Documentary puts in perspective Hirohito and a turbulent century


Kyodo News

PARIS — A documentary on the history of Japan during the war and postwar years is receiving critical acclaim following its broadcast by Franco-German television station Arte in late September.

“The Emperor and the Army” was produced by Kenichi Watanabe, 58, a Japanese resident of Paris who came to France in 1997 after directing several documentaries in Japan.

Critics have said Watanabe’s film should be used as a criterion for understanding Japan. Television stations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia have inquired about it, indicating it may be shown in many countries.

The 90-minute documentary combines footage of the war and postwar era he dug up at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and other places with images of present day Japan and interviews with politicians and a top adviser to a rightist organization.

He impartially depicts the relationship between Emperor Hirohito (known as Emperor Showa since his death) and the Imperial military, and then the Self-Defense Forces.

The documentary gave French and German viewers easy-to-understand descriptions of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo that tried wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo and other Class-A war criminals.

The film looks at the process that led to the enactment of the war-renouncing Constitution, the creation of the SDF, successive prime ministers’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of the war dead are enshrined, and the issue of the “comfort women” who served as sex slaves in wartime brothels for the military.

The French newspaper Le Monde described the “The Emperor and the Army” as the fruition of a thorough gathering of materials. Le Nouvel Observateur magazine extolled it as a great work that helps to illustrate the development of Japan’s postwar history and why it was thrown into a blind alley.

Watanabe said he made the documentary because he felt a sense of discomfort with Japanese politics under the administration three years ago of hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party.

He cited the elevation of the Defense Agency to the Defense Ministry, the enactment of the National Referendum Law as part of efforts to change the Constitution and alterations to the Fundamental Law of Education placing emphasis on patriotism.

“I wanted Europeans to know about the situation in Japan,” Watanabe said.

The title refers to Articles 1 and 9 of the Constitution. Article 1 describes the Emperor as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” while Article 9 says “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right . . . and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

He interviewed Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party and current minister of consumer affairs, food safety, the declining birthrate and gender equality. Her party is in the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling bloc. Watanabe also talked with the late Shoichi Nakagawa, a former finance minister and member of the LDP who died after his defeat in the Aug. 30 general election, and Kunio Suzuki, supreme adviser to the rightist organization Issuikai.

The last part of the documentary shows Emperor Showa’s news conference in 1975 in which he spoke hesitantly but declared inevitable the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

It contains footage of Hiroshima citizens enthusiastically welcoming the Emperor during his visit to the city in 1947. The A-bomb dome can be seen in the background.

Watanabe said the Emperor’s words demonstrated his awareness of U.S. historical perception, adding, “I wanted to express in the documentary that Article 9 was (in the Constitution) to secure Article 1 under the U.S. Occupation.”

The documentary was released on DVD simultaneously with its broadcast, which took place after it was screened at the Japanese Culture Center in Paris. Television stations in Finland, Belgium, Greece, South Korea and Al-Jazeera in Qatar have proposed showing it.

Its telecast or screening is undecided in Japan.

  • It is a very informative documentary, although I think – as
    with most of the discussions about Japan’s wartime past – it lacks a certain context: viz. the road that leads to the Pacific War, starting with the opening of Japan by American gunboat diplomacy and the unilateral treaties forced upon
    the country. I think the Pacific War should be placed in the context of the competing imperial powers in Asia during the 19th and early 20thcenturies. Furthermore, American policy concerning the Sino-Japanese conflict in the early thirties of the 20th century should be part of the equation; specifically, the so-called neutral stance of the US and the military aid it gave to Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists. The big question is: is it morally acceptable for one nation to force its cultural values and system upon another nation? The discussion in Just and Unjust Wars of Michael Walzer concerning this topic is most illuminating.