History haunts U.S., Japan
Complexities of Pacific theater need to be told
|||Japan must eventually come to terms with past|
By John W. Dower
When U.S. occupation forces arrived in Tokyo after Japan's defeat in August 1945, Prime Minister Naruhiko Higashikuni voiced a plaintive, even pathetic wish: If the Americans would try to forget Pearl Harbor, he said, he and his compatriots would try to forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nothing of the sort has been possible for either side, of course. The box-office success of Disney's current blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" is but the latest manifestation of how tenaciously Americans remember that date of infamy. We will see this again with a vengeance in December, when the 60th anniversary of the attack is commemorated.
On the Japanese side, the most indelible memories of the war lie in its denouement, the devastating air raids that culminated in the nuclear destruction of two cities. The Japanese counterparts to our Dec. 7 commemoration takes place in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, in Nagasaki on Aug. 9 and nationwide on Aug. 15, the day Emperor Hirohito ordered his forces to lay down their arms. The agony of war is recalled with no ameliorating sense of glory. The only triumphs celebrated are Japan's prosperity in the de-
cades after its defeat and its long-standing constitutional commitment never again to engage in war.
In such ways, the Pacific War has become our own "Rashomon," with seemingly endless witnesses and commentators appearing to tell their differing tales.
Much the same fate has befallen "Pearl Harbor," which has drawn some praise and much criticism. Reviewers find the film's love story banal. Pearl Harbor purists find the romantic digressions distracting. Historians have called attention to errors and omissions in the narrative involving the attack itself.
To my mind, the film poses a larger problem. While it is true that Hollywood's business is to entertain, it is also true that many people now get their knowledge of war and history from such movies.
The need to simplify has obscured the broader nature of the conflict with Japan and the multiple lessons we might learn from it.
Some of those involved in making "Pearl Harbor" have spoken of their concern with portraying the harrowing essence of those times. Following the precedent of "Tora, Tora, Tora" (1970), they have taken care to portray the enemy as admirably disciplined and capable. The Japanese do not come to life as do the Americans, and some of their non-combat scenes border on kitsch. Nonetheless, this is a far cry from the old image of the invaders established in John Ford's Academy Award-winning short feature "December 7, 1941" (1943), sweeping in on our Hawaiian paradise like a droning horde of locusts.
Humanizing the enemy is progress, not to mention canny marketing strategy vis-a-vis the potential Japanese audience. When all is said and done, however, this newest version lingers in the mind as a paean to patriotic ardor and an imagined American innocence beautifully choreographed, sweetened with romance, sanitized to an attractive level of virtual violence.
The camera's loving fixation on death in battle even carries eerie echoes of Japan's own World War II cult of heroic immolation for the nation. Missing in action is serious engagement with the full horror and tragedy of the Pacific war.
Take, for example, the Doolittle air raid that provides the setting for the film's climax. This retaliatory bombing of Japan, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle four months after the attack on Hawai'i, was a truly bold and heroic mission that threw the Japanese high command into disarray.
The raid also culminated in the deaths of five crew members in crash landings outside Japan and the capture of another eight by Japanese forces in China. The latter were returned to Tokyo and a fourth died in prison.
In its highly imaginative reconstruction of the Doolittle mission, "Pearl Harbor" makes no reference at all to these criminal executions. At the same time, it maintains the mystique of American innocence by doing the opposite of what it does in depicting the Hawai'i attack: it never follows the American bombs to their destination.
When Pearl Harbor is bombed, the attack force passes over a field of youngsters playing baseball. The camera follows the explosives to their human victims and then dwells there, interminably, amid the carnage. Although the Doolittle raid killed about 50 civilians, including some schoolchildren, we never see this or hear of it.
Nor are we told, in the film's epilogue, how inexorable was the terrible logic of the war: Pearl Harbor leading to the Doolittle raid, and in turn to the firebombing of more than 60 Japanese cities, culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death toll from the atomic bombs alone was nearly 100 times that at Pearl Harbor: 140,000 in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki, compared to approximately 2,400 at Pearl Harbor.
Payback, many Americans will respond. But this does not get us very far when it comes to trying to convey the nightmarish insanity of war in our time, where the line between victim and victimizer so often dissolves.
All this, of course, goes far beyond the imperatives of Hollywood myth-making. The same aversion to looking squarely at the true nature of war arose, for example, in the sanitizing of the 1995 Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, commemorating the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb. The Japanese counterpart is to be seen in the government's attempts to sanitize textbooks and in other ways to play down the atrocities perpetrated by the emperor and his loyal subjects.
How different it would be if, on both sides of the Pacific, we could turn Prime Minister Higashikuni's wish around and remember both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima not as a tradeoff, but as a tragedy.
An enormously powerful, humanistic film waits to be made here. But who would dare do this? Who would go see it?
John W. Dower, a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., is the author of "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II" (2000), which won a Pulitzer Prize.