Military Museums in Japan

 

            This section describes some of the places one can view military artefacts in Japan. Technically there are almost no “military museums" or “war museums" in Japan; they are almost invariably called Heiwa-kan or Heiwa Kaikan (Peace Museum). A few places are also called “….. Shiryo-kan”.  Shiryo-kan means “(history) materials room/museum”  If you ask even a knowledgeable local travel information person using anything other than these terms, you will get a blank look. They don’t even seem to realize that their “Peace museums” are, in fact, military museums. Here I will focus on the places I have actually been to.

 

Yushukan

 

            By far the most famous/infamous/notorious of Japanese military museums is Yushukan, the museum attached to Yasukuni Jinja (Yasukuni Shrine). This Shinto shrine has traditionally been where Japan’s war dead have been memorialized. During WWII, soldiers who knew they were about to die would sometimes say something like “meet you at Yasukuni” to each other, and some units have planted cherry trees in the courtyard so their comrades' souls would know where to gather. Several decades after WWII, the shrine included the souls of several Class A war criminals in its roster. Ever since, any official visits to this shrine have been extremely offensive to Japan’s neighbours. Prime Minister Koizumi’s visits have led to numerous diplomatic rows, especially with China and Korea, which suffered severely under Japanese occupation.

            The shrine is immediately to the north of the Imperial Palace grounds, at subway stop Kudanshita on the Tozai, Toei Shinjuku and Hanzomon lines. Use Exit 1. It has a long approach with big torii gates and a statue of one of the founders of the modern Japanese army about half-way to the main shrine. The museum is to the right of the main shrine building (as you approach the shrine from the front). The museum lobby has a restored Zero fighter (shown above), a couple of artillery pieces, and a train from the Thai-Burma railway (both shown below). The stuff in the lobby can be viewed free. There is also a bookstore with a good selection of military-related materials, including a lot of books denying Japanese war-time atrocities like Nanking (Nanjing).

            The museum was re-done a few years ago and is very modern and slick. There are only a few guns there, mostly older rifles. The displays include a holster, and in the big exhibit hall at the end there are a couple of Type 26 revolvers and a Papa Nambu that were fished out of the ocean after rusting almost beyond recognition. The most striking thing is the extremely distorted perspective of the displays. They follow the rightist line that Japan was forced into the war by the USA and make no mention of any incovenience caused to its neighbours, although the sufferings of the Japanese get full play.

            Despite its awkward politics, this place is a must-see because of its fame/notoriety, high-quality exhibits and easy access. They have a flea market in the approach area every Sunday morning. In general there is seldom much good military stuff there, just the usual selection of old pottery and the like, although recently (summer 2007) a prominent dealer in military material has started attending.

 

Here is the artillery in the lobby. The signs say the one on the left is a Type 96 15cm howitzer, and the one on the right is a Type 89 15cm cannon.

 

This is the locomotive in the lobby. It is a Type 56 from the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

 

            I have visited this place several times and went back for another look in July, 2007. It is right next to and run by the infamous Yasukuni Shrine. I think they have toned down some of the more obviously spurious rhetoric about how the US forced Japan into the war, at least in the English labelling, but it is still quite misleading and can really only be properly appreciated by people who already know enough about the war to put the museum’s unorthodox viewpoints into context. There were also more guns than I remembered seeing before: a Type 22 Murata, Type 30 and 38 Arisakas, a Type 2 paratrooper rifle and a knee mortar, besides some antiques (like a Snider, etc.). The only pistols were in a display of stuff salvaged from the depths of the ocean and showed the effects of their time there: a Papa Nambu, a couple of Type 26 revolvers and a US-made .22 target pistol.

 

Showa-kan

            This museum focuses on the suffering of the Japanese during the wartime and post-war periods. It is much smaller than Yushukan, but it is just across the road from Yasukuni, so it is easy to visit. It is not as overtly political as Yushukan, but still focuses on the suffering of the Japanese, with no mention of what they did to their neighbours.

            The subway stop is the same as for Yushukan, i.e. Kudanshita on the Tozai, Toei Shinjuku and Hanzomon lines. Take Exit 2.

