Why Could War Memorials Cause Controversy?

24/02/2014 13:15 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

The recent dispute surrounding Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni War Shrine has prompted the question of 'Why do war memorials cause so much controversy'.

The exhibits in memorials and museums are often biased. Survivors of notorious historical events were often in serious survival situations where they could have easily miscounted bodies. Also, they were interviewed years after the event, when they could have forgotten about the details. These flaws of oral history play a detrimental role to the accuracy of the casualty number.

The Imperial War Museum London suggests that the casualty number of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp differs greatly between the statistics from the Germans and the Polish. Clearly, the Polish government suggests a casualty number (4,000,000) that is almost twice higher than that of the camp commanders. The statistics of the same historical event differ greatly as the countries have different standpoints. The Germans, as the committer of the atrocities, wish to minimize the number - the proof of their crimes; the Polish, on the other hand, suffered from the concentration camps and intended to inform people of the violence displayed by the Germans.

Secondly, the origins of the exhibited items are often doubted. Many museums and war memorials have exhibits of unclear origins, because of the hardship in finding trustworthy evidence. In the Nanjing Memorial Hall, thousands of images and artifacts are of obscure origins. This limitation makes it difficult for viewers to believe that the displayed facts are relevant, causing controversy on the value of the exhibits.

Another factor that results in disputes over war memorials is people's emotions aroused by the war museums. Such emotions are oftentimes considered inappropriate for visitors such as children and family members of those killed during wars. War memorials can arouse emotions in several ways, mentioned below. Firstly, the language used can provoke feelings such as depression and anger. "... an iron evidence for the bloody crimes committed by the aggressive Japanese troop." In this twelve-word sentence, "bloody" and "aggressive" are typical adjectives that arouse emotions. For instance, a Japanese civilian who has been studying the Japanese accounts of the Rape of Nanking would be shocked by this description, and may get angry. A survivor, on the other hand, can get extremely angry when visiting the museum. Due to the experience that he / she had during the Rape of Nanjing, his / her emotions are likely to differ greatly from the descendants.

One sculpture in front of the Nanjing Memorial Hall, for instance, shows a man with his dead wife, who was raped by the Japanese. The poetic language, inscribed in Chinese and English, read, "the devil raped you, killed you". Naturally, viewers get upset and uncomfortable when reading the short poem and looking at the posture and expressions of the sculptures. Small children, in particular, could easily feel utterly shocked and terrified by the statues. As a result, some museums, such as the Imperial War Museum London, prohibit children under the age of eleven to visit certain exhibitions, such as the Holocaust Exhibition. But seeing that children should learn from history to avoid the repetition of the negative aspects of it, it is disputed whether students should visit war museums.

The third possible reason why war memorials and museums provoke different opinions is the current events, which are largely affected by the fluctuating media reports. Visitors to the war memorials could be easily affected by the current events that controversies are caused. "In Yasukuni Shrine, more than two million soldiers rest in peace. They are probably the enemy for foreigners. But they lost their lives believing in the Japanese future. That's why not only Japanese but a lot of foreign politicians have prayed there." In contrast to the Japanese audience's standpoint, a Hong Kong viewer remarked, "Is that the holocaust is more worth talking than the Rape of Nanking, and millions of civilians killed by the Japanese in East and South East Asia, not to mention the sexual assault to women." The disagreement between the two rose partly due to the current events, and partly due to the effects of the war memorials.

The event of the Holocaust also shows that current events lead to controversies around the war memorials. "One Holocaust survivor parked himself at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial. He began a hunger strike to protest the war itself, and the way Begin used the Holocaust to justify it." This protest happened after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin used the Holocaust to justify military and political actions, such as the 1981 surprise attack on the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. As a Holocaust survivor and an Anti-war Israelis, protester Shlomo Schmelzman, was particularly affected by such current events, and "created such a sensation that th Yad Vashem staff evicted him from the grounds." As a victim of the Nazi atrocities, Schmelzman cherishes peace intensely, and when the Prime Minister used the Holocaust to justify the attack on Palestinians, he was irritated and protested in front of the War Memorial. As seen from the example, current events do influence people, especially those who suffered from wars and their viewpoints on war memorials.

The fourth reason why war memorials are controversial is because their purpose is often obscure. The quote "history is written by the victors" suggests that war memorials are influenced by the builders. The Nanjing Memorial Hall was built by the Nanjing government, which represents the viewpoint of the victim during the war and the victor after the war. Clearly, the exhibits are biased in the Museum, creating controversies on its purposes. According to the Nanjing War Memorial website, the war memorial aims to promote patriotism. However, unintended audience, such as Japanese tourists, should not be ignored.

Do museums serve as the warnings to promote peace, or are they trying to get the visitors criticise certain nations and unite to defeat exterior enemies? These are only some of the open-ended discussion topics that are related to war museums and memorials.