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This paper explores the representation of war memory and narratives of commemoration in four war memorials/museums in Japan and Australia focusing particularly on the workings of nationalism, gender and militarism. One site, the Australian War Memorial, has been noted by some for its gender-balanced representation of World War II and subsequent conflicts, but also criticised by others for linking national identity with a masculinised memory of the failed Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. The second site, the Yasukuni Shrine and Yūshūkan War Museum in Tokyo, is highly controversial due to bellicose representations of Japan’s military expansionism during the Asia-Pacific War (1931–1945) and sanitization of past atrocities. It will be shown that while seemingly very different both AWM and Yūshūkan commemorate the same male-militarist version of war memory, albeit in a much more highly contested nationalistic context in the case of the latter.
The other two sites, the Himeyuri Peace Museum in Okinawa and the Women’s Active Museum War Museum on War and Peace (WAM) in Tokyo, are also in the same cultural space as the Yūshūkan, Japan, but offer a counter view of these fifteen years of conflict to varying degrees. Both have attempted to offer a ‘counter-memory’ or alternative narrative of the Asia-Pacific War by articulating the histories of those who suffered the violence of theses times as young women mobilised to serve as military nurses in Okinawa, in the first instance, and as ‘comfort women’ (military sexual slaves) in a variety of locations colonised or occupied by Japan, in the second. Whereas the message of the Himeyuri Peace Museum is the futility and brutality of war, the imperialist, militarist and patriarchal power structures that contributed to the war are not fully attended to. In contrast, WAM draws links between everyday violence against women and the violent conditions that the comfort women were subjected to in war time.
It will be argued that WAM in particular, with its activist approach, creates ‘effective history’ that shatters the unitary narrative of sites of memory that monumentalize the deeds of an imagined or constructed masculine hero. WAM, which is the product of the coming together of women of the former colonizing and colonized nations as well as the invading and invaded nations, stands as an example of history transcending borders in an attempt to recreate the rules that have hitherto silenced them. It is so disturbing to those wedded to monument of male sacrifice and heroic deed because the testimonies of the former comfort women (girls) exposes not only the brutality and violence of war, but also the intimate relationship between military masculinities and violence.