            Japanese-language website: ようこそ昭和館ホームページへ.

 

Shokei-kan

            This museum is just around the corner from Showa-kan, so you can easily see Yushukan, Showa-kan and Shokei-kan in one expedition. Shokei-kan focuses on the hardships of Japanese soldiers wounded in WWII. Its displays show things like medical devices (including prosthetics) of the period as well as wound medals and documents, etc. One of the soldiers in the reproduction of a cave hospital is armed with a Type 99 rifle with monopod. They must not get many foreign visitors. When I showed up and they discovered I could speak Japanese, the director, curator and chief librarian were called out to greet me and they kindly gave me a kind of illustrated catalogue to the collection, an item that is not for general sale. Japanese-language website: しょうけい館(戦傷病者史料館)

 

 

Nasu War Museum (Nasu senso hakubutsukan)

            This is a true military museum with some real character. After Yushukan (which has the advantage of being highly accessible to visitors to Tokyo), I would rank this place as the next “must-see” for visitors in the Tokyo area. It is a seedy, run-down place that really should take better care of its artefacts and is a bit awkward to get to, but the collection is remarkable (just ignore the dust). The brochure states it has 15,000 items. I didn’t count, but I believe it.

            The museum is privately run by a right-winger with a penchant for dressing up like General Nogi, a hero of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) who performed rather less well during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The General is also famous for having committed suicide (with his wife) when the Meiji Emperor died in 1912. There are two large indoor galleries and numerous outdoor exhibits, the latter mostly under carport-like structures. The indoor galleries have all kinds of uniforms and weapons (more firearms than I have ever see in a Japanese museum) as well as everything else military-related. The labelling is only in Japanese, very sparse, and often wrong, but if you know what you are looking at you will see some great stuff.

            The outdoor exhibits include a fairly well-preserved tank (labelled Type 90; middle photo below) and the rusty remains of another tank (Type 97) that came from Saipan, a huge Russo-Japanese war 28cm artillery piece (see entrance photo above and ticket photo below), a plane (labelled a Type 95; see below), engines from a Zero and B-29, a military truck sort of like a jeep, etc. For animal lovers there are also two horses, one of them a white one like Emperor Hirohito used to ride. For 100 yen you can buy a cup of carrot sticks to feed him (he gets excited when you go near the table the carrot cups are on, so he definitely has figured out this game).

 

 

          

            Most people visit by car so there is a fairly large parking lot. However, you can get there by public transit. From Tokyo take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Nasu-shiohara station. It takes about 80-90 minutes. Most of the Shinkansen trains don’t stop at Nasu-shiohara, so be careful which one you get on. At Nasu-shiohara transfer to the Tohoku line and go one stop to Kuroiso station (about five minutes). Exit the station and board a bus at platform one. Tickets are sold in a pink building with a clock on it off to the left of the exit, next to the police box. Get off at the Morikosaka stop (20 minutes, 650 yen). The museum is right across the road. It is open 9-6 every day and admission is 1000 yen. There is a tourist information window in Kuroiso station where you can confirm this travel information, but they only speak Japanese.

 

Heiwa Kinen Tenji Shiryo-kan

            This one takes the prize for most unexpected location: the 31st floor of the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, a modern skyscraper. It is located in Nishi (West) Shinjuku, just across the road from Shinjuku City Hall (Tocho). The subway stop is Tocho-mae on the Oedo line. It can also be reached by a short walk from any of the Shinjuku stations on the subway, JR or private railways, but the walk can be a bit disorienting given the huge size of the underground complex at Shinjuku station and the forest of skyscrapers you emerge into on the Nishi-Shinjuku side.

            This museum again focuses on the hardships of the Japanese, with special emphasis on non-pensioned veterans, Japanese repatriated from the zones Japan had occupied, and post-war internees (some captured Japanese were forced by the Russians to work in labour camps for many years after the war). It has a good display of items related to soldiers going off to war.

            Japanese-language website: 独立行政法人 平和祈念事業特別基金.

