Political assassinations in Tokyo. Censorship and the stifling of dissent. A nation hungry for oil and other natural resources. Kimono-clad women in department stores and boarding street cars. A smiling Babe Ruth posing for photos with Japanese teenage baseball players while on tour with other American all-stars.
Visitors to Pearl Harbor are seeing these snapshots of 1930s Japan as they stroll through the National Park Service’s new museum devoted to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that dragged the U.S. into World War II. This is a significant departure from the old collection devoted to one of worst foreign attacks ever on American soil — what life was like in Japan at the time didn’t much figure into it.
The center, which officially opened last Dec. 7 and is drawing about 4,000 visitors a day, was built in part because the old one was sinking on reclaimed land. The park service had also outgrown the old facility.
The new center is on the same site, but has expanded to cover several times the original area. At the center, a large grassy field overlooks the harbor to the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits above the battleship that sank just off Ford Island at the height of the battle. Benches are placed along the field, outside the exhibit halls and along open-air walkways between buildings — a design element to give people a chance to contemplate or decompress after absorbing what they’ve read, heard and seen inside.
Planning for the exhibits began five years ago when the park service brought in top historians to brainstorm what the displays should contain. The themes that emerged fit inside two halls, "Road to War" and "Attack." A courtyard is dedicated to Hawaiian history.
The end result is a broader, more in-depth view of the Sunday morning attack nearly 70 years ago. The passage of time helped achieve the new vision. So did the efforts of Japanese pilots and American survivors to reach out to each other and overcome deeply ingrained bitterness.
Daniel Martinez, the park service’s chief Pearl Harbor historian, said it wouldn’t have been possible to include the Japanese viewpoint in any official examination of the attack when he first started working at the visitors’ center in the 1980s.
"It was just too recent and the wounds were still open," Martinez said. "The idea of exploration of history would have been found unsavory by some of the Pearl Harbor survivors who were still dealing with the wounds of that war."
The old visitors’ center, which was built in 1980, had models of the USS Arizona and of a Japanese aircraft carrier. The small exhibit hall displayed the belongings of sailors then stationed at Pearl Harbor.
It was more of a shrine than a place that analyzed a pivotal moment in 20th century history.
Today, with the $56 million renovation, the park service is allowing visitors to heed the admonition — "Remember Pearl Harbor" — much more thoroughly than before.
The museum shows clips from Japanese theater newsreels, including festive scenes of Ruth playing baseball during a tour. The exhibits also show Japan and the U.S. creeping closer to war, with newspaper headlines about Japan’s invasion of China and U.S. sanctions against Japan.
The enlarged museum allows for more of the U.S. story to be told, as well. There are photos of bodies crowding the Honolulu morgue, coffins being buried at Kaneohe Beach and a burned corpse at Hickam Field. A glass display case shelters a pharmacist mate’s bloodied white uniform. Visitors get to hear what civilians went through, including children who carried gas masks to school as Hawaii hunkered down for feared follow-on attacks.
The USS Arizona Memorial itself didn’t change. To get there, visitors continue to board boats piloted by Navy sailors for a brief ride across the harbor. Once there, they can look down on the rusting hull of the USS Arizona, often seeing see oil droplets that still leak from the battleship.
The names of those who died are chiseled into a marble wall. The remains of nearly 1,000 sailors and Marines are entombed on the ship.
Martinez said some survivors have understandably wanted to keep the exhibits as more of a shrine or memorial, as opposed to an interpretation of history. But he said it’s important for people to grasp a more complex story.
"We have to understand it. Our former enemies are now our closest allies. So how do we reconcile that? Part of reconciling it is trying to tell the story as fair as we can, and allow for those different perspectives to come in there so a broader understanding can take place," Martinez said.
Robert Kinzler, 89, who was a soldier stationed at an Army base north of Pearl Harbor in 1941, said American survivors became more open to reconciliation after their former foes began visiting Hawaii before the 50th anniversary of the attack.
"We started getting Japanese pilots to come through and they were willing to answer any and all questions. And the attitudes began to change," said Kinzler. "There’s two sides to this war."
Dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe led a group of Japanese veterans to Pearl Harbor in 1991.
Abe told The Associated Press in an interview before his death in 2007 that Japan’s aviators took off from their aircraft carriers that morning believing their government had delivered a declaration of war. He said it was dishonorable and went against Japanese traditions of "bushido," or the way of the samurai, to strike before declaring war.
"Even if you are executing an early morning attack, you may not hurt your opponent if he is sleeping. You must make him stand and then go at him with your sword. This is bushido," Abe said in 2006. The assault "violated our nation’s ideals. I felt bad," he said.
Not all survivors have been able to make friends with Japanese veterans. Some, citing the memory of those who died that day, refuse to shake hands with their old foes.
Martinez said the park service closely consulted survivors as it planned the new exhibit halls.
"We didn’t do this recklessly. We did it as cautiously as we could and still be true to that mission where we started out, which was show the layers of history, good and bad," he said.
Visitors almost universally applaud the new approach, saying people needed to hear different accounts so they don’t repeat history’s mistakes.
"You can only get a complete picture if you look at all sides," said Bill O’Rourke, 69, a financial consultant visiting from Wycoff, N.J. "There had to be reasons why things were done, just like there are reasons why things are done today."
Dharmik Desai, a 27-year-old pharmacist from Marlborough, Mass., agreed.
"You always want to hear not just one side of the story but the other. If we went to Hiroshima, how would we feel, at their memorial? It’s kind of a give and take thing," said Desai. "Yes, it happened and you have to acknowledge it. It was a mistake, and you know, we move on."