February 11, 2013
Here's a movie I'm looking forward to, even though, based on what's presented in the trailer, it looks the "drama" was invented out of thin air.
The Tokyo War Crimes Trial wanted to be Nuremberg II, but ended up the Great Scapegoat Hunt. General MacArthur's goal from the start was to whitewash Emperor Hirohito's record. Bonner Fellers's job was to coordinate that effort. The results of the "investigation" were never in doubt.
As John Dower describes MacArthur's intentions in his masterful account of the Occupation, Embracing Defeat:
This successful campaign to absolve the emperor of war responsibility knew no bounds. Emperor Hirohito was not merely presented as being innocent of any formal acts that might make him culpable to indictment as a war criminal. He was turned into an almost saintly figure who did not even bear moral responsibility for the war.
In the process, says Herbert Bix, MacArthur's extraordinary measures "had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war." It is this historical legacy that continues to haunt Japan's diplomatic relations with Korea and China over half a century later.
I'm convinced that at least some of this discord could have been ameliorated if Hirohito had abdicated at the end of the Occupation, and in more apologetic tones than his famous surrender address (in which he basically said: "Well, things didn't quite turn out as we expected.")
In any case, Hirohito's actions hardly constituted a "crime" (if anything, his incompetence helped lose the war). But the Tokyo War Crimes Trial was more about getting even, settling old scores, and moral preening. The wartime propaganda notwithstanding, Tojo was in no way analogous to Hitler.
To suggest an imperfect precedent--though Andersonville certainly presaged Bataan in many gristly ways--Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville Prison, was tried and executed after the Civil War, but not Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, who had far bloodier hands.
If "war crime" is a redundancy, then "just war" is an oxymoron, as if there's a "right" or "moral" way to kill millions of people and destroy trillions in property and infrastructure. William Tecumseh Sherman was right: War is all hell. However necessary a war may be, it should never be mistaken for "justice."
In the end, the loser cannot escape paying the exacting cost of simply losing. Even MacArthur's staff, privy to the aerial bombing surveys, were not prepared for the magnitude of the wasteland that greeted them: 60 to 80 percent of every major city (except Kyoto) in Japan burned to the ground.
The winners don't fare so well either, which is why the difficult but just thing to do is resist the urge for show trials and payback. Fortunately, the Tokyo War Crimes Trial was over by 1947 (the typical civilian felony trial takes longer). The Occupation would go on for another five years.
I consider the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century and the Occupation of Japan in the mid-20th not just two of the most fascinating periods in Japanese history, but human history. Both periods epitomize what it means for a people, in John Dower's words, "to start over in a ruined world."
So even the revisionist versions are worth a look. Besides, Tommy Lee Jones!
In any case, considering Hollywood's low standards of accuracy when it comes to Japanese history, it'd be practically impossible not to improve upon The Last Samurai, which scoots right past revisionism into outright fantasy.
Speaking of which, if you want to pick a person responsible for the Pacific War, Saigo Takamori is your man. He died in 1877, but the bushido ideals he personified (one thing accurately depicted in The Last Samurai) would quickly corrupt Japanese politics and start the dominoes tumbling down.