Sanga moyu

Dual nationals caught in a storm
over their Mt. Fuji inheritance

By William Wetherall

A review of TV drama series
Yamasaki Toyoko / NHK
Sanga moyu (Mountains and rivers burning)
Tokyo: NHK, 1984

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 124(23), 7 June 1984, pages 40-42

Related articles
Futatsu no sokoku: Japan's pop "Roots" fails to cast new light on minority problems (FEER 1983-10-13)
NHK's Sanga moyu: Revisionist history goes prime-time (Earlier draft of FEER 1984-06-07)
Yamasaki Toyoko, NHK, and JACL: "Futatsu no sokoku" and "Sanga moyu" (Notes in preparation for FEER 1984-06-07)
Two letters to Clifford Uyeda: Correspondence concerning Yamasaki, NHK, and JACL (1984)

Is Mt Fuji beautiful because it is in Japan? Or is it in Japan because it is beautiful? Such socratic conundrums, heavily seasoned with the ambivalent loyalities of a Japanese-American dual national, are now being featured in a barely digestible "TV-dinner" for Japanese viewers. Many have difficulty articulating the motives of their patriotism, but are starving for ways to love their homeland without being treated as reincarnations of the militarists who embroiled Japan -- and most of Asia and the Pacific -- in war less than half a century ago.

The year-long drama -- Sanga moyu (Mountains and rivers burning) -- is being served in weekly courses every Sunday night on NHK, Japan's semi-public national TV network, to about 20 percent of the viewing audience (instead of the 25-30 percent who had been expected to watch it). The story is based loosely on Futatsu no sokoku (Two homelands), a three-volume quasi-documentary bestseller by Toyoko Yamasaki, who believes that the Japanese sense of patriotism has been poisoned by economic prosperity and Americanisation.

"I thought of setting the story in Japan and using a Japanese hero," explains Yamasaki, who, born in 1924, was educated during the Fifteen-Year or Greater East Asia War which began in Manchuria in 1931. But the novel explores the touchy theme of patriotism, and Yamasaki feared that if she made any slips "it would be misunderstood as a reactionary work . . . . Because everyone in Japan was badly abused by militarism during the war, they would call it 'rightwing' and show negative reactions before even reading it."

But Yamasaki was also afraid that if she mishandled a patriotic Japanese hero, "the novel could become a textbook on morals or something didactic." So she took a cue from baseball, an American import, and decided to throw her hypersensitive compatriots "a curve ball" in the form of a dual-national Japanese-American whose suicidal struggle with divided loyalties would inspire them to reflect on their dwindling sense of love for Japan and to mend their errant ways (REVIEW, 13 October