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Okayama Peace Museum

A few weeks ago, Jinja Shinpō had a full page article about the opening of the Okayama Peace Museum. This facility belongs to Okayamaken Gokoku Jinja: the jinja enshrining the war dead from Okayama prefecture (“ken” in Japanese). The Gokoku Jinja (“Nation-Protecting Jinja”) were, as I have mentioned before, founded before the war to enshrine people who had died fighting for the Tennō, much like local versions of Yasukuni Jinja. They were not really formalised until the 1940s, with some only being founded during the war, and as a result not every prefecture has one, and some have more than one. Okayamaken Gokoku Jinja is one of the older ones, having been founded, under a different name, in 1869, and the Peace Museum was built as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations.

The main feature of the museum is hundreds of photographs of the kami enshrined in the jinja — that is, of people from Okayama Prefecture who were killed in wars, primarily World War II. These were obtained from relatives after an appeal organised by the prefectural society for the war bereaved. The head of that society said, in his statement on the opening of the museum, “It is our duty, as those bereaved in war, to tell young people, who bear responsibility for the future, how terrible war is, and how precious peace”.

This, I think, encapsulates something very important about these jinja, and how they have developed since the end of the war. Before and during the war, it is clear that the state was using them as part of the propaganda machine designed to convince people to go and die for their country. However, after the war they were cut off from state support, and had to rely on voluntary donations from local people. The main donors were, naturally, the close relatives of the kami enshrined there: that is, the people who had been bereaved in the war.

These people are very unlikely to be sympathetic to a narrative that makes their dead loved ones the villains, so an account of the war that makes Japan the unprovoked aggressor, and emphasises war crimes committed by the Japanese military, is not going to find much traction at these jinja. On the other hand, they all lost someone to war, so they are very likely to be sympathetic to the idea that war, in general terms, is a bad thing, and should be avoided. They would have preferred their fathers not to have died.

Today, the Gokoku Jinja are not, in general, militaristic in any meaningful sense, as they are genuinely committed to peace. At the same time, they are, at least passively, committed to seeing Japan’s war record as admirable, or, at the worst, neutral. This is something that they share with Yasukuni Jinja, and the peace museum at Okayamaken Gokokujinja sounds as though it has a lot in common with the Yūshūkan Museum at Yasukuni.

I think this causes problems for a lot of westerners when approaching these jinja. They often find it hard to believe that any group can think that Japan’s war record was admirable without being pro-war, and in favour of doing it all again. That, however, seems to be a profound misunderstanding of both the Gokokujinja, and of Yasukuni Jinja itself.

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