Frustrated Japanese Revise Past

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In some ways, Japan is still fighting World War II.

This summer the battle is being waged in movie theaters, where film buffs can revisit the postwar trial of Gen. Hideki Tojo, the architect of Japan's militarism. "Pride, the Fateful Moment" portrays the general as a loving family man, devoted to emperor and nation, and the victim of a vengeful victor's justice engineered by the US.

The film has been roundly criticized by the Chinese government for its "whitewash" of history. It downplays the Nanking massacre, in which the Japanese Army killed as many as 300,000 people, Chinese historians say.

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In Japan, the film has been endorsed by members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. More tellingly, it has become a resounding success. Despite foreign and domestic complaints about the film's revisionism, moviegoers have made it the country's most popular film.

"Pride" is the latest sign of a growing frustration in Japan about the way the war is seen, the endless apologizing the country is asked to do for the war, and how that still shapes the country today. The film's timing and popularity point to a political and social shift that has profound implications for Asia and the United States.

On a popular level, guilt is giving way to indifference and aggrieved pride, while politicians and academics are pushing for a reevaluation of the war.

"Pride" is part of a movement to foster patriotism in young Japanese by showing them, in the words of one proponent, a "correct" version of history. For Asian nations that have long warned about the dangers of a nationalistic Japan, these are troubling words at a troubling time.

In the last few years the disastrous Kobe earthquake, a terrorist gas attack on Tokyo's subways, soaring teen violence, and economic recession have left Japan demoralized and primed for a movement that can make it feel good about itself.

At the same time, a series of political missteps have left the Socialist Party, Japan's traditional watchdog on war-related matters, powerless to counter a campaign to introduce a more palatable history designed to foster greater national pride.

How to promote patriotism

World War II underlies modern Asian politics with all the immediacy of this season's election campaign. The war still determines Japan's relationship with the US, guarantor of its security, and shapes its self-image.

The political left and right in Japan agree that boosting patriotism is an important goal, but the war divides them as to how this should be done.

Japan fought World War II on behalf of its emperor using symbols of state - the rising sun flag and the "Kimigayo" national anthem that calls for the emperor's long reign - that are still in place.

For many, those symbols have been sullied by the acts committed in their name. This perceived violation strikes deep chords in a culture where the indigenous religion, Shinto, is built on concepts of purity and pollution. The left-wing national teacher's union strongly resists attempts to use the flag and anthem at schools. On the right, the reaction has been to correct the perceived contamination.

Nobukatsu Fujioka, a Tokyo University education professor, leads the Liberal View of History Study Group that calls for the deletion of textbook references to the Nanking Massacre or the Japanese army's use of sex slaves, euphemized as "comfort women" at the time.

These scandals, Mr. Fujioka argues, are manufactured for political and economic reasons. "The Nanking Massacre is a totally made-up case," he says.

Japanese textbooks contain little about the war that would help students understand Asia's lingering resentment toward Japan, and this has certainly affected the response to "Pride." Yet Fujioka's group says these texts teach children a "masochistic" view of the past and want it replaced with "correct" history that inculcates pride. "It's extremely important to look at our history with properly balanced eyes, not oppressed by the forces of Western countries," he says.

Fujioka and his group have support in high places. "Japan's postwar education, in terms of fostering patriotism, is a complete disaster," says Kenzo Yoneda, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The victor's postwar policy, he adds, was to deprive Japan of its pride.

"We cannot accept forgery in our history," Mr. Yoneda argues.

That resentment of the US, and Japan's long subordination to the US in foreign-policy matters, spells trouble for US-Japan ties, argues Gavan McCormack, a professor of Japanese history at Australia's National University in Canberra.

"Formidable media, corporate, academic, and political forces are echoing right-wing anti-US resentment," he says. "There's a bitterness that expresses itself in movements like the film 'Pride.' "

Discussing war-related issues is difficult, though. Right-wing groups react to any perceived slight against the emperor or the nation, often with physical violence that inhibits debate.

"If you attack anything Japan did during the war, in a way you're attacking the emperor, the Kimigayo, the flag, this whole system that people associate with the core essence of what Japan is," says Mark Schilling, a Tokyo-based author of books on Japanese culture. "It's a very sensitive issue."

When Yokohama theater owner Kikuo Fukuju launched his Asian film festival, he screened the Chinese-made film "Nanking 1937," which shows Japanese troops committing atrocities. On opening night, a member of a local right-wing group slashed the screen with a knife during the first show.

Despite a heavy police presence at Mr. Fukuju's theater and home, other members of the group circle the theater and his house in a sound truck blaring criticism about him and the film. His wife receives threatening letters and phone calls, and attendance has trickled to some 30 people a show. "I don't know when the bullet will come through the window," he says.

'Rape of Nanking' sells

The strategies of these right-wing groups and academics like Fujioka stoke and are stoked by a growing Asian awareness and activism about the war that can only heighten tensions.

More than 50 years after the fact, Japan's wartime actions are discussed around the world more thoroughly than ever before, thanks to shifts in scholarly focus at Chinese universities, the growing influence of Asians in the US, and growing awareness about human rights in Southeast Asia.

In the US, "The Rape of Nanking," Iris Chang's book describing the Japanese army's brutal invasion of the city, recently became a surprise bestseller, spawning academic conferences, documentaries, plans for a Los Angeles museum, a film, and a musical in Singapore.

It has met with harsh condemnation from Fujioka and other prominent Japanese academics, who recently held a forum to discredit the book's claims.

National Pride At Stake In 1998

FEBRUARY: Nagano Olympic gold medal winner Ai Sugiyama is chastised for leaving her hat on when Japan's flag is flown during the medal ceremony, prompting intense government concern that young people do not show enough respect to the flag.

MARCH: Ryuichiro Inoue, a teacher in Kyushu, Japan, loses a court battle against the singing of the national anthem at a graduation ceremony. Mr. Inoue and 100 out of 170 sixth graders refuse to sing the anthem at their graduating ceremony. Their request to fly a flag portraying Picasso's antiwar painting "Guernica" is denied.

APRIL: Tokorozawa High School gains national attention when students refuse to participate in graduation ceremonies that involve the flag and anthem, and stage their own instead.

APRIL: Iris Chang's book "The Rape of Nanking," a surprise bestseller in the United States, is criticized by Japan's ambassador to the United States, Kunihiko Saito, as inaccurate and one-sided.

MAY: The Ministry of Education issues a directive that all schools must fly the flag and sing the anthem at ceremonies to instill national pride. Previously, the ministry had only recommended they do so.

MAY: "Pride, the Fateful Moment," a film about convicted war criminal Gen. Hideki Tojo, opens in Japan. The film portrays General Tojo as a gentle family man who was the victim of bigoted American victor's justice. It has infuriated Japan's Asian neighbors.

JUNE: To mark the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo Tribunal in which Tojo, the architect of Japan's militarism, and others were tried, the Japanese government releases documents on the trials of some war criminals.

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