February 26, 2007

Is Japan Wrong To Honor Its Kamikaze Pilots?

Japan will confront its World War II history with a new film this May honoring the sacrifice of its kamikaze pilots. I Go To Die For You comes from the pen of a well-known politician, and will open up a debate over the nature of the Imperial culture that sent 5,000 young men to their deaths as the pilots of guided missiles:

Japan's kamikaze pilots are to be honoured in a new film praising their bravery, sacrifice and "beautiful lives" in the Second World War.

The release in May of I Go To Die For You confirms a growing nostalgia in Japan about its wartime generation, even among the majority who accept the cause was wrong. ...

The screenplay by the 74-year-old outspoken politician, Shintaro Ishihara, is based on conversations he had with Tome Torihama, a woman who ran a restaurant near the base and became a mother figure to many of the trainee kamikaze. ...

Widely viewed as fanatics in Britain and America, kamikaze pilots have a complex place in the Japan's collective memory. Far-Right nationalists venerate them as martyrs, while liberals see them as young victims of state brainwashing, bullied into volunteering to die.

Almost 5,000 kamikaze were sacrificed in a desperate and futile attempt to change the course of the war in its last months. Many did not reach their targets. A few would-be pilots are still alive today, saved by engine failure or by the end of the war.

Apparently, the screenplay indicates that this film will not follow the example of Letters from Iwo Jima, showing the bravery and the futility of the Japanese in the final straits of a collapse. It tends to glorify the decision to conduct so many suicide missions, even though the operation ended in disaster, and arguably in the atomic bombs dropped on two of their cities. The kamikazes had the intended effect of convincing the Americans of the lunacy of the Japanese government, a conviction that entered into the calculation of using those weapons as a means of avoiding the millions of deaths on both sides that a full-scale invasion would have caused.

Americans have a clear view of kamikaze missions; they believe them to be appalling. The pilots get consideration for their bravery, but they get portrayed as fanatics. The Japanese have conflicted views about the "special attack forces", as Ishihara puts it. Newer generations of more liberal Japanese consider them to have been duped by a desperate war machine facing ruin and shame, while older and more conservative Japanese believe them to have sacrificed themselves with honor.

Both could be right, but this film might not deliver that kind of nuance. The kamikazes cannot speak for themselves, except for those few who missed their chance to commit suicide for the Emperor. The risk that Ishihara runs is in crossing the line between understanding the men themselves and lauding the mission, which was a truly insane operation that in the end did Japan far more damage than they could have imagined. If the film glorifies the kamikaze program, then it will almost certainly raise a firestorm of criticism, especially on this side of the Pacific.


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