Kyoto Museum for World Peace: Japan’s past laid bare

Atomic bomb, Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

Japan has more than its fair share of difficult museums to visit. The Hiroshima Peace Museum and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum tell the story of the atomic bombings on their cities in their own distinct ways. Both are sensitively put together and provide political and historical context along with personal testimonies given by survivors of the atom bomb. Most difficult to read are the accounts told by the parents of the thousands of children whose lives were extinguished in an instant on those fateful August days.

Less well known is the Museum for World Peace within the Ritsumei University in Kyoto. Your guidebook may not feature it and it is rarely included in a recommended Kyoto itinerary. Yet this carefully perhaps even courageously established facility offers visitors the chance to learn about what for many Japanese people is surely the most difficult part of their nation’s history.

Exhibits focus on the Japanese Fifteen Year War (1931-1945) and tell the chilling facts of the nation’s brutal colonisation of Korea, China and much of South East Asia. With first-hand testimonies provided by survivors of the war years along with military and domestic artefacts donated by local people, a story unfolds of young men conscripted into a system of endemic brutality who would stop at nothing to obey the Emperor’s commands. Accounts of torture, rape and brutal executions were hard enough for us to read, but I suspect far more so for the museum’s small numbers of Japanese, Korean and Chinese visitors.

Even the role of the Emperor himself is addressed, something that is considered anti-Japanese by many and an action which must have taken a lot of thought  for those setting up the displays. You only need to read what happened to an ex-Mayor of Nagasaki Hitoshi Motoshima, who in 1988 suggested in a council meeting that the Emperor might bear some responsibility for the war. Large crowds came out in protest and an assassination attempt soon followed.

While the museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki focus on the many tales of horror created by the bombs that reduced those cities to dust and ashes in 1945, the Museum for World Peace in Kyoto takes a very different approach. It attempts to provide a narrative that addresses the Japanese actions in the build up to the war and offers uncomfortably poignant evidence of the mental as well as physical damage caused by war, both to troops and civilians.

It also looks beyond the end of the Second World War and explores later conflicts in Cambodia, Yugoslavia and Latin America, each claiming its own inevitable quota of needless tragedy. A section of the museum then looks at how we determine responsibility for war crimes, again posing a series of uncomfortable questions.

We had intended to visit for an hour but ended up staying closer to three hours, so powerful were the stories and pictures on display.  In that time we saw only a small handful of other visitors despite the museum being within walking distance of two of Kyoto’s main attractions.

The museum is a must for anyone with an interest in modern history and it is ready to welcome large numbers of visitors within its spacious halls. I left wondering if perhaps many of those potential visitors are not yet ready to face the uncomfortable truths that the museum holds.


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Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “Kyoto Museum for World Peace: Japan’s past laid bare”

  1. Wonderful post, Andy. And a post that made me think a lot. You are right when you say that perhaps we are not willing to face uncomfortable truths.

    Such museums also reflect on the introspection, pain and maturity behind the venture. I, for one, would love to see many such museums around the world, beginning with the Partition of India, and the American war/occupation in Afghanistan.

    October 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm
  2. Very interesting! I didn’t know that there was a Kyoto Museum for World Peace. We visited The Hiroshima Peace Museum in Hiroshima and it was a sobering experience.

    October 4, 2011 at 6:34 am