When A Society Drifts Further From Truth

During the production of “Bouquet in the South Seas (Nan-kai no Hanataba, 1942)”
The film was shot on location in Marshall Islands and other South Sea Islands,
the occupied territories of Japan at the time.
The caption for this photo reads “The issues of the South Sea Islands need the most urgent attention.”

The nationalists not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
– George Orwell

There’s an article in Independent website about ever-growing revisionist views among the board members of NHK, the public broadcasting in Japan. 
Naoki Hyakuta says Japan was lured into the Second World War by America while liberating Asia from white colonialism.
He denies war crimes such as the 1937 Nanjing massacre, when Japanese troops killed thousands of Chinese civilians. Such views are common among revisionists in Japan. Mr Hyakuta, however, sits on the board of the nation’s public service broadcaster.

Mr. Naoki Hyakuta is a bestseller novelist and a good friend of PM Shinzo Abe, who also stirred international media by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine last December. Hyakuta’s million-seller book, Ei-en No Zero, deals with Kamikaze pilots and their personal lives during the Pacific War. It was made into a movie and the biggest box-office hit during this winter. The book itself promotes a seemingly pacific agenda (so they told me, I have never read the book) and the movie also (so they told me, I have never seen the movie). However, Mr. Hyakuta himself makes numerous comments, mainly on Twitter, which are considered revisionist or improper.
“Korea unashamedly practice ex post facto law…. cannot be a modern nation.”
“For those who believe The Nanjing massacre actually happened, look at this site. (linked to a revisionist website, which denies the incident.)”
“At the time of so-called “The Nanjing massacre”, China and Japan was not at war.”
“As for “The Nanjing massacre”, believing it is religion.”
“(As for Tokyo Mayor election) If I were a Tokyo resident, I would vote for Mr. Tamogami (an ultra-right nationalist candidate, whose agenda includes nuclear armament)”
(Replying to the criticism that above tweet being inappropriate for a board member of NHK)
“For those who doubting if it’s appropriate for me to tweet such a (personal) political view, it is!”
It is not my intent to refute his claims or to discuss the propriety of public figures in charge of public media here. It’s simply a waste of time. I would like to touch on the roles of intelligentsias, writers, artists or filmmakers in political process.
You may have some reservation to call Mr. Hyakuta an intelligentsia, but he is a renowned novelist after all. His books, many of which are light entertainment to historical dramas, are all favorites of bookstores and dealers, since they sell. That has precisely empowered him. Moreover, he knows how to sell a story. He has been a writer for TV shows (mainly entertainment shows) for more than two decades and his debut as a novelist was a fairly recent event, 2006. He knows blatant militarism or chauvinism would not sell, so he camouflaged his novel with pacifism (so they told me, I adamantly refuse to contribute to his financial prosperity). I saw the trailer for the movie, Ei-en no Zero, and realized how cunning the movie is. It is more about how weak everybody is, how brave an ordinary man can be. The message is nothing new, and the similar theme can be found in thousands of Hollywood movies. If you weren’t told, you would never know it was written by a revisionist of this magnitude.
We tend to think that novelists, artists, filmmakers and musicians are inherently humanists, and incompatible with revisionist ideas. Here, revisionist ideas specifically refer to those deny atrocities committed by inhumane entities (like a fascist government). However, many revisionists don’t consider themselves ‘revisionist’, but nationalists or patriots. That is exactly Mr. Hyakuta views himself. The way these revisionists appropriate their ideas closely resembles to what fascists did back in 1930’s. Fascists (here, not only Duce’s paramilitary party but also Nazis and Japanese military) justified their politics and aggression as patriotic moves against Colonialism, Imperialism or Communism (that is exactly what Mr. Hyakuta said). This was precisely the basis for these artists to work for fascist’s regime. It was dramatic.
Fumiko Hayashi, a novelist who wrote Repast, Floating Clouds and A Wanderer’s Notebook (all made into Naruse‘s films), did travelogue-style reports visiting Chinese cities occupied by Japanese Imperial Army. She was convinced that she was doing it for the country, trying to write stories on the toils and hardships encountered by ordinary men in uniform. It was her duty as a patriotic citizen. Called “the Pen corps“, Hayashi was one of the 22 writers dispatched to battlefields of China by the Ministry of Information in 1938. Actually, when the Ministry announced such a plan earlier that year, too many writers applied for the corps so the Ministry had to accommodate more members than they had initially planned. Of course, such a government-subsidized literary event would have promised a boost for their careers, but, for better or worse, these writers wanted to see the action. An action against the decadent regime or communists provided ideal backdrop for plenty of human suffering. How can it be undramatic?
Fumiko Hayashi
Nothing could have been more luring to those writers and artists than dramatizing the current affairs. And there were also two sides to it. If you cooperate with the regime, you would be rewarded with public appreciation and future prospects. If you don’t, you would be suspected of being unpatriotic, or a communist even. This would have given them plenty excuses, and it did. They said so after the war. Some used this rhetoric to defend their apparently inexcusable acts. Veit Harlan, a filmmaker who made notorious Jude Süss (1940) (YouTube), defended himself having had been a victim of the regime rather than a perpetrator.
Revisionists call themselves patriots in the way fascists did. But to do so in this modern era, they need to build alternate version of the world. They construct an imaginary structure of the world where something ‘foreign’ (from Koreans to Global economy) is threatening our national status. They say, “your problem is caused by contamination from foreign agents” and stretch it to national crisis. Oh, yes, the Global economy is changing our lives, I agree, but I don’t think Nestle or Monsanto alone could contaminate our national status of Japan. (Actually, those Japanese revisionists are targeting much, much smaller ‘foreign’ enterprise as threats, but I am too patriotic to imply my fellow men sunk so low.) Revisionists claim ordinary men have to regain national pride once tarnished by the Allies (as if it will deter Samsung’s tablet sales). To make this imaginary structure functional, they claim the history was rewritten by those who want to invade us. Such conspiracy theorists are not new and they are so in love with their dramatic view of the world. Yes, dry ‘facts’ of history can be enormously enhanced by drama. Dry facts of today can be re-assembled accordingly.
This dramatic interpretation of current/historical events is the focal point of the patriotic/revisionist ideas popularity. Because it does not fall into the myriad of polygonal views of affairs, as do many discussions of the real world. It just provides one version. It is refreshing. To some, it really seems to give adrenaline rush. Like “kick some ass!” kind of rush. The worst part of the revisionist ideas is that it actually deflects people’s attention from actual problems in the society. Like unemployment. Like deteriorating health-care plans. Like long recession. Like inequality. Oh, according to my conspiracy theory, somebody up there wants us not to think about those things.
The revisionist movement in Japan in recent years has been greatly shaped by dramatists. Yoshinori Kobayashi, a manga writer, has been actively promoting revisionist views since 1990s in his graphic pseudo-historical manga. His views expressed in these manga acquired huge fan base, precisely because his manga were so dramatic. Then, another dramatist. Mr. Hyakuta, being a TV writer for a long time, apparently knows how to push buttons of audience. But such dramas – those which boost your false pride – tend to be vulgar. Kicking somebody’s ass may be kicking your own.
You know, many of parts in Sumsung tablets are made in Japan. Many of Japanese products are made in China. Even when Chinese economy is expanding, Panasonic lost more than $80M in TV/display business in the last quarter. That’s a real problem. We can escape into a fictional world of sweet fascist drama to boost our pride, but it will not prevent us from kicking our own asses.
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Newsreels of War (Part 3)

