentary such as this demonstrates that, in some circles, the Qing dynasty and its imperial armies were seen as foreign conquerors.

There are few memorials to these events despite their scale and historical importance. When I finally located such a site on the outskirts of Shanghai access was denied on the basis that it was undergoing refurbishment. It appeared that new information boards were being installed – perhaps an indication of changes in official historiography filtering through this site. The number of new apartment buildings in the area suggest the refurbished memorial will become the focal point of a new community, in line with the national policy of patriotic education.

Despite resulting in more deaths than the First World War, the Taiping Rebellion does not have the same psychological weight and association with brutality as the Nanjing massacre. Chinese historiography frames the Taiping Rebellion as a peasant rebellion and a precursor to the communist revolution, there are no statistics provided in Chinese university textbooks, it is not even stated that a large number of people died. In contrast, the war of resistance against Japan contains many statistics and graphic details of the events that took place.

One book, The Outline of Modern Chinese History, which is compulsory reading for university students of all subject majors in China, simply states with regard to the fall of Nanjing in 1864:

“In the spring-summer of 1864 the Taiping armies in Sunan, Zhejang and Wannan were completely defeated, [Nanjing] was surrounded with no food or relief force in sight. Li Xiucheng [the Taiping commander] recommended they flee the city and disperse, but Hong Xiuquan [the Taiping leader] was determined to fight to the death. In June 1864 Hong Xiuquan succumbed to disease and in July the Hunan army laying siege to Nanjing made a breakthrough. The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom peasants’ war was defeated.”

It is worth noting that Hong Xiuquan is the only fatality detailed in this description of a conflict that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.

The desire to present this event as a peasant’s rebellion is evident at Nanjing’s Taiping Kingdom History Museum (太平天国历史博物馆). The emphasis is on the economic and social aspects of the Taiping, with information boards discussing agrarian reform and social policy. Once attention turns to the bloody collapse of the Taiping capital in 1864, an impressive diorama of post-siege Nanjing is displayed – missing from this scene are the graphic representations of death found at every opportunity at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Remarkable, given that the diorama depicts the final scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.

Playing down the horrors of the Taiping Rebellion is politically expedient for present day China. Chinese society has become increasingly depoliticised since the 1978 opening and reform policy was introduced, and even more so since 1989. The Chinese government desires stability and this involves not criticising or questioning its legitimacy. If the population were even indirectly encouraged to criticise a previous government then this could potential open the gate for criticism of present day China.

Furthermore, the overwhelmingly Han Chinese nature of the Taiping Rebellion would raise the issue of the foreignness and imperial expansionist nature of the Qing Dynasty, this would be a threat to a country that is fighting for its territorial integrity on the basis that it is the rightful successor of the Qing.

Conflicts of National and International Memory at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

By Lewis Tatt

For the people of China, The Nanjing Massacre requires no introduction. In the Chinese mind-set this event is as significant as The Holocaust is in the European consciousness. However, international understanding of this event appears to be lacking – particularly in Europe where it is often overshadowed by tragedies closer to home. In East Asia, memory of Nanjing remains a barrier to Sino-Japanese relations more than seventy-five years on.

In late 1937, the Japanese army, intent on crushing the Chinese National Government (KMT) closed in on the capital, Nanjing. The KMT were forced to retreat following weeks of air raids and Nanjing was left weakly defended. When the city was finally captured a bloodbath ensued with “mopping up” operations being carried out along with the mass murder and rape of civilians. It is estimated that somewhere between two hundred and four hundred thousand people were killed in Nanjing over a six week period. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall (侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆), constructed in 1985, can help us begin to understand how memory of this event is presented to the Chinese people.

The agenda of the site becomes clear on approaching the museum –  a large sign proudly proclaims this “Grade four A” tourist attraction (国家AAAA级旅游景区), an unusual accolade for a memorial site to the victims of a massacre. The tone is further set by a series of graphic sculptures lining the path towards the main entrance – mothers holding dead babies, dead children lying on the ground and babies suckling on the breasts of their dead mothers. However, these scenes were the product of the artist’s imagination and offer little more to the memorial experience than an opportunity to stir emotion and to take photographs.

