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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Watering Down the Truth

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NIIGATA, Japan — Along the back wall of the Kinokyuniya Bookstore, customers will find a substantial collection of foreign reading material: contemporary nonfiction, translations of Japanese novels, French editions of Elle and Time magazines.

As a visitor from Vladivostok — used to contenting myself with Soviet collections of American literary giants such as Albert Malts and Michael Gold — I walked out with an armload of books, which the sales girls individually wrap, like gifts, in brown paper covers.

On the nonfiction shelf sat a copy of Iris Chang's 1997 book, "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II." Less creditably, a slender Nanking-denial book by a Japanese author sat beside it. I bought Chang's version. The juxtaposition seemed significant in a week in which I caught up with the rest of the planet and saw the movie "Pearl Harbor." Concerned about ticket sales here, the American filmmakers bent over backward to accommodate the Japanese. The effort shows. And it morally undermines the picture.

Since I seem to have elected myself recently as the last columnist on Earth to weigh in on this year's World War II movies, I will add my two bits. Movies are essentially cartoons, incapable of the depth and seriousness of literature, and with that in mind, perhaps it is unfair to jab at "Pearl Harbor" for its attempts to avoid racism, one of the most noxious sins in America's history. But in doing so, "Pearl Harbor" glosses over the grotesque form of racism that Japan inflicted on Asia. Chang's book, indirectly, demonstrates why.

The movie offers a sympathetic portrayal of Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander in chief of Japan's Combined Fleet (he appears to be conflated with Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, who directed the Pearl Harbor attack). In a Cabinet meeting, the admiral reluctantly argues that the United States has cut off Japan's petroleum supply and, therefore, Japan has no option but to launch an attack. The Japanese ministers nod gravely.

Elsewhere, a tortured Yamamoto laments the attack he must send off, and low-flying Japanese pilots wave "Get down! Get down!" at children as they buzz past a baseball field. Such scenes help to humanize an enemy once portrayed as a bucktoothed, banzai-screaming lunatic. But they distort an essential fact of the Pacific War. Despite the atrocities committed by the United States in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the fight to stop Japan and its bloody master race philosophy was just. Toning down the Japanese savagery that engulfed Asia in slaughter is like worrying about being unfair to SS guards in "Schindler's List."

The film ignores the reason the United States cut off petroleum and war materiel to Japan. The Imperial Army had conquered Korea and China, and it outraged the world with its 1937 rape of Nanking, destruction perhaps unprecedented in human history. In the course of a few weeks, rampaging Japanese soldiers murdered between 260,000 and 350,000 Chinese, most of them civilians. Soldiers buried people alive, lopped off their heads, machine-gunned them by the tens of thousands. Soldiers raped and tortured every female they could get their hands on.

Consider the words of a Japanese Nanking veteran who was quoted in Chang's book:

"I remember being driven in a truck along a path that had been cleared through piles of thousands and thousands of slaughtered bodies. Wild dogs were gnawing at the dead flesh as we stopped and pulled a group of Chinese prisoners out of the back. Then the Japanese officer proposed a test of my courage. He unsheathed his sword, spat on it, and with a sudden mighty swing he brought it down on the neck of a Chinese boy cowering before us. The head was cut clean off and tumbled away … . The officer suggested I take the head home as a souvenir. I remember smiling proudly as I took his sword and began killing people."

Japan has never repented for turning its neighbors' countries into killing fields, and rather than facing a hanging judge, the war criminal emperor-god, Hirohito, was left in power after the surrender. So was the Nanking commander, Prince Asaka Yasuhiko. In Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime; in Japan, denial of World War II culpability is an industry, and the nation still enshrines its war criminals in Tokyo.

Yes, today's Japanese bear no guilt for their grandfathers' crimes. But they also don't need to be coddled. Not even when film profits are at stake.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.