Southern half of Sakhalin had been a part of Japanese territory since early 20th century, and many Japanese relocated from the main islands to seek profitable opportunities. At the same time, these settlers craved for entertainment from the country they had left behind. Movies were particularly in high demand, and there was at least one theater in each settlement. Shikuka (or Shisuka, Polonysk today) was one of those towns along the Soviet border, with a population of 30,000 (in 1941). Koji Takii, a reporter from Kinema Junpo, visited the town in 1939 to document the movie business in the town. There were two movie theaters in Shikuka, but their programs were chaotic. They screened whatever available to them at the time regardless of their production companies or origins. During winter, movie print supplies from Japan main islands were so scarce that they had to screen the same old movie for weeks. Since the place was located at the very end of film distribution chain, the prints were battered from repeated screenings and broke easily. Takii brought a fresh print of a propaganda film, Koukoku Nippon (The Emperor’s Country, Nippon), and proposed its screening to townspeople. They were only eager to have such a ‘glorious’ movie screened. The local movie theaters were running mainly commercial features such as melodramas and period films, and it is not surprising that people in Shikuka found such a propaganda film so illuminating and educational. The event was named “Anti-Communism National Defense Week” and the Women’s Association of the town handled ticket sales through Geishas and Cafe waitresses. The screening was packed to the roof, with all those who had bought the tickets from girls in nightclubs and cafe, plus all the school pupils lead by teachers.