A sculpture of a child crying while a baby suckles on it's dead mother
A sculpture of a child crying while a baby suckles on it’s dead mother

While the museum itself is clearly the main attraction, it must be remembered that it is located within a wider memorial site consisting of sculptures, memorials and several other smaller exhibition halls. The first floor of the museum depicts events through the use of graphic images, objects and information boards. The overwhelming impression given by The Nanjing Massacre Massacre Memorial Hall is that the emphasis is on the visualisation of Japanese brutality rather than the meaningful memorialisation of the victims.

One particularly striking eyewitness description details how two women had been “gang raped to death, then had a perfume bottle and a walking stick inserted into their vaginas” (轮奸死后,下身分别被插入一个花露水瓶子和一根竹手杖). It is difficult to believe that either the victims of such a crime or their relatives would want to have their deaths described in such brutal detail to the general public. What is perhaps more shocking is that an almost life-size mock-up of the scene has been constructed in the museum for all to voyeuristically observe. This, despite an eyewitness claiming that the scene was “too horrible to look at” (令人惨不忍睹). The whole experience is more akin to an interactive attraction, like The London Dungeon, than a memorial or museum.

A reconstructed scene at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall
A reconstructed scene at The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

The second floor provides a historical background to The Nanjing Massacre – essentially a narrative of Japanese incursions and aggression against China from the Meiji Restoration onwards. Histories of China’s “Century of Humiliation” (found in textbooks or at other memorial sites) tend to use the Opium War as a starting point, however, The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall choses a more Japan orientated perspective.

Japan is described as the “the main force” that invaded China, following the Boxer Rebellion in 1902 (日军充当八国联军侵华主力). This perspective seriously downplays the role of Western powers. British and French forces ran amok in Beijing and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, famously encouraged the German forces to act so brutally that “no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German”.[1] However, this context of Western aggression in East Asia, which unquestionably shaped Japanese foreign policy, is often overlooked.

The Nanjing Massacre Museum, and the majority of current Chinese historiography, places events firmly within a national historical context. The implications and motivations for this are in line with the Chinese patriotic education system. On the way out of the museum this sentiment is reinforced with a prominent quote from former president Hu Jintao that “This is a good place to carry out patriotic education. We must never forget the patriotic education of the young.” (这里是进行爱国主义教育的好地方,任何时候都不要忘记对青少年进行爱国主义教育)

To the enlightened outsider, it becomes clear that the museum places events within a narrative of Chinese victimisation at the hands of the Japanese. A more objective historical framework would perhaps include the First and Second Opium Wars, the Sino-French War of 1885, the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and the eight power intervention of 1902.

Another international aspect that is neglected by this museum is Japan’s war time aggression against other Asian countries. For example, the Manilla massacre was carried out in equally brutal fashion. For a Filipino visitor, these events would fit into a broader context, not simply a tale of Japanese aggression against China. China was not the only victim of Japanese aggression. In this respect the museum epilogue, describing how “the Japanese militarists launched an aggressive war against China” (日本军国主义发动[…]侵华战争), with no mention of Japan’s other victims, captures the sentiments of the whole museum. Collectively acknowledging all of the victims of Japan’s war time aggression would dilute the sense that the Chinese were purposefully victimised and make the museum less useful as a site of patriotic education.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall repeatedly enforces the view that “lessons learnt from history must not be forgotten […] the Nanjing massacre proves that war is a catastrophe for human civilisation.” (历史的教训不要忘记[…]南京大屠杀事实证明,这正是对人类文明的浩劫). In contrast, most western war memorials, as Jay Winter describes, are often as much about forgetting the past as they are about memory, “a way of remembering which enable the bereaved to live with their losses, and perhaps to leave them behind.”[2]

A recontruction of a mass grave located nearby, the grave itself is also open to the public
A recontruction of a mass grave located nearby, the grave itself is also open to the public

Regrettably, The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall serves more to re-open old wounds than to help them heal. At times the museum literally refuses to bury the past. The museum itself is located on the site of a mass grave discovered in the early 1980s and there is a hall where visitors can view an excavated pit in which the skeletons of the victims have been reassembled. This removes the victim’s right to an honourable burial, a right usually afforded to victims of war at war memorials and war cemeteries in Europe. All in all, this is a disorientating visitor experience shifting from a site of patriotic education to a memorial for solemn reflection and at times becoming nothing more than a gory “tourist attraction”.

[1] Julia Lovell, The Opium War.

[2] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History.

