'The Truth of Nanking' gives new slant on Japan's war history


TOKYO LETTER: For insights into Japan's drift away from political common sense, take the case of Gen Tamogami, writes David McNeill 

JAPAN WAS the victim, not the aggressor in the second World War, its worst war crimes were all lies cooked up by the enemy, and its leaders were Christ-like figures who died to save the nation from ruin.

This Alice-in-Wonderland version of history has made it to the big screen. "The Truth of Nanking", a low-budget film about the 1937/8 rape of the old Chinese capital by the Japanese army, is being screened with English subtitles in a Los Angeles cinema, on its way to Europe. Foreign journalists in Tokyo were treated to a preview this week.

Part of a planned revisionist trilogy, the movie opens with a dedication to the "seven honourable martyrs who sacrificed themselves for the fatherland". Their "bravery, love and pain vanished like gallows of dew" (sic), says the puzzling English brochure accompanying the movie's release.

In case Irish Times readers are wondering, the "martyrs" are of course wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo and the other men who engineered Japan's disastrous rampage across Asia, and who were executed by the US occupation almost exactly 60 years ago.

Their appearance on screen is invariably accompanied by swelling music and lingering close-ups as they explain how they were motivated only by the desire to evict the foreign imperialists and bring peace to Asia.

"Nanking" is not the first filmic attempt to overturn accepted wisdom about Japan's role in the war. Pride, a biopic of Tojo showing him in a broadly sympathetic light caused predictable outrage in China and Korea when it was released 10 years ago. Unlike Pride, however, which was a major success, "Nanking" has not bothered box office records; I was one of a handful of journalists who bothered to turn up to the screening.

Time, then, to pronounce Japan's history revisionist movement dead? Not so fast. The reason for those empty cinema seats is simple: "Nanking" is as boring as dry toast.

The execution scenes occupy well over half its two-hour running time, and much of the movie's thin artistic porridge is made up of reheated old quotes and deathbed poetry.

For insights into Japan's disturbing drift away from political common sense, far better to look at the fallout from the recent dismissal of Japan's air self-defence force chief-of-staff.

General Toshio Tamogami expressed much the same views as Satoru Mizushima, the director of "Nanking", in the prize-winning essay that got him demoted on October 31st. Tamogami described claims that Japan was the aggressor nation during the war as "false" and called for a "correct understanding" of history.

"What Japan did was wonderful," he wrote. Had it not fought the war, Japan could not "have experienced the world of racial equality that we have today".

These are not minor issues. As Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Herbert Bix wrote this week: "By arguing that Japanese colonial rule was humane and legal, and that Japan was not an aggressor in the second World War, Tamogami contradicted the constitution and the official government stance of apology to the nations that Japan invaded before and during the second World War."

Faced with such breathtaking disregard for the entire political architecture upon which Japan has rebuilt relations with its Asian neighbours, prime minister Taro Aso had no choice but to sack his air-force chief. But Tamogami's reaction since has been fascinating. Instead of moving quietly offstage like most of his disgraced revisionist predecessors, the general has come out swinging.

In testimony yesterday to the upper house's committee on foreign affairs and defence, Tamogami refused to apologise or give up his 60-million yen pension . . . "I don't think there is anything in the essay that goes beyond the government's position," he said, adding that it was time Japan ditched its 60-year-old "pacifist" constitution, written during the US occupation.

Those comments have proved popular in conservative publications and online, where bloggers are already hailing the general as a sort of Japanese Oliver North, the 1980s US hawk who became a popular hero for saying the unsayable.

For the rest of the world, the question is: what explains this unprecedented show of defiance? The answer is that Tamogami is surrounded by people with similar views, including the prime minister himself.

After the fall of ex-premier Shinzo Abe, who alienated the electorate with his taste for revisionist politics, Mr Aso knows better than to air these views in public. Others are not so shy.

Former education minister Nariaki Nakayama is one of several prominent establishment politicians listed as supporters of "Nanking" on the website of Channel Sakura, the right-wing webcaster that produced it.

"Japan is moving in our direction," said director Mizushima during the making of the movie. Unlike the rest of his claims, that one may actually be true.