Most of the time, all the presentation were painstakingly censored, approved and inspected so that there would be no hint of disastrous military operations in the Pacific or in Southeast Asia. People didn’t realize, at least the majority of them – they were fighting an already-lost war. There were scenes of Kamikaze pilots drinking a small cup of sake just before the departure, but never an actual footage of their attack on enemy vessels. If they had seen it, they would have questioned the effectiveness of such missions. During the spring of 1945, Akira Yamamoto, now a teenager, saw a strange newsreel in one of those school screenings. It was an actual attack of Kamikaze planes on the U.S. Navy vessels. It was different from what he had imagined for many months. No Japanese fighter plane could reach even near the enemy vessel. They were all shot down by fierce firepower of U.S. Naval force as soon as they were spotted. Even if a plane did land on enemy’s ship, it didn’t do anything. It didn’t sink the ship. It just burned itself. The students were told that these footage were confiscated from the enemy. It broke Yamamoto’s heart. They were not winning. They were losing. Not just losing. Miserably losing.
Another interesting thing about this strange footage was that nobody except Yamamoto seemed to remember seeing it. A few decades after the war, he asked many of his classmates about this particular newsreel. They all remembered Nippon News, but no one could recall this footage. Yamamoto began questioning his memory when a guy in Hokkaido said he remembered seeing this footage. He also was convinced Japan would lose.
Many people believe that feature fictional films play magic on viewers. These make-believe can create suspension of belief in people’s minds. Some viewers may be so affected that they cannot distinguish fiction from reality. But they believe news and documentaries are truth. They would actually wake people up from dreams. It’s not that simple. News can lie. It can hide something we should know from our view. Documentaries can take you to a dreamland. We may be fooled easily precisely because it disguises itself as a truth.

Newsreels of War (Part 2)

Akira Yamamoto (1932 – 1999), a sociologist, recalls his experience during his kindergarten days in 1937.
In the playground of elementary school in my neighborhood, I saw many newsreels in the screenings sponsored by a newspaper agency. Up on the screen, I saw the train packed with soldiers were sent off with cheers of ‘Banzai, Banzai’. Cargo vessels traveling through China Sea, soldiers holding guns advancing over a river, those soldiers charging to castle wall … and they took the castle, put up our flag and yelling ‘Banzai’… I saw these newsreels among the crowd packed in the playground. Sometimes people cheered and applauded to the screen.

This scene was not particularly out of ordinary back in late 1930s. In fact, this might well have been the only mode of newsreel presentation in rural areas where movie experience itself was scarce. Then, as the nation sank deeper and deeper in the war, the government felt the necessity to control the information fed to the public. After the break of the Pacific War, Nippon News, screened in schools and community centers, was designed to evoke patriotism among children, showing heroic, often tragic, acts of their fathers and brothers. The last toast among Kamikaze pilots before take-off was a staple formula in Nippon News until the very end of the war.
Newsreel theaters usually scheduled an one-hour program, with 10 to 11 screenings per day. Newsreels from various productions comprised only portion of such programs, the rest being “cultural movies” or “documentary movies”. For example, these were the programs for major newsreel theaters around Tokyo for the week of May 5, 1938:
Marunouchi Shochiku International News Theater
Newsreels (domestic), Pathe News, Alpine Climbers (Micky Mouse, Disney), Dog Training, Threat of Reds
First Underground Theater
Protect Your Health, Screen Pictorial, Sumo Wrestling, Wiping Out Defeated Enemies, The Grasshopper and Ants (A Walt Disney Silly Symphony), Newsreels (domestic), Paramount News

Ginza News Theater
Newsreels (domestic), Pathe News, Electric Ducks, The History of Airplanes, Sports Specials
Asahi News Theater
“Time of Emergency Week”, Newsreels (domestic), Paramount News, National Defense (Japan), I’m in the Army Now (Popeye cartoon), Threat of Reds, etc.
Large part of the program was devoted to propaganda films such as Threat of Reds, National Defense. Interestingly, all theaters had at least one Hollywood cartoon.
One of the reasons for sudden surge in popularity of newsreels (which, by the way, had been produced domestically since early 1930s) was the quality of sound engineering. Even as late as 1938, some of the talkie feature productions in major Japanese studios suffered from inadequate recording, synchronization, or simply bad diction by actors. Many audiences experienced inaudible dialog or loud music etc. and expressed their frustration. Experience of sound films was particularly poor in rural areas, where the poorly-quipped theaters had to use prints heavily damaged from previous screenings in major cities. In contrast, the audio quality of newsreels was significantly better. They were shot in silent, then the voice-over narration was added later. This itself made the programs extremely more reliable. Furthermore, these newsreels were screened only for a week. There would be no degraded prints reused for smaller revues. Lower cost, newspaper syndicate network, and keen interest on current topics among audience helped to propagate newsreel throughout the country.
Interestingly, this sound track – voice-over narration and music – turned out to be one of the most effective tools of propaganda film-making. It gave a meaning. It elicited emotions. It coerced viewers to hate. It demanded loyalty.