Japanese culture warriors enlist an emblem of imperial past

In the entrance hall of the Yushukan War Museum in Tokyo, temple of Japanese revisionism, the first thing you notice is the dark green livery of the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane, at the time the most advanced on-board fighter in the world. More maneuverable than the British Spitfire and with a surprisingly long range, it greatly aided Japan’s war effort before the Allies developed the technology and tactics to defeat it. Deployed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, three years later, when defeat for Japan had become inevitable, the Zero was sent to desperate conditions. Suicide bomber missions.

The plane has become an icon for Japan’s small – but noisy – ultra-right-hander, the scowling guys who pilot the sinister black vans that circle Japanese cities barking xenophobic slogans and recalling imperial “glory days.” For these men, who lament Japan’s post-war loss of dignity as America’s “client state”, the airplane is an exquisite evocation of technical prowess and fighting spirit in an era before the United States. Americans did not strip the emperor of his divine status.

It is therefore a surprise that Hayao Miyazaki, the world-famous director of animated films for children with a pacifist, even socialist tendency, has chosen to make his last film on Zero. Mr. Miyazaki’s films, including the delicately beautiful My neighbor Totoro and the Oscar winner Abducted as if by magic, captivating with their portrayal of wide-eyed childhood and the hidden Shinto world of woodland spirits and river gods. Flight and machines – in all their hissing Heath Robinson wonder – feature prominently, and The wind picks up, which released in Japan last month, is a tribute to what Mr. Miyazaki calls “the extraordinary genius” of Zero’s designer Jiro Horikoshi.

Although the hunter was the same size as contemporary models, he could fly faster and farther. “Why?” Mr. Miyazaki asks in a interview with Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “Because Horikoshi intuitively understood the mystery of aerodynamics that no one could explain in words.” For him, the Zero represents “one of the few things we Japanese could be proud of” in our “humiliating history”.

You might have thought the Japanese conservatives would be delighted. In fact, Mr. Miyazaki received a outpouring of hate, and has been tagged as “anti-Japanese” and “traitor” on right-wing discussion sites. The cause of such anger, in addition to the pacifist tone of The wind picks up, which portrays the war as a pitiful waste of human life, is an essay he published when the film launched in July. There, in an eccentric and somewhat disjointed style, he strongly opposes the revision of the pacifist constitution, which bans Japan from waging war, and berates politicians like Shinzo Abe, the hawkish prime minister, for changing history. Mr. Miyazaki calls for appropriate compensation for “comfort women”, young women from Korea, China, Japan and elsewhere who have often been duped or forced to work in military brothels. (The Japanese right insists they were all volunteers.) More controversially, he suggests dividing or sharing with China the Japanese-administered islands that are the subject of a stalemate between Tokyo and Beijing. In the interview with Asahi, he said that the far right had embraced the genius of Horikoshi, the creator of Zero, as “an outlet for their patriotism and inferiority complex”. While directing the film, he said, “I hope I have taken Horikoshi away from these people.”

The argument on The wind picks up corresponds to shifting national views on Japan’s obligations to the past and its relations with its neighbors, particularly to a more assertive and militarily powerful China. According to a recent Pew Poll63% of Japanese believe that Japan has apologized enough for the war, a figure that reaches 73% of 18-29 year olds. How, say defenders of Japanese youth, can they be expected to feel guilty about events that occurred more than half a century before their birth? (David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said something similar when he issued a no-apology about the British massacre of Indian civilians in Amritsar in 1919.)

Japanese attitudes have changed since the 1990s, when polls suggested that the majority believed that Japan had not apologized or had not atoned enough. Mr Abe, for his part, rejected the so-called “apology diplomacy”; successive leaders have issued variations of Murayama’s famous apology – named after former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama – in which he expressed “his deep remorse for these acts of aggression, colonial rule, etc.” [which] caused so much suffering and unbearable pain to so many people ”. Such statements have been routinely dismissed as insincere by neighbors, especially in Northeast Asia. The Pew survey found that only 2% of Koreans and 6% of Chinese accepted Japan’s apology, compared to 48% and 35% respectively in the Philippines and Indonesia, countries which also suffered the brutality of the Japanese invasion.

Mr Abe sent an offering this week to Yasukuni Shrine, where the “souls” of 2.5 million war dead, including 14 convicted Class A war criminals, are enshrined. He refrains from surrendering himself to limit the diplomatic fallout. He said the Japanese would “engrave the lessons of war deeply in our hearts,” but ignored usual references to the invasion of Japan and its pledge never to wage war again.

These days, the Japanese left is more regularly criticized, but the opinions of people like Mr. Miyazaki are more common than it immediately appears. According to Pew, 56% of Japanese people still oppose the constitutional review. Admittedly, this represents a drop from 67% in 2006. Yet when Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka, sought to justify the use of “comfort women,” three-quarters of Japanese rejected his position, destroying his political career.

There is still a fairly strong bulwark against constitutional change, which requires not only a two-thirds majority in parliament, but ratification in a public referendum. Even Mr Abe admitted last month that he did not have the numbers. And despite the right-wing attacks on Mr Miyazaki, much of the public has supported him in the only way possible: Since his release four weeks ago, The wind picks up has always been number one at the box office.

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Letter in response to this column:

German’s journey from zero to hero / From Mr C Mentcher


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