NHK's Sanga moyu

Revisionist history goes prime-time

By William Wetherall

Drafted April 1984
Posted 25 January 2006

This is very different early draft of article published as
"Dual nationals caught in a storm over their Mt. Fuji inheritance" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 124(23), 7 June 1984, pages 40-42


The country is in ruins,
    but the mountains and rivers are there;
the city is in spring,
    and the grasses and trees are deep.

Thus wrote the poet Du Fu (Tu Fu) in A.D. 757 while gazing at Changan (Ch'ang-an), the western capital of the Tang (T'ang) dynasty, which had been occupied by foreign troops.

The poem inspired the title of Sanga Moyu [Mountains and Rivers Burning], a controversial year-long television drama now being shown every Sunday night on NHK, Japan's semi-national network. The title alludes to the way that even the hills and streams seemed ablaze in the air raids that forced Japan's unconditional surrender.

Most upset by the drama are Americans of Japanese ancestry, who have persuaded the network to "postpone indefinitely" the U.S. debut of the series, originally scheduled for early spring. Even if later approved, however, its release may be limited to showings of a Japanese edition without English subtitles on local networks in cities like Los Angeles and New York, which have significant populations of overseas Japanese.

The drama is loosely based on Futatsu no Sokoku (Two Homelands), a 3-volume roman-fleuve bestseller by Toyoko Yamasaki. Lamenting the way ts thein which the Japanese sense of love for their country has been poisoned by economic prosperity and Americanization, she wrote the novel to explore the theme of patriotism.

"At first," Yamasaki explains, "I thought of setting the story in Japan and using a Japanese hero, but as a human drama that would have been too straight and monotonous. Besides, I feared that if I made any slips, the novel would be misunderstood as a reactionary work." She elaborated that "Because everyone was badly abused by militarism during the war, they would call the novel 'rightwing' and show rejection reactions before they even read it."

But Yamasaki, whose conservatism has a proletarian stamp, was also afraid that if she mishandled a patriotic Japanese hero, "the novel could become a textbook on morals or something didactic; for a novelist that would be a problem." So taking a cue from baseball, she threw her hypersensitive Japanese readers "a curve ball" in the form of a nisei (second-generation Japanese American) whose suicidal struggle with his divided loyalties would inspire they to ask the big question of themselves and mend their errant materialistic ways.

The novel was serialized over a three year period in a popular weekly magazine. But before it was finished last fall, NHK proposed to serialize an adapted version from January through December this year. Yamasaki agreed to major changes in the storyline, but defended her title as one which best reflected her theme.

Too "gloomy" and "stiff" said NHK. A new title was also needed "to indicate that the NHK drama materializes in a world that is different from that of the novel," added Susumu Kondo, the network's chief producer. The first dozen episodes -- everything up to Pearl Harbor -- were added by scenario writer Shin'ichi Ichikawa. The final three-dozen also involve significant departures from the novel, which is narrower in scope than its TV version.

One aim of this radical surgery was "to penetrate a wider audience with the notion that this was a story about Japan and Japanese," observed Kondo. But NHK also wished to balance Ms. Yamasaki's almost exclusive U.S.-Japan focus, which some critics have called "anti-American", and to pacify the charges that Ms. Yamasaki's "two homelands" theme severely misrepresents the great majority of Japanese Americans who have always considered the U.S. their only country.

But it hasn't always been this way, counters Yamasaki, who compromised on the title change for the sake of her "social mission to have more people know the hitherto unknown historical facts." Those she would like to enlighten include what she calls "Americanized sansei" -- a telling misnomer, for third generation Japanese Americans (like their nisei parents) were born and raised in the United States: how can native American citizens be "Americanized"?

Yamasaki feels that the sansei do not sufficiently respect their nisei parents because they do not fully realize what the nisei went through during the war. "I would like the sansei to understand that as a sober benchmark leading up to 'one country' there was a 'two country' stage," she maintains. "The issei were regarded by Japan as 'rejected people', while in America they were unable to naturalize, and thus they had no homeland. So Japanese Americans went from 'zero homelands' to 'two homelands', and then to 'one homeland'."

The hero of her novel is a so-called "kibei nisei", which means someone who was born in the U.S. but then partly educated in Japan before returning to the U.S. Such nisei, a tiny (and somewhat elite) minority of bilingual and bicultural dual-nationals, in no sense represent the much greater numbers of nisei who never left the U.S. and pledged allegiance to no other flag.

While Yamasaki's (and NHK's) use of such an atypical hero has irritated many Japanese Americans, others are commending her effort (while voicing reservations about the title) to tell a story that is long overdue in a way that that is at least entertaining. Though some Japanese Americans are thus flattered by Yamasaki's interest in their experiences of discrimination, it is clear that this interest is subservient to her "mission" to revise history.

James Clavell made no pretense of wanting to set any historical records straight. He very modestly claimed "I'm not a novelist, I'm a storyteller," and he always denied that Shogun was in any sense a statement about the past.