 

National Science Museum (Kokuritsu Kagaku Hakubutsukan)

            This is not actually a military museum, but I have included it since they have a complete Zero on display. It is located with several other museums in Ueno Park in north-east Tokyo. It can be reached by a short walk from Ueno station on the JR, Keisei and subway Ginza and Hibiya lines. It has a website in both English and Japanese. Here is the English link: The National Science Museum,Tokyo

 

Tsuchiura SDF Museum

            Tsuchiura is in Ibaraki Prefecture, noth of Tokyo. The proper Japanese name is Rikujo jieitai buki gakko shiryokan, “Land Self-Defense Forces Weapons School Materials Room”.  It was a Navy training base in WWII and trained kamikaze pilots. The exhibition room is not that great, but they have outdoor displays of tanks, including a Type 89 and a Type 3. There are some buildings with windows where you can peak in to see smaller artillery/anti-tank pieces. It is on a defense base with entry formalities and is awkward to get to from Tokyo by public transit, so it ranks low on my list, but if you have a thing for Japanese tanks, this may be for you. There are also other tanks, including more modern ones, and helicopters and other post-war equipment. The Japanese-language book I have says they have an excellent collection of small arms, but it is only open to the public on the anniversary of the base’s establishment, and they don’t say when that is.

  

Saitama Peace Museum (Saitama-ken heiwa shiryokan)

            This museum is in a huge building but the actual main exhibition hall is surprisingly small. They have the expected exhibits about life during the war, with English explanations of the main theme of each display case. There are reproductions of a classroom with a simulated air raid and an air raid shelter. Somewhat incongruously, they have a reproduction of a balloon bomb. Perhaps this was to show that the Japanese also tried to bomb North America. There is also a small gallery for temporary exhibits. The one on display when I was there was about Japanese Red Cross nurses during the war.

            It is easy to overlook what is perhaps the most interesting part of this museum. The Grouped Items Exhibit (Bunrui tenshi shitsu) is a sort of storage area that has a lot of stuff in drawers that you can pull out and see, although the labelling is very sparse (and only in Japanese). It also has a small table with some artefacts that you can handle (uniform, shoes, senninbari, etc.).

            To get there from Tokyo take the Tobu Tojo line from Ikebukuro Station to Takasaka. Avoid the Tokkyu (Special Express), which does not stop at that station. Any other train will do. The Kyuko (express) is the fastest, about 50 minutes. At Takasaka station take the west exit and board a bus that stops at Daito bunka daigaku. From that stop there are signs in English (“Peace Museum of Saitama”) that will point you in the right direction. It is about a ten minute walk.

 

 

Red Cross Museum

            In Tokyo the Japanese Red Cross Society has a museum on the history of the organization that includes some war-related exhibits. It is pretty small, though, so only worth visiting if you are in the area or are a dedicated Red Cross history enthusiast. They do have an interesting publication for sale that show medical-related wartime artefacts and photos. The text is all Japanese but it has photo captions and section headings in English and an English title: The 125th Anniversary Commemorative Exhibition of the Japanese Red Cross Society 1877-2002. Their site is in Japanese but has a map to show how to get there. It is near the JR Hamamatsucho and Shinbashi stations on the Yamanote Line. 【日本赤十字】献血・ボランティア・義援金-情報プラザ~本社施設案内~-

 

Yoshimi Caves (Yoshimi Hyakuana)

 

            This is an unusual site with over two hundred caves cut into a hillside in Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo. Most of the caves are very small and were dug about 1500 years ago as burial chambers. However, there are a couple of much larger ones that were enlarged in 1945 through the efforts of 3,500 Korean forced labourers. They were intended to house the Nakajima Aircraft Factory as part of Japan's effort to move munitions industries underground to spare them from the US bombing. There is nothing in the caves from the WWII era, but they are a stark reminder of how desperate those days were. The sign on the left says: "This cave is the site of an underground munitions factory".

