Yasukuni Shrine

Japan Inc shuts its doors to the past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

From two continents this week came news of two films dealing with aspects of war. Germany has struggled to come to terms with its past and is moving ahead. Japan - shamefully - continues to pretend and hide, to its own detriment and that of all Asia.

In Berlin, the red carpet came out for the premiere of Der Rote Baron (The Red Baron), a film celebrating the first world war flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, who shot down 80 enemy aircraft. It stars mostly German, but some British, actors, was shot in English and dubbed into German. It contrasts the sporting baron - 'Our task is to bring down aeroplanes, not men; we are sportsmen, not butchers,' he says when he refuses to shoot down an adversary whose gun had jammed - with the bloody slaughter of the trenches and the future cruel Nazi rulers.

Meanwhile, Japan Inc and its right-wing gangster friends were trying to prevent the public screening of Yasukuni, a thought-provoking film about the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where the souls of 2.47 million Japanese war dead, including 14 class-A war criminals, are enshrined.

At the start of this month, cinemas in Tokyo and Osaka declared that they would not show the film, claiming that the ban was 'out of concern that it could cause inconvenience to neighbouring commercial facilities'. The excuse refers to threats that right-wing gangs with their sound trucks would invade, jam the downtown traffic and blast the glitziest and ritziest areas of Tokyo with their loud nationalistic music and slogans denouncing the film.

The right-wingers have a great deal of muscle and they are not afraid to show it. Last year, the Prince Hotel group pulled out of a contract signed with the Japan Teachers' Union to hold a conference in one of its hotels. The hotel cited fear of harassment by the right-wingers, who consider the teachers to be unpatriotic.

Yasukuni was made by Li Ying, a Chinese from Guangdong, who has lived in Japan since 1989. Ironically, one reason he left China was because he thought he would have more freedom in Japan. The film has already been shown in Pusan, at Sundance, in Berlin and in Hong Kong.

The 123-minute documentary, which was supported by a small 7.5 million yen (HK$580,000) grant from Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, gets beyond the usual denunciations of Japan's war crimes. The director's intention was to force the Japanese to look at themselves and at the shrine.

Indeed, Li claimed that 'this is not a political film; it is more of a spiritual one. But when the spirits of Yasukuni gather, politics and religion are invariably involved.'

The film slices and intersperses scenes from the present-day shrine with historical shots and flashbacks. Li examines Shinto philosophy, Bushido and the art of sword forging, as well as the gatherings of war veterans and their supporters, some wearing Imperial Army uniforms, to pay their ritual respects to their dead colleagues at the shrine.

It also gives the arguments of anti-Yasukuni activists, including Taiwanese who demand the return of their countrymen enshrined for serving in the Japanese forces. It captures the beating up of a young Japanese, mistaken for a Chinese, for protesting against a memorial service.

The reluctant star of the film is a 90-year-old cancer sufferer, Naoji Kariya, who is the last of the Yasukuni Shrine's swordsmiths, shown as he makes his last sword before retiring. Yasukuni was the heart of sword forging and, from 1933 to 1945, Mr Kariya and his colleagues made 8,100 swords for Imperial Army officers.

The sword is the symbol of Bushido and also serves as the shrine's physical embodiment. But swords were cruel weapons in the Imperial Army's war. The director makes his point by showing a 1937 newspaper article about two officers in Nanjing engaged in a competition to see who could slice to death 100 Chinese first, and then showing troops practising by hacking at straw dummies.

Yasukuni deliberately seeks to ask uncomfortable questions. 'Yasukuni is about memory, but also about forgetfulness,' Li said. 'I use footage from other war movies, to put the memories in front of the Japanese viewers. But the swordsmith is the character of forgetfulness. A lot of wars are started by people who think they are right. Memory is selective. In the shrine, people think all of the dead are heroes, but they have forgotten the pain that these heroes caused all around Asia.'

Japan Inc not merely flunks Li's challenge; it does not want to acknowledge it. News of the cancellation of the film's screening was greeted with assorted hand-wringing. The Asahi newspaper pointed out that cinemas had the option of going to the police for help. In any other civilised country, the police would already have drawn a line and stepped in to stop right-wing thugs from indulging in blatant intimidation and disruption of public freedoms.

But the top prize for humbuggery goes - again - to Japan's politicians. After magazines had attacked Yasukuni for being 'anti-Japanese', a group of members of the Diet demanded a special preview.

'I did not at all intend to censor this film but I did wonder if this is a politically neutral Japanese film that should have received a subsidy,' said Tomomi Inada, the leader of the group and a leading light in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura and other ministers chimed in with their ritual praise of freedom of expression and lamented pressure and harassment - but did nothing to encourage cinemas or the police to safeguard the freedom for Japanese to see the film and make their own judgments.

This is more than a case of selective historical memories diminishing trust in Japan. Yasukuni is still a living issue linking today's politics and religion to a dreadful past. Japan's leaders cannot see that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Meanwhile, Germany has moved on and is now at the heart of the new Europe. Another film, about the anti-Hitler plotter Claus von Stauffenberg, will be released later this year.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, a study of Japan Inc and internationalisation