The Tradition Connecting Ise and Izumo Grand Shrines.

by Austin Smith

The word sengu refers to the act of moving a deity from one shrine to another, usually to allow for construction work to be carried out. Human interference with shrine buildings is considered to be disruptive and disrespectful towards the deities housed there, because of this they are moved to a temporary home. Once the work is finished a ceremony is held to mark the return of the deity to the shrine building. These new structures represent renewal and the impermanence of life.

Adjacent shrines at Ise, old and new.

The most notable examples of this tradition can be found at Ise Grand Shrine, in Mie, and at Izumo Grand Shrine, in Shimane. Unlike most other Shinto shrines, Ise and Izumo have a regular schedule for the restoration of shrine buildings. At Ise this event is held every twenty years and at Izumo the intervals are approximately sixty years. It is, therefore, exceptional for these events to occur in the same calendar year – as they have done in 2013.


The renewed Mishine-no-mikura.

Ise Shrine refers to one hundred and twenty five shrine buildings spread over a large area. The two main shrines – Naiku (内宮) and Geku (外宮) – are six kilometers apart. These shrines are dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu, a major deity in Shintoism. The foundation of Naiku was reputedly recorded two thousand years ago in the Nihon Shoki – Amaterasu describes Ise as “a secluded and pleasant land” and states  that “In this land I wish to dwell”.

Kotaijingu, the heart of Naiku, is said to house a sacred mirror, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, and access to this area is restricted to the general public. The imperial connections do not end there – the High Priest of Ise must be a descendent of the imperial family and the Meiji, Taisho and Showa emperors were designated High Priests of Ise  during the period of ‘State Shinto’ (from 1868 until 1945).

At Ise, all of the shrine buildings are completely rebuilt on adjacent plots to exact specifications, this event occurs every twenty years. By reconstructing these important shrine buildings regularly, architectural styles and construction techniques are preserved and passed on. The Uji Bridge over the Isuzu River, which provides access to Naiku, is also rebuilt every twenty years. Rebuilding each and every building is both time consuming and expensive, neverthess, 2013 is the 62nd occasion that the enitre complex has been renewed.

One of the most intriguing aspects of a visit to Ise during the sengu year is the opportunity to see various shrines being built alongside the former structures throughout the complex.  This allows the visitor to view shrines at different stages of completion from the early framework to the finished article.



The main honden of Izumo Shrine.

Unlike Ise, at Izumo only the thatched roof of the main shrine building, or honden, which stands at twenty eight metres tall, is replaced, rather than the whole structure. This is because there are no longer trees growing in Japan that are big enough to completely rebuild a wooden structure of this scale.  Any other essential maintenance work is also carried out at this time and the rooves of smaller buildings appeared to have been re-thatched. This process has been carried out on the current shrine since its construction in 1744. Previous sengu were held in 1953, 1881 and 1809, although the practice dates back long before that. The current renewal process began in 2008 and is finally complete.

Izumo Shrine was reportedly once the largest wooden building in Japan (at forty-eight metres), even larger than Todai-ji in Nara. The height of the building was thought to bring worshippers closer to the gods, thought to reside in the sky.

The shrine is dedicated to the god Okuninushi, one of Japan’s founding deities – associated with marriage, happiness and good relationships. For this reason, it is common for those seeking a partner to visit the shrine. Conversely, Ise Shrine is thought to bring bad luck to any couples who visit because the female god is jealous of them.

The wishes of visitors hoping to find a loving relationship.

The deities enshrined at Ise and Izumo are also connected through Japanese mythology. In Kuniyuzuri, which describes why Izumo Shrine was built, Amaterasu sends messengers to tell Okuninushi to hand over control of the land to her.

These connected histories and the coincidence of the sengu being aligned makes 2013 a special year to visit these sacred sites. Furthermore, when I visited Izumo in early November 2013, the gods had supposedly descended on the shrine for Kannazuki – a time were all the deities in Japan congregate at Izumo.

The significance of these events has not been lost on the Japanese population and both sites were incredibly busy when I visited, despite a comparably low number of foreign tourists. Perhaps, to appreciate the serenity of the shrines, it would be wise to go again at a quieter time.

Kannazuki, a time when all gods descend on Izumo, brings many visitors to the shrine.

The Struggle for Memory on the Bund

By Lewis Tatt.

