‘Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s 2014 film about the late American Olympic athlete Louie Zamperini, will finally receive a theatrical release in Japan next year after inciting the ire of local groups who claim its depiction of Japanese prisoner of war camps is sensationally harsh and thus an expression of reflexive Japan-bashing. Although it’s not likely these soreheads have watched the movie, it is likely, given their own reflexive response to anything seen as placing Japan in a negative light, that if they had, they wouldn’t bother to note that the movie provides a moral balance. In one scene, the Allied POWs are moved from one camp to another, and pass through a residential area recently destroyed by American bombers. They see scores of dead civilians, proof that the Japanese people themselves suffered immeasurably during World War II.

Japan’s civilian casualties have always been the elephant in the room when it comes to wartime responsibility. The Americans who bombed Japan indiscriminately have never addressed the purposeful targeting of civilians, while the government has never published the exact number of civilian casualties. Researchers estimate that more than 400,000 were killed in air raids, and that doesn’t include the atomic attacks. The government didn’t even try to find out how many children were orphaned during the war until Gen. Douglas MacArthur urged them to do so. They finally arrived at the figure of 120,000 — in 1981.

The Association of Civilian War Victims was formed in 1972 to address the issue of compensation for civilian victims of air raids. The group says that since veterans and veterans’ survivors have received benefits over the years, civilians who also suffered should get something, but the government has always rebutted the demand by claiming that soldiers were employees of the state and civilians were not.

Over the years some politicians have proposed bills that would recognize the suffering of civilians. None succeeded. Moreover, lawsuits have been filed to gain compensation for air raid victims and all were rejected by courts based on the concept of junin, or “acceptance of responsibility.” As members of a polity, citizens accept the choices of the authorities and thus must live (or die) with the consequences of those choices. According to an editorial in the Tokyo Shimbun, the judges said “the hardships of war must be borne equally by all people,” implying a contract, except that the people didn’t formally sign up to help prosecute the war. What they did was elect those in power, even if Japan’s military-controlled government was authoritarian in nature. During the war it was all about “100 million fighting as one.” After the war it was about military and nonmilitary.

On Dec. 8, 150 members of the association met with lawyers and politicians to draft a new “blueprint” for a compensation law. Since time is running out for the remaining air raid survivors, the proposal is more modest than previous ones: A one-time payment of between ¥350,000 and ¥1.5 million to each disabled survivor. In contrast, disabled veterans receive as much as ¥5 million a year, and even surviving families of dead soldiers still get pensions. Over the years the government has paid out ¥10 trillion in benefits to veterans and their families, so the proposal for civilian victims is merely symbolic. The only major media that covered the meeting were the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun. The most dramatic element of this coverage was the woman who founded the association, Chisako Sugiyama, who is 100 years old. Sugiyama lost an eye and the use of her left arm in a Nagoya air raid when she was 29. It was much later when she learned the truth of the Air Defense Act, which said that, except for children and old people, all residents of an area under attack must remain there to extinguish fires, meaning it was illegal to flee even if people knew bombs were about to fall. What made Sugiyama angry was that the law was enforced mainly for morale purposes: fleeing civilians promoted a “sense of defeat.” She was spurred to act when she learned that Germany compensated its veterans and civilian victims equally.

The reheated campaign for compensation coincided not only with this year’s 70th anniversary of the end of the war, but also with the government’s legislative push to allow Self-Defense Forces to fight overseas. Though such activities may not have a direct impact on Japanese at home, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has justified the new SDF status as being necessary for “protecting Japanese lives.” Media critic Chiki Ogiage pointed out on the Dec. 10 edition of his TBS radio show that since the government refuses to compensate victims of World War II air raids it’s difficult to accept Abe’s words at face value. It sounds especially cynical given that we now live in a world where the collateral damage of bombing raids has become an accepted part of war waged from afar.

The government’s disregard for civilian victims is of a piece with its reluctance to engage with the so-called comfort women. In an Asahi article that appeared a few days before the association meeting, one 76-year-old member expressed anger that the government “has never even apologized” to her for the loss of her leg during a Fukuoka air raid. Like the former “comfort women,” before she dies she wants her suffering acknowledged by the people she believes caused that suffering. Perhaps she should aim her resentment at the U.S., but Japan surrendered all claims to damages in the San Francisco Treaty of 1952. And, as with the comfort women issue, the current government has tried to disavow responsibility by claiming the wartime administration had no involvement in that suffering, though the fact that it plunged the country into war should be considered responsibility enough. The point the association wants to make is that the authorities demand citizens go along with national policies, but isn’t willing to protect them when those policies have tragic consequences. Just ask the people of Fukushima.

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