A man’s life alone cannot represent the Showa Era in its entirety, but Susumu Iida’s serves to underscore many of its harsh legacies.
Iida, 86, lived through the hell of the Pacific War, saw his fellow soldiers starve in New Guinea and spent almost six years in Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison as a Class B/C war criminal.
After his release, Iida married a hibakusha. She later gave birth to a boy with birth defects from the sedative thalidomide that she took during her pregnancy, prompting Iida to organize what would become the first successful lawsuit against the government over a drug-induced disaster.
His life story, filled with hardships influenced by key events in the Showa Era (the name given posthumously to Emperor Hirohito’s reign), is the subject of the new documentary “Showa 84 Nen” (“84 Years of Showa”). The film will be shown in two theaters, in Tokyo and Yokohama, later this month.
The title comes from the notion that this would be the 84th year of Showa if the era had continued to this day. It actually ended with the Emperor’s death in 1989.
The documentary is the product of a two-year effort by director Yoshiaki Ito, cameraman Yasuyuki Wakao and others who persuaded Iida to allow himself to be portrayed.
“I didn’t even know Sugamo Prison was located at the site where the current Sunshine City stands (until a few years ago) even though I live in Ikebukuro. . . . Then, when I first read Mr. Iida’s book (about Sugamo), I was shocked. I felt I must do something to understand the burden he went through, though I may only be able to do so partially,” said Wakao, who initiated the film project.
Through interviews and old photos and film, the documentary shows Iida’s life in the war, in Sugamo and in the court battle over the thalidomide disaster.
“I hope young people see the film because I want them to think about the Showa Era and its legacy for today’s Japan. To understand what’s going on now, we must examine the past,” Iida said in a recent interview.
Contrary to widespread belief, most Japanese soldiers died of starvation and infectious diseases during the war in the South Pacific, not fighting against the enemy, he said.
“Millions of young men died in vain, but this very fact has not been taught to young people today,” said Iida, who was a military researcher for natural resources when he was sent to New Guinea in the 1940s.
Iida recalls in the film a shocking experience he had in New Guinea.
In November 1944, his lieutenant ordered the youngest soldier in his unit to execute a native village chief who guided them through the jungle on a mission to check an enemy’s position. The village chief was believed to be a member of a band of guerrillas that attacked the Japanese forces, and it was believed he would betray their location if he was freed. All soldiers were expected to carry out such orders, Iida said.
When the young soldier, trembling with fear, tried to bayonet the guide, he missed the man’s vital organs. Standing next to him, Iida swung his sword down on the victim’s back.
“That was the first and last time I killed someone,” Iida recalled in the film.
Even today, this, along with other ordeals he went through on the island, haunt Iida, and this is partly why he has kept writing books on his wartime experiences to educate younger generations, he said.
After Japan’s defeat, he was captured by Dutch forces, convicted of Class B/C war crimes in a field tribunal, held overseas and later transferred to Sugamo. His charges included the village chief’s execution. The death penalty was recommended, but Iida instead was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. He was released early by the Occupation forces.
Iida recalls that after the war, he could no longer believe in the values and guiding principles his country instilled in him, although they served as pillars of his belief through the war.
Many Imperial soldiers who were tried and executed left notes to their families, but Iida said he couldn’t write any. “I couldn’t write a note saying ‘after serving my country loyally, I am going to be executed by a revenge trial of our enemy.’ Most notes were like that. What else could they write to their families?”
While in Sugamo, he again felt he had been betrayed by his country.
It was soon after the Korean War broke out in 1950 and all the U.S. soldiers who were guarding Sugamo Prison were sent to the Korean Peninsula.
Shortly afterward, Japan formed the National Police Reserve, the predecessor of the Ground Self-Defense Force, and began the path of rearmament. That angered Iida, who had spent several years behind bars until then. He questioned what the past war was all about and wondered how he could compensate and take responsibility for his past deeds.
At that time, many veterans were also still in prisons in different places in the world, supposedly atoning for their alleged war crimes.
“Throughout the postwar years, the Japanese government has covered up the truth of the war and kept lying to the public. It has kept a secret nuclear pact with the U.S. and refused to acknowledge that the Self-Defense Forces constitute the military. There are too many examples of the government’s lies,” Iida said.
He is also critical of Emperor Hirohito for never apologizing to the people of Japan, even though millions of lives were lost because of the war.
Iida was released in 1956, but even after that, life remained difficult.
In 1960, his second child, Shinichi, was born with defects. Both of his arms were half the normal length and he had no thumbs. It later became apparent the defects were caused by thalidomide, which was sold in the late 1950s mainly for pregnant women to help ease morning sickness.
He said he used to rub his son’s arms every day, wishing they would grow longer.
Iida, who formed a group with other parents of victims of the drug, led the first-ever such lawsuit against the government and succeeded in getting compensation. But he was not satisfied.
“The point of the settlement should have been to ensure similar drug-induced trouble never happens again and to improve the level of welfare for the disabled, including children who suffered thalidomide-induced defects. But similar disasters continued,” he said.
The documentary also portrays Iida facing the 2002 death of his 41-year-old son from hepatitis C.
Since he established a rehabilitation center for disabled children in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1968, Iida has kept himself busy with welfare work. Now 86, he still leads an active life.
“Despite all the challenges triggered by various historical events in the Showa Era, Mr. Iida always approached society with a constructive and positive manner,” said Ito, who directed the film. “I was deeply moved by him, and through the documentary, I wanted to show the audience Mr. Iida himself, someone who won’t fall into despair even when faced with serious difficulties.”
“Showa 84 Nen” will be shown at Uplink in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, starting Saturday and Cinema Jack & Betty in Chuo Ward, Yokohama, starting Aug. 29.