Thursday, February 26, 2015


Fuji from the air


Listening to the news these days you’d think Japan had won the war. Prime Minister Abe is staunchly unapologetic about Japan’s past misdeeds and his adherence to the cult-like veneration of fallen war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine is more provocative than commemorative. Former Prime Minister Aso Taro has gone so far as to praise certain aspects of Nazi policy. NHK governor Hyakuta Naoki claimed this month that the Nanjing Massacre “never happened” while another Abe associate, NHK Chairman Momoi Katsuto, has indicated that the sexual slavery of “comfort women” is a topic unfit for NHK’s quasi-governmental station which has a remit to show “what a wonderful nation Japan is.” Former Abe advisor Ayako Sono has suggested an Apartheid-type sequestration of foreign workers. 

Listening to these hawkish men and women, one could escape with the mistaken impression that Japan’s fascists had won, not lost, the reckless Asian war of invasion and plunder. What's fair ground for a fiction writer can be outright toxic for a politician. Ishihara Shintaro is a case in point; he was a sensitive and nuanced fiction writer but a terrible, tone-deaf politician.

‘What if’ scenarios about Japan winning World War Two have enjoyed traction in novels, manga and film ever since the US Occupation lifted a tight censorship regime in  1952 and after ANPO tensions in 1959, Revisionist literature written by Japanese authors ranges from the starkly self-critical to shockingly unapologetic; some of the greatest works of anti-war art and literature have been produced in Japan, such as “Barefoot Gen” by Nakazawa Keiji, Ichikawa Kon’s “Fires in the Plain” and “Grave of the Fireflies” by Takahata Isao but there is also a cottage industry producing schlock for sore losers which either whitewashes Japan’s many documented war crimes, or finds laudatory nuggets of heroism amidst the general nastiness that help shore up a fantasy vision of  “Japan the beautiful.”  Kobayashi Yoshinori is a virtual cottage industry of provocative revisionism unto himself, with titles such as “On Yasukuni” “On Taiwan” and “On Okinawa.”

One of the most outstanding works in the ‘what if’ genre was written not by a Japanese lamenting loss or fantasizing about a non-existent victory, but by an American writer wondering what the world would be like had things unfolded differently. Philip K Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” which won the Hugo Award for science fiction in 1963 has just re-entered the media conversation, having been green-lighted by Amazon for a series after the successful online release of the pilot film in October 2014.

The time is the early 1960’s and the setting is a divided US, occupied by the Nazis in the east and by the Japanese in the west. One of the many rich ironies in Dick’s work is that even though the victors in his imaginary world win battles beyond the wildest dreams of Hitler and Tojo, they are still not happy, for, having vanquished the US and UK, the USSR and China, it is only inevitable that their lust for power should put the two victors on a collision course.

In this upside down world where New York’s Times Square is bedecked with swastika banners and portraits of Hitler, and San Francisco has taken on the appearance of its charming Japantown writ large, where Americans struggle to get by under a relatively benign dictatorship symbolized the ‘Nippon Times Tower’, the tallest building in the occupied city.

Judging from the book and TV series pilot, it is tempting to compare the two imaginary realms and say, hey, I’d rather live under the Japanese than the Nazis. Amazon’s pilot episode of “The Man in the High Castle” reinforces this distinction through its brilliant set design in which New York is unremittingly dark and gloomy while San Francisco, although also a fallen city, has snatches of color and a pronounced aesthetic of “wa” harmony.

Dick takes us into a world where Americans can get ahead by aping Japanese values, whether it be mastering martial arts, showing deference with deep genuflection or in rare cases, risking cross-cultural friendship.  In a way it’s a color negative of US-Occupied Japan, in which opportunistic ne’er-do-wells tend to do better than earnest loyalists to the old way of life, though all share a similar nostalgia for the past. The imagined glory of the past before the foreigners came marching in is part of the occupied citizen’s toolkit for coping with the indignity of foreign occupation.

Seventy year’s after war’s end, there are few Americans around who lived under Japan’s wartime boot, but there are many registered legal aliens living under the ‘silken slipper’ of democratic Japan who are uniquely well-situated to understand the depth of Dick’s insight and humor in imagining how Yanks would feel if the boot were on the other foot, so to speak.

As “High Castle” suggests, there’s a lot to like about Japan, even when one is in a subordinate relationship to it, as long as one can avoid conflict with authority. It would be a different sort of challenge for any author to imagine cottoning up to Hitler’s occupiers in the same way, and Dick later stated that he couldn’t write a sequel to his novel because the idea of creating true to life villains of Nazi caliber was too repellent to him.

But to say that’s Japan’s crimes against humanity are, on account of the incomparable horror of the Holocaust, less horrible than Germany’s is not to say that fascist Japan was less than horrific. Killing competitions and countless summary executions took place, especially in China, where racism and rape were widespread, predations against civilians were brutal and heartless policies that lived up to the name of “kill all, loot all, burn all” (politely known as ‘burn-to-ash strategy’)

In fact, it could be argued that for the fighting man, at least, being taken prisoner by Nazi Germany offered a better outlook than being taken prisoner by the forces of Imperial Japan in the Pacific theatre of the war where Geneva-inflected wartime conventions were mostly observed in the breach. Hollywood has dealt with this topic in some depth and breadth, ranging from the relatively anodyne internment camp portrayed “Empire of the Sun,” (Spielberg, 1987) to the torture and brutality of the newly-released “Unbroken” (Jolie, 2014) and the classic “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (Lean, 1957). The Japanese-British production “Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence” (Oshima, 1983) offers a hard look at the POW issue as well. In short, you wouldn’t want to be an enemy combatant in any camp, but the survival rate was higher under the Nazis.

This important anniversary year in the global remembrance of World War Two has already seen Japan paint itself into a corner in regards to its neighbors because of the intransigent and cavalier way Japanese politicians talk about the war. In contrast, the German government has come to terms with its sordid past because it does not minimize or whitewash the horror of Germany’s historic crimes, but strives to make amends to past victims and its contemporary neighbors in a way that Japan has failed to do but might yet emulate.

Perhaps the best advice one could share with the gaffe-prone politicians cited above is that they should abandon the high castle of political hate speech and war revisionism and stick to fantasy and fiction. The nuanced work of political compromise, accommodation with neighbors and the pursuit of peace are activities better left to those with more forbearance and less fantastical ambition and imagination.