Not so Yamasaki, who has gone out of her way to convince her Japanese readers that she has interviewed enough Japanese Americans and sufficiently studied their documents to warrant using their experiences in a bold (but unoriginal) bid to reinterpret the lessons of World War II in Asia. Whatever the merits of her novel as social history, she does deserve some credit for the imaginative and dramatic way that she has managed to integrate all the trendy subthemes of Japanese historical revisionism in a single story.

One of Yamasaki's mentors is Radhabinod Pal, the Indian justice who sat on the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. While Pal stopped short of endorsing Japanese imperialism, he saw Japan as an ally in the cause of freeing Asia from the shackles of Euro-American colonialism.

Yamasaki feels that Japanese have been made to bear too much of the blame for World War II in Asia. By "patriotism" she really means an ability to recognize the role of the U.S. in leading Japan to war, to wit: anti-Japanese racism in U.S. immigration laws, and a foreign policy that goaded Japan to fire the first shot.

Central to her story, which does not begin until Pearl Harbor, are the wartime internments in the U.S. of westcoast Japanese and their American descendants; the U.S. "experiment" with atom bombs on a racially despised enemy; and the disdain for international law seen in America's "victor's justice" at the Tokyo Tribunal. It is through recaps of testimony at the latter that Yamasaki editorially re-argues Japan's defense of its attack on Pearl Harbor.

No one knows how much NHK will doctor Yamasaki's revisionist thesis. The final episodes are not yet finished, and anything can happen in the editing room. So it is mainly from anticipation based on the novel that Japanese Americans are so apprehensive about the drama being shown in the U.S.

Japanese Americans are also reflecting on the war, but from a very different set of experiences. In early 1942, about 120,000 persons of Japanese descent living on the U.S. westcoast, most of them American citizens, were moved to ten "relocation centers" mainly in semi-desert regions.

The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, created by congress in 1980, published a report in 1983 which called the internments unnecessary and blamed them on "a long and ugly history" of racism on the westcoast against Japanese Americans and other Asian-ancestry citizens and resident aliens.

Chief proponent for the establishment of the commission was the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). Founded in 1929, the national organization with a membership of over 30,000 members rejects the "military necessity" rational for the evacuation.

Some Japanese American groups have filed lawsuits against the U.S. government seeking redress and reparations in part of the drive to revise the official account of what happened to Japanese Americans and to ensure that such deprivations of liberty, but also of property and in some cases life, are never forgotten or repeated. A number of cases involving wartime convictions of Japanese Americans who violated relocation orders have been favorably reviewed in the courts.

Legislation calling for an official apology to all Japanese Americans, and nominal monetary compensation to surviving internees, have been drafted by House and Senate committees and may be voted on this year. Congress, like the Japanese American community, is divided on the issue of reparations, and JACL is worried that a showing of the NHK drama in the U.S. now would jeopardize the redress bills.

JACL national director Ron Wakabayashi, a California sansei, remarked in a panel discussion held in Tokyo this March that the group is not asking for censorship. But he also observed that to show a sub-titled edition of Sanga Moyu on a U.S. network would jeopardized the hearings on the redress legislation that JACL has been working on for nearly forty years.

The election-year timing is critical, and any incitement of latent "anti-Jap" emotions by a drama depicting Japanese Americans who expressed any loyalty toward Japan could defeat the redress bill. Japanese Americans are keenly aware of the tendency of non-Japanese Americans, particularly the unemployed, to get emotional about problems in U.S.-Japan relations, and to forget that Americans with "Japanese faces" and "Japanese names" are not Japanese.

This is not to say that Japanese Americans do not appreciate the efforts of Japanese writers and networks to portray their experiences. But Clifford Uyeda, a retired San Francisco pediatrician and active civil rights leader, speaks for many Japanese Americans when he says that "sympathy and understanding are not the same thing."

JACL's Wakabayashi feels that the Japanese lack the insight and sensitivity to accurately portray Japanese American life. "That's not saying they're bad guys," he cautions, "just that we have different backgrounds."

Empathy and ignorance are indeed a dangerous mix in a country that too easily forgets its own minorities. While NHK may genuinely wish to balance Yamasaki's restricted views of "white racism" in the U.S., its depictions of militarism and prejudice in the Japanese Empire have thus far failed to revise history in favor of the several million alien and Japanese minorities in Japan today.

Korean and Taiwanese colonials, who were Japanese nationals until the end of the war, were treated far worse than Japanese Americans, though incomparably better than Jews in Europe. Yet in a recent interview, Yamasaki referred to the way in which incarcerated Japanese Americans were submitted to a loyalty oath that sometimes divided their families, and with characteristic hyperbole she observed that "the Jewish people were together; the breakup of the Japanese American families is the greatest tragedy in the world."

Ms. Yamasaki seems to feel that the Japanese government could not possibly have treated its own citizens so shabbily. But her shared humiliation and indignation "as a human being with the same (Yamato) blood (as Japanese Americans)" is possible only because she erringly regards Japan as a homogeneous society. And she forgets that the racism she deplores in the U.S. half a century ago is alive and well in Japan today, where the government's sense of moral responsibility about its treatment of minorities, past and present, is clearly inferior to that of the U.S. and most other modern states.