LOS ANGELES – 2006 saw the completion of two projects that challenge perceptions about Japanese soldiers and World War II.
With the June publication of cultural anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s book “Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers” and the premiere of Clint Eastwood’s film “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the image of Japanese soldiers created in the milieu of World War II propaganda will receive a long-overdue makeover.
Recent works focusing on the personal writings of the Japanese who died for their country provide Americans a chance to learn, perhaps for the first time, who these soldiers actually were.
Ohnuki-Tierney, a Japanese native and a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came across the letters of Japanese “tokkotai” (special attack corps) pilots — men assigned to suicide missions — while doing research for a book about the use of symbolism and nationalism in Japanese military history.
She published “Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History,” in 2002 after nearly 10 years of research. As a result, the University of Chicago Press requested Ohnuki-Tierney write a full work about the pilots.
She spent the next two years compiling the letters of seven young men who died as tokkotai pilots or on other suicide missions conducted at the close of World War II.
Published last June, “Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers” offers a testimony to the thoughts and feelings of Japanese soldiers who knew they were going to die.
Ohnuki-Tierney said in a recent interview that “Kamikaze Diaries” is the only writing she has done “to appeal to humanity at large — for peace — by illustrating the tragedies of brilliant young men whose government sent them off to their death meaninglessly.”
She said “Kamikaze Diaries” focuses on the “young men’s struggle to sustain their connections to the rest of humanity amid the wrenching conditions of war and to find meaning in a death they felt was decreed for them.”
In the book, Ohnuki-Tierney writes, “The diaries of these young men offer eloquent testimony that contradicts both the stereotype held outside of Japan and the propaganda circulated by the Japanese military: that tokkotai pilots died happily for the Emperor.”
The young soldiers were prolific writers and left behind a great deal of information about their personal struggles in diaries, soliloquies, essays, poems and letters, Ohnuki-Tierney said.
“The particular situation these students faced in wartime, however, also made a difference: the diary became an important means by which they struggled to understand and come to terms with the imminent death they faced,” she writes.
Film star and director Clint Eastwood also said he read letters by Japanese soldiers in World War II while doing research for his film adaptation of James Bradley’s book, “Flags of Our Fathers,” a story about three Americans who survived the Battle of Iwojima.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Eastwood said he was inspired particularly by letters written by Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi. As a result, he said he decided to make “Letters from Iwojima” as a companion film to “Flags” showing the Japanese perspective of the battle that claimed more than 21,000 Japanese lives. The United States lost more than 6,800 men in the battle.
“Letters” focuses on Kuribayashi, “whose travels in America have revealed to him the hopeless nature of the war but also given him strategic insight into how to take on the vast American armada streaming in from across the Pacific,” according to the film’s Web site.
“With little defense other than sheer will and the volcanic rock of the island itself, Gen. Kuribayashi’s unprecedented tactics transform what was predicted to be a quick and bloody defeat into nearly 40 days of heroic and resourceful combat,” it says.
But Eastwood has said it was not the military skill of the general, played by Ken Watanabe, that attracted him.
“When you read Kuribayashi’s letters, you see a caring father, worrying about his kids’ education, telling them anecdotes about Boston and Harvard in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and you see he’s like every other father,” Eastwood said.
“When I grew up, everything was propaganda; we all thought that the Japanese tortured and killed people,” he was quoted as saying. “But it’s tough to swallow that everybody was that way.”
“Letters” previewed in Japan last month and will start a limited run in U.S. theaters Dec. 20 in time to qualify for the Oscars.
Ohnuki-Tierney said she has not yet seen “Letters” but hopes Eastwood “does a good job.” She has also expressed hope that both her work and Eastwood’s film will influence the way Japanese and Americans understand Japan’s military history.
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