Japan is Unbroken

A story getting wide play today in Asia is the outrage that Angelina Jolie ‘ new film Unbroken is causing in Japan. There is apparently widespread anger over the graphic depiction of the wartime torture of Louis Zamperini. One Japanese historian has gone so far as to deny that Zamperini torture even took place.

To the extent to which this story is true,  it saddens me and makes me fear for the future of Japan.

We must all look into the mirror. What determines the character of a people is less how it celebrates its triumphs than how it deals with its failures. As an American, I look in the mirror and see My Lai, Al Gharaib, Guantanamo, and water boarding. I don’t like looking,  but I know that each poses a question about America that demands an answer from each of us. Do we sanction this being done in our names? If not, what shall we do?

Profound evil was committed in the name of the Japanese people in countless incidents between the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the end of the war 14 years later. Forgetting an outrage merely because it is uncomfortable or happened decades ago only places the nation on a course to repeat history.

If we do not want history to judge us for our moral failings, we must beat history to the punch and do something while we still can.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

7 thoughts on “Japan is Unbroken”

  1. The Japanese have a unique ability to deny their own history. Perhaps that should be a lesson to us right now to face head on the terrible things being done in our name. How else will we have change?

  2. Nice to know that no country has a monopoly on revisionist whackjobbery. And while we’re on that topic, did you see Cheney’s “would torture again” rant on prime time US TV two days ago? For some countries, vile and systematically inhuman torture isn’t 60 years ago. The report is out. When can we expect the arrests? The trial at the Hague?

    But of course “one Japanese historian”. Oh Em Gee. Must be a trend!

    I remember the last lot of claims of Japanese whitewashing, you know, when there were supposed “text books” being produced in Japan that downplayed wartime atrocities. Of course once one actually researched, there were, from memory, three (count ’em!) tiny private schools who were actually *using* said “text books”. A trend of three! Must be every schoolchild in Japan.

    No-one who has been to the Hiroshima Museum, as I have, and as practically every Japanese schoolchild has, and walked through the very first part, and seen the photos on the walls of Japanese atrocities would ever be able to make the claim that Japan hasn’t stared down its own history with clear eyed self-criticism.

    But sure. One guy is upset about a *film*. Stop the presses.

    1. Actually, Shannon, it is more than just one lunatic historian. http://www.ianslive.in/index.php?param=news/Jolies_Unbroken_to_be_banned_in_Japan-457442/ENTERTAINMENT/15

      I am glad you went to the Hiroshima museum. Perhaps you should also visit the Yushukan war museum next to the Yasukini Shrine. Take the time to peruse the Japanese language explanations of the exhibits. Watch the lines of schoolchildren marching through there. And the, please, ask yourself if Japan is staring down its own history with the clear-eyed self-criticism that you claim.

      Not all of Japan is in denial, and the Uyoku Dantai are still a lunatic fringe. But to deny that nationalism is on the rise in Japan in the face of these early seeds of revisionism, a slow rightward slide in the LDP, and the most aggressive naval construction program since WWII is to paint far too rosy a picture.

  3. And it should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that this isn’t a criticism of *you* David — except perhaps of your own soft-pedal use of “waterboarding” (would that were all that occurred…) It’s the “wide play in Asia” that this non-story generates that’s most egregious.

    1. By the way, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, I am a fan of neither Cheney, Rumsfeld, or Bush II. You need not exercise your disgust with the neocons here – we are in sympathy.

      As to Asia, I am in the camp where neither the rhetoric out of Beijing nor that of the Uyoku Dantai impress me much. You don’t heal wounds by reopening them. You heal wounds by rising above them.

  4. Nationalism is on the rise — I agree there. But unique to Japan? If only!

    I view Yasukuni in much in the same way I view US states that still have the Confederate colors on their flag (and southern history teachers who tell their pupils about the “War of Northern Aggression”) or the multiple utterly uncritical Doolittle Raid displays at multiple US museums — a bit embarrassing but really not revealing very much except that everyone tells their own story from their own perspective.

    I’ve been to Yasukuni, by the way, but I must have visited at a quiet time, because I saw one small group of high school students, and a couple of old people.

    1. My issue is neither with the Uyoku Dantai or the Sons of the South: there will always be reactionaries who mourn the Lost Cause. That is the case in every nation, even, I daresay, your own Australia. They deserve tolerance in the context of a democratic society.

      My issue, rather, is when that dangerous strain of nostalgia turns into an undercurrent that touches the national conscience. I am certain, for example, that if you scratch most Chinese – and some not very hard – you will find a xenophobe beneath the first layer of epidermis. I am equally certain that Japan’s shame of defeat in WWII did not die with the passing of the generation that fought it. If you choose to draw false equivalence between resurgent nationalism and the rearguard actions of dwindling reactionaries to salve your ethos, that’s fine with me. You will forgive me if I dare to see the differences as well as the similarities.

      Georgie Patton once said that the Nazis were just a political party like the Republicans or Democrats. He was not alone among the American elite in believing this canard. They were deluded, because they ignored the difference in context. I will continue to view what I see happening in each country in its political and cultural context, because I believe that this is the only way we can understand our futures and the import of the paths we walk.

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