With reference to the Tokyo war crimes trials that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II, historian Carol Gluck claimed that the trials “also put history on trial” and constituted “an invasion of one country’s history by another”. The struggle for history, however, does not just take place in the courtroom, in the textbook or in the classroom. The battle for historical ownership takes place in the physical space around us, and few places display this battle better than the Bund in Shanghai.

The Bund (外滩) is an area that runs along the eastern bank of Shanghai’S Hunagpu River. This area was formerly part of an international concession carved out when the city was opened as a treaty port in 1842, following the First Opium War. Now, nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial architecture overlook the super-tall skyscrapers of the Pudong financial district on the opposite side of the river – this creates a stark visual contrast between a semi-colonial past and the success of China’s rapid economic development and imminent rise to super-power status.

These narratives of past and present are not as separate as they may at first seem. The rise of Shanghai as a world financial centre, at least up until the 1930s, was mostly a result of the foreign trade and investment which followed the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. This fact creates a tension, between a national historical narrative that sees foreign encroachments upon China’s sovereignty from 1842 onwards as a national humiliation (国耻), and a local Shanghai-centric narrative in which foreign encroachment has brought economic prosperity.

The Oriental Pearl Television Tower (东方明珠电视塔), constructed in 1994, is the cornerstone of the development of Shanghai’s Pudong area. Upon completion it was China’s tallest man-made structure at 468 metres. It has since been joined by other super-tall structures but remains a symbol of China’s post-opening and reform development. At the base of the tower is the Shanghai History Museum, which narrates the history of Shanghai’s development from the 1840s to the 1930s.

Conflicting narratives of national humiliation and Shanghai’s urban development which was the result of foreign encroachment are reflected in the museum exhibits. A display depicting the 1842 battle of Wusong, in which the British Navy swept aside Shanghai’s costal defences, describes the Qing naval commander Chen Huacheng as having died heroically in battle (英勇阵亡). This is immediately followed by a display of the Bund, economically prosperous with foreign ships sailing down the Huangpu River. This potentially creates a misleading association between the prosperity of the Bund and the heroic death of Chen Huacheng. The fact is there is a clear difficulty in combining the first display’s narrative of foreign imperialist aggression against China with the second display’s narrative of prosperity resulting from that aggression.

This struggle for ownership of history is also evident in the fact that the physical composition of the Bund is not exactly as it was in the 1930s. Although the foreign architecture of the banks lining the Bund remains in place as a historical reminder, it is easy to forget what is no longer there. Various monuments and statues erected in the former foreign concession are conspicuously missing. In their place are monuments erected under the present day People’s Republic of China (PRC), such as a statue to Chen Yi, the first mayor of Shanghai after the PRC was established in 1949.


The most prominent monument that no longer exists is a large Word War I memorial, formerly situated at the end of what is now East Yanan Road. The history of this monument in particular is testament to how one country’s history can invade another. This is not only reflected in the fact that the monument’s construction can be interpreted as an imposition of European history upon China, but also that the dismantling of the monument was not carried out by the PRC. The statue was removed by the Japanese occupation forces after the outbreak of the Pacific war in 1941.

The dismantling of the World War I monument, along with other symbols of Western influence, was taking place whist Japanese occupation forces propagated a historical narrative that portrayed China as the victim of Western imperialism and the Opium Wars as a national humiliation. The reshaping of the Bund’s physical landscape in the form of the dismantling foreign monuments could therefore be interpreted as being part of a propaganda drive attempting to re-shape Chinese history and to garner support for a Japanese led pan-Asia war.


The most notable memorial at the Bund today is arguably the large white obelisk (see above) the style makes it easily identifiable as a monument to China’s revolutionary martyrs. Such memorials are present across China and, along with revolutionary martyrs’ memorial halls, are an important part of China’s present day patriotic education. A statement of intent is made quite clearly in the Bund History Museum located just below the monument. The opening information board says that the Bund is “evidence of Shanghai’s modernisation” (上海城市近代化的明证) but stresses that “the Bund, after all, belongs to China” (外滩毕竟是中国外滩)

The museum makes it clear that the Bund and the present day prosperity of Shanghai belong to China. By implication, the history of the Bund also belongs to China. The people of Shanghai are looking to the future, but they cannot escape the physical reminders of a past that is still very much relevant to the present day. For the historian, what is no longer at the bund is as significant as what is there when it comes to understanding how historical narratives have been and continue to be shaped.