Out of Japan: War and the self-pity of war

TOKYO - It is 'war season' again in Japan, the middle of August, when the anniversaries of the events that ended the war are remembered: today is the 48th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, last Friday was the anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb, and next Sunday is the anniversary of Japan's surrender.

In Hiroshima, 1,000 schoolchildren staged a 'die-in' demonstration in front of the atomic-bomb memorial, the mayor read his annual 'peace declaration' and at 8.15 am, the time the Enola Gay dropped its bomb, the peace bell was tolled and a minute's silent prayer observed.

But even such a solemn occasion as the honouring of the war dead is not without its ideological content: other Asian countries have long complained that Japan immerses itself in self-pity for the hundreds of thousands who died in the two atomic-bomb attacks while ignoring all that led up to them and making no reference to the millions who died during its attempted conquest of Asia.

'War season' also sees the release of war-related films and books and this year the biggest hit has been a film about kamikaze pilots, Moonlight Summer, directed by Seijiro Kamiyama. The film, which is by turns beautiful, melancholic and unbearably sentimental, is a perfect study of how younger Japanese have been brought up to view the war: an incredibly sad tragedy that somehow happened beyond human control.

The film is apparently based on a real incident from the war. In June 1945 two young men, who are about take off in kamikaze planes to attack the approaching US fleet, arrive at a small school in southern Japan. They have heard about the school's German grand piano. Both were music students before being drafted and they want to play the piano one more time before flying to their deaths.

The young woman teacher gives them permission and they start to play. A group of boys outside doing military drill come in to listen. The camera zooms to close-ups of the young men's faces, nobly impassive in the face of fear.

One of the pilots plays Beethoven's Moonlight sonata, while his companion watches, both alone with thoughts of imminent death. By the end of the sonata the teacher and boys are all in tears. The pilots are given a loud farewell, and a bunch of white lilies by the teacher.

Four decades later the same teacher, now retired, hears the school wants to dispose of the piano and launches a campaign to save it. She tells the story of the two kamikaze pilots to the school assembly, the story reaches the ears of journalists, and a young reporter discovers that one of the two pilots is still alive.

The film now concentrates on how this man has come to terms with the war, which he survived, while his friend died. His plane had developed engine trouble and he was forced to return to the airstrip.

Although not his fault, he was sent to a detention camp where 'failed' kamikazes were held for not carrying out their mission in the spirit of self-sacrifice that the Japanese high command wanted to glorify.

The survivor is coaxed into telling his story and the film ends in lachrymose predictability as the pilot returns to play the Moonlight sonata again before the school.

But sentimentality is not the film's worst point. The underlying message of the film is that Japan suffered terribly during the war and that foreign attackers and a small group of unaccountable militarists led to the agonies of the kamikaze pilots and their terminal heroism. To set the tone of the film before the pilots arrive, the school is strafed by an American fighter plane - foreign aggressors target innocent Japanese children. And the youth and purity of the lily-toting pilots is contrasted with the hysterical fanaticism of the officer who commands the detention camp for the shamed pilots.

Japan's new government has pledged to give a new account of, and apology for, the country's wartime aggression. Last week the government finally admitted that its troops forcibly abducted sex slaves - the 'comfort women' - from Korea and other Asian countries during the war. There is still much more to apologise for, but the time is long overdue for Japan to stop treating the 'war season' as an exercise in self-pity and to shed its concocted victim mentality.