A “Gruesome Business”: Collecting and Repatriating Pacific Theater War Trophies
Type of DegreeMaster's Thesis
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While serving in the Pacific Theater of World War II, American servicemen collected a variety of souvenirs. Some men collected skulls and bones. Other men collected flags, photographs, binoculars, or other personal property from the bodies of dead or wounded Japanese soldiers. These American men, influenced by the racist propaganda put forth by various agencies in the United States, treated the Japanese as if they were animals or sub-human creatures. The collecting practices of the American men serving in the Pacific were legally and ethically questionable. Once the servicemen brought these items back to the United States, they displayed them at home, tucked them away in boxes, and donated them to museums. Around the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, some veterans decided to repatriate their souvenirs to Japan. Returning souvenirs to their country of origin or to the surviving family of the slain Japanese soldier, often provides a cathartic experience for the American veteran. Museums, too, have recently become active in the process of repatriating items of cultural sensitivity. This thesis considers motivations for wartime collecting, the legal and ethical ramifications of souvenir hunting, museum collection policies and display tactics, and the reconciliation and healing that comes from repatriation.