As Japan readies for movie, pilot recalls Pearl Harbor

Shinsaku Yamakawa's first impression of Hawaii was one of beauty. From the air, he could see the colorful rooftops of houses mixed in with lush green foliage. He had little time to enjoy the view, though.

Seconds later, Yamakawa was piloting his dive bomber through a sky filled with smoke and lit with the red glow of anti-aircraft fire from below. He broke formation, veering toward his target in Pearl Harbor.

"I wasn't thinking about anything," he recalled in an interview. "I was just looking for a ship to attack, and the Maryland hadn't been hit yet. When my bomb hit, I was thinking, 'I did it!' "

Sixty years after the attack, Yamakawa and the rest of Japan are awaiting another encounter with Pearl Harbor - as seen through the eyes of Hollywood.

"I'd love to see the movie," Yamakawa said in this northern Japan city, where he continues to train pilots. "I'd like to see it because I happened to be there."

Nearly 30,000 people are expected at the "Pearl Harbor" premiere next Friday in the Tokyo Dome. Director Michael Bay and actors Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are scheduled to attend.

What's been conspicuously absent is controversy.

American-made war movies are not uncommon in Japanese theaters, and this one, which opens here nationwide July 14, is being treated like any other Hollywood summer blockbuster.

Its distributors stress that it's a love story - not an attempt to portray Japanese as an evil enemy.

And moviegoers are mostly young people who have little knowledge of the attack and are less inclined to react with the strong emotions of their elders.

Indifference among students and lack of emphasis by teachers are both factors in ignorance about the topic. Little class time is given to World War II here.

Yamakawa believes the attack was bold military strategy.

"We're not sneaks," he said.

He cited the view of some historians that Tokyo tried to declare war on the United States before the attack, but that its embassy in Washington bungled the announcement.

The Dec. 7, 1941, attack was Japan's greatest coup, though it would later bring disaster and defeat to the nation. When the smoke cleared, 21 US Navy ships were sunk or damaged and some 2,400 people were dead. The attack destroyed 188 aircraft and damaged 159.

In 1992, Yamakawa visited Pearl Harbor with other Japanese veterans to meet US survivors. When he said that he had bombed the Maryland, a big man stood up and said all his friends were killed on that battleship.

Yamakawa was speechless at first. "But I said I am not going to apologize," he recalled. "I said I bore the weight of Japan on my shoulders, and you the weight of America. I said it was between our two countries."

Then the American held out his hand, and they exchanged a handshake.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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