|Angelina Jolie arrives to the world premiere of “Unbroken” in Sydney, Australia last November. Photograph: KHAP/GG/GC ImagesAdd caption|
First published in The Irish Times, May 9, 2015
In Unbroken, a 2014 war movie directed by Angelina Jolie, American prisoner of war Louis Zamperini is sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the sleepy coastal town of Naoetsu. Starved and beaten by a sadistic guard, he barely survives.
The ordeal was the nadir of an extraordinary life. A distance runner, Zamperini qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and met Adolf Hitler.
Before being captured by Japanese soldiers, he survived 47 days adrift on a raft in the Pacific. When the second World War ended, he struggled with alcoholism, depression and an obsession with revenge. His says his life rebounded only when he embraced Christianity and publicly forgave his captors.
Zamperini’s story, with its stirring American motifs of individual bravery, triumph and redemption, was turned into a bestselling book in 2010 and translated into 30 languages. Since it opened last year, Unbroken has been screened around the world. Everywhere, it seems, but Japan.
The film, and the translation of the book, was stopped in its tracks by a campaign in the right-wing media, amplified by online ranting that branded it “anti-Japanese”. Toho-Towa, the Japanese distributor for Universal Studios, has yet to announce a release date.
Universal itself has kept its distance from the controversy, except to deny any intention of “spreading a political message” through the film, says Duncan Clark, the studio’s president. Anything to do with the history of the second World War is political in Japan, in particular this year – the 70th anniversary of the nation’s surrender in August 1945.
Prime minister Shinzo Abe belongs to a political tradition that rejects much of the accepted narrative on the war. Education minister Hakubun Shimomura fired the latest salvo from that tradition last month when he announced stricter control over school history textbooks.
Mr Abe’s views were under the global spotlight last week during an eight-day visit to Washington. On April 29th, he became the first Japanese leader to address a joint session of Congress in a speech that expressed remorse for the war but stopped short of an apology.
Japan has produced much of the top scholarship on the war, critical or otherwise, and its movie studios have produced a string of anti-war classics. American-made movies showing mistreatment of POWs, notably Bridge on the River Kwai, have been widely seen in the country.
Kotler says the government has created an atmosphere of “misinformation and self-censorship” at home and sent diplomats out across the world to object to war memorials and complain to history professors and journalists.
In one notorious incident last year, Japanese officials accused Germany’s largest business newspaper of carrying pro-Chinese propaganda against Japan. “There is a clear shift taking place under the leadership of Mr Abe,” wrote the newspaper’s correspondent Carsten Germis. “A move by the right to whitewash history.”
Many ordinary Japanese have fought the retreat from the past. In Naoetsu, a group of locals, working with the families of former Australian POWs, created one of the few domestic memorials to Japan’s wartime victims. A small park marks the spot where the camp once stood.
About 60 Australians died from disease and mistreatment at the camp from 1942-45. When the war ended, eight guards were tried and executed, more than any other POW camp in Japan. Zamperini’s tormentor, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, fled and was never brought to justice. He later became a successful businessman.
The inmates included Irish man Thomas Fanahan Finn, who left Mitchelstown, Co Cork, aged 19 and enlisted with the Manchester Regiment. Towards the end of the war he was transported to Japan in “terrible, vile conditions” for compulsory labour at the Naoetsu camp, says his daughter Kit Clay.
But many of the people who fought to have the park built in 1995 have passed away. Around the town, few seem even aware of the camp or that it has been immortalised by Hollywood. The local library doesn’t have a single record of Zamperini.
“I don’t think people care about something that happened so long ago,” says Yukiko Ishida, who runs a coffee shop less than a kilometre from where the camp once stood.
South Korea has responded to Japan’s textbook changes by announcing that schoolteachers will be given dedicated training on the history of Japan’s wartime military brothels. In China, primary and secondary schools already extensively study Japanese invasions of the 1930s and 1940s; a compulsory text on the 1937 Nanjing massacre was adopted this year for use in all its classrooms.
Unbroken should resonate beyond national borders because its central character embraced reconciliation, say those who know the story. Zamperini, who died last year, aged 97, later went to Japan to meet his captors and even requested a meeting with Watanabe, who refused. Zamperini was one of 30,000 POWs in Japan; 10 per cent died in the country, says Kinue Tokudome, executive director of the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. “People don’t know that history,” she laments. “They must have seen these emaciated Caucasians in the countryside. How could they not remember and talk about it?”
Tokudome says there is still some space in Japan to discuss the uncomfortable past. She points to a new English-language textbook for secondary school children that recounts the tale of another POW.
But like many observers, she worries that this space may be closing. “I’m pleased that at least we now have this one vehicle to reach out to young Japanese people,” she says.
“Otherwise, they have very few opportunities to learn about the history that took place in their country.”