            To get to the caves, take the Takasaki Line train from Ueno Station in Tokyo to Konosu Station (50 minutes). Go out the east exit and board a bus bound for Higashi Matsuyama Station at Platform 1. Get off at Hyakuana Iriguchi (20 minutes, 400 yen). When you get off the bus, look back in the direction you just came from. You can see some caves in a hillside next to a temple gate. Head back in that direction and veer off to the left at the fork in the road just past the temple. The temple is devoted to Kannon, a Bodhisattva often referred to as the "Goddess of Mercy" and is worth a quick look (free). You can also get there via the Tobu Tojo line from Ikebukuro. Get off at Higashi Matsuyama Station and take a shorter (5 min.) bus ride in the opposite direction to the route described above.

 

Chiran Kamikaze Museum

            The Japanese name of this museum is Chiran Tokko Heiwa Kaikan. Tokko is an abbreviation for tokubetsu kogeki, “special attack" which was the Japanese euphemism for kamikaze. Chiran is about 30 miles west of Kagoshima, which is at the far southern end of Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s four main islands. Chiran was a training base whose southerly location made it convenient launching point for kamikaze raids on Okinawa and other points south. This museum focuses on the Army kamikazes. It has several rifles (T-38 & T-99). No handguns, but one Type 14 holster. It has a very nice Hayate fighter and the remains of a Zero that has rusted to lace. Outside is an A-frame hut that reproduces the barracks of the kamikazes. I visited this museum on February 25, 2006.

            A person who has done a lot of work in the kamikaze field has created a very thorough website on the topic. Here is a link to the part he has written on Chiran. He also has a section on a similar museum in nearby Kanoya.

            Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots

            The website of the museum itself is only in Japanese: 鹿児島県知覧町.

 

Kanoya Kamikaze Museum

            The Japanese name of this museum is   . In contrast to Chiran, this one focuses on the Navy kamikazes. It has a nice Zero on display. To get there, take a #16 bus from the Yamagataya Bus Centre or the Kagoshima-Chuo shinkansen  station to Kamoike Port. Then take the ferry to Tarumizu and transfer to a Shibushi-bound bus. The bus stops out front, then you have about a three or four minute walk past the Emily Flying boat to get to the entrance. I visited the Kanoya Museum on February 24, 2006.

            The same person who did the Chiran site also has an excellent page on the Kanoya Museum in English: Kanoya Naval Air Base Museum

            The website of the museum itself is only in Japanese: 鹿屋航空基地 史料館 フレーム版

Here is a photo of their Zero fighter.

 

This is their Type 2 Flying Boat, known to the Allies as an “Emily"

 

Okinawa

            I visited Okinawa February 19-22, 2006. Here are the museums I visited there.

Battle of Okinawa Historical Society Museum

            Although not run by the US military, this museum is located on an active US Marine base, Camp Kinser, so you can’t just drop in, you have to go as part of a tour. Unless you are part of the US military and qualify for the services of the Marine Corps Community Services Tours Plus agency, that means booking a private tour with the curator, Mr. Chris Majewski. He is a former Marine who is now a tour guide specializing in the battlefields and caves of Okinawa. If you are interested in delving into the military history of Okinawa in any depth, a private tour like this is really a necessity anyway, as the ordinary tours by the Japanese travel companies seldom visit more than one or two of the WWII-related sites and are, of course, in Japanese. The sites are also widely dispersed and have to be reached by car. Mr. Majewski is very knowledgeable about both the events of those fateful months and the sites where they occurred, many of which have now changed almost beyond recognition (part of Sugar Loaf Hill was removed to build a Duty Free Shop and what remains has a water reservoir on top). Fortunately, many of the caves are still more or less as they were during the war. I spent two days on a private tour with Mr. Majewski in February, 2006 and found it time well spent. Here is a photo of me looking out of a Japanese pill box on Kakazu Ridge during that tour. My hair is a mess, but I had to crawl through a muddy hole to get in.

 

            As for the museum itself, it has both artifacts recovered on Okinawa and many donated by veterans who served there, so it shows more American materials from the Pacific War than Japanese museums. Of particular interest to me was the Type 14 pistol on display, which obviously spent a long time rusting somewhere underground or in the sea. Although now inoperable due to this rust, some of the markings are visible and it appears to be a  Showa19.4 Toriimatsu Second Series variation. Here is a photo of me in front of one of the displays in the museum.

            If you are interested in contacting Mr. Majewski regarding a tour, please let me know and I will provide his contact information.

Himeyuri Heiwa Kinen Shiryokan

            Himeyuri, literally “lily of the valley" is the term applied to the young Okinawan girls who served as nurses for the Japanese forces. They were from elite girls' schools and had to perform their duties in cave hospitals under horrifying conditions, doing things like sneaking out in the dark to dispose of amputated body parts during lulls in the bombing. Later when the Japanese retreated they were simply abandoned to look out for themselves, some of them taking grenades along so they could commit suicide (due to Japanese propaganda they feared rape and torture if captured by the Americans).

            The museum often has one of the survivors present to discuss her experiences. Besides artefacts and a reproduction of a cave there is a hall with photos of most of the girls. The museum is located by one of the caves where they served, but it is not open to the public. The cave mouth is the site of various memorials.

Underground Naval Headquarters

            This museum is located in the Osoroku Peninsula, which was where the bulk of the Naval Forces were stationed. A portion of the headquarters cave-and-tunnel complex has been restored and is open to the public. It is, of course, much larger than the makeshift caves which the bulk of the Japanese defenders used as shelters and gun emplacements.

Prefectural Peace Museum (Okinawa-ken Heiwa Kinen Shiryokan)

            This is a rather large museum in Mabuni that does not mince words about the poor treatment of the Okinawans at the hands of their Japanese “defenders" although there is also a noticeable anti-American slant to some of the exhibits. Unfortunately a large display of weapons and other artifacts is just thrown in a big pile to slowly rust away. Outside the museum is a large area of monuments to the dead, with special sections for the dead of various prefectures, military units, etc. Walking a little further takes one to the place where Lt. General Ushijima and Major General Cho, the two top Japanese commanders took their lives in June, 1945 when it became obvious all was lost and the end was only hours or days away. Also on the site are the cave where the last Japanese headquarters were located (not open to the public), the infamous “spring of death" where the Japanese quartered there had to endure American shelling to fetch water, etc.

 

Hiroshima

  

          I visited this museum long ago and went back in July, 2007 for an update. It is not so much a military museum as a museum of a specific wartime experience, i.e. the atomic bombing. It has a lot of background information on the development of the atomic bomb and the decision to drop it as well as, of course, many sad exhibits about its gruesome effects, both immediate and long term. It does not shy away from describing the military facilities in the city (it had long been a major military transportation point) and maintains an even tone in the description of the exhibits, which are well labelled in English. However, it really glances over the big question of whether on balance the bombing saved both American and Japanese lives by finally pushing the indecisive, faction-ridden Japanese government of the time to surrender. Whether one agrees with this thesis or not, it certainly deserves much more attention than a passing, indirect mention that is easily missed in the mass of other peripheral issues that get a lot more attention. Visiting is an experience that will move the hardest heart, even if you don’t agree with the leftish politics that dominate some of the later exhibits about post-war peace movement activities in and inspired by Hiroshima. A bargain at 50 yen, and located in the same park area as the famous Atomic dome, pictured above. Take a street car from Hiroshima station and get off at the Genbaku-domu-mae stop.

    Japanese & English web site: 広島平和記念資料館WEB SITE (click in the upper right to get to the English site)  

 

 Nagasaki.

            Many years ago I went to Nagasaki, where displays naturally focus on the atomic bombing. I had not developed an interest in military history, so I will have to go back to see it again with new eyes.

 

Other Heiwa-kan

            There are other heiwa-kan in many places. Almost every prefecture and major city seems to have one or be planning one.

 

Other City History Museums

             Local museums often have a special exhibit related to the war in late July-early August, just before the anniversary of Japan's surrender in WWII. These typically focus on local experiences, but you never know what you may find at one. In August, 2007 I visited one in Warabi, north of Tokyo. Among other things it had a ceramic grenade and a land mine.

 

A Great Site on Military Museums in Japan

            Here is a link to a great site on military museums in Japan. This site is how I found out about the Nasu Museum.

Japanese War Museum Site

 

Last modified: October 7, 2007.

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