War flick touting Japan’s role in Indonesia’s birth irks Jakarta

by Masayuki Kitamura

A new Japanese film depicting the role of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers in Indonesia’s war for independence from the Netherlands highlights a stark difference in views between Indonesians and Japanese over the republic’s 1945 birth.

The Tokyo preview of “Merdeka,” meaning “independence” in Bahasa Indonesian, offended Indonesians so much that the Indonesian envoy sent a letter to the president of the film’s production company requesting that the “improper” scenes be cut.

The movie begins with a brief scene in which an elderly Indonesian woman welcomes the arrival of Japanese occupation forces on Java Island in early 1942 by kneeling down and kissing the feet of a young Japanese officer, the hero of the film.

In a formal letter, Indonesian Ambassador Soemadi Brotodiningrat expressed concern over the opening and asked the president “to delete the improper and extreme scene” to avoid “unwanted” negative reaction both in Indonesia and Japan.

“The scene not only fails to reflect the historical truth, but also may hurt the national prestige and the heart of the Indonesian people,” the envoy said.

Syahri Sakidin, counselor at the embassy, told Kyodo News that Katsuaki Asano, president of Tokyo Film Production, agreed to delete the scene in talks at the embassy last week.

In a separate interview with Kyodo News, Asano said he accepted the envoy’s request for the sake of friendly bilateral relations.

The leading character of the movie was modeled on Imperial army Capt. Motoshige Yanagawa (1914-1986). Asano said the scene in question was based on a memorandum of Yanagawa, an intelligence officer who graduated from the army’s Nakano School for spies.

Yanagawa played a key role in establishing a volunteer defense force of Indonesian youth (PETA) under Japanese military rule. During the war against the Dutch, the PETA volunteer army formed the core of the republic’s army.

Asano, a businessman-turned-movie producer, said the principal aim of shooting “Merdeka” was “to restore national pride among Japanese people of being a Japanese national.”

“How many Japanese people know the historical fact that some 2,000 former Japanese soldiers fought for Indonesia’s independence together with Indonesian troops? About 1,000 former Japanese soldiers devoted their lives to the new republic,” he said.

Asano said his mission is to hand down the historical truth to the next generation.

“Merdeka,” directed by Yukio Fuji, cost 1 billion yen to make. More that 4,000 Indonesian extras were employed during two months of shooting on-location in central Java with the assistance of the Indonesian Armed Forces.

Asano said he kicked off preparations for the film by setting up a production committee in 1998. Several Japanese veterans who served in the war in the then Dutch East Indies supervised the production as members of a production committee.

Historian and diplomacy analyst Hideaki Kase headed the committee. “Merdeka” is to be released May 12 throughout Japan by motion picture company Toho.

Asano and Kase are no strangers to controversy, having stirred debate with their 1998 film “Pride, the Fateful Moment” depicting the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, Gen. Hideki Tojo and India’s independence struggle against Britain.

Asano said “Merdeka” is their second attempt at winning back lost national pride.

When Kyodo News asked Asano if his production team requested Japanese experts on Indonesia to study historical evidence of the film, he replied, “Indonesia’s leading motion picture company, Rapi Film, never cited problems in the movie during the on-location shooting.”

But even in July, the Indonesian envoy warned Asano: “It is necessary to take a wise stance and method in portraying historical affairs. There still exist sensitive historical issues to discuss, as the historical views between the two nations are not fully in accord.”

Early on in production, the embassy suggested changing the title because the Indonesian word “merdeka” is sacred to Indonesians.

Sakidin said that since Indonesia’s independence struggle against Dutch colonial rule can be dated back to the 1800s, independence was not won solely by a group of Japanese soldiers.

Asano said, “Based on their advice, we added ‘17805,’ the date and year of the independence declaration, to the title.”

“17805” stands for Aug. 17 of the year of the Imperial reign 2005, commensurate with 1945.

Both Japanese and Indonesian experts say Indonesia’s founding fathers Sukarno and Hatta had to use the year of the Imperial reign in the independence declaration because of a decree by the Japanese military.

But the commentary of “Merdeka” says, “Sukarno and Hatta wrote by the year of the Imperial reign as an expression of thanks to Japan.”

Meanwhile, Japanese pundits on Indonesian affairs said the movie includes too many scenes showing Japanese officers slapping the faces of Indonesian trainees or hitting their heads. Such actions are considered taboo in the world’s largest Muslim society. However, they admitted that Japanese soldiers often treated Indonesians that way.

“The main target of the movie is Japanese. But we hope to release this movie in Indonesia. We intend to make an Indonesian version, considering these complaints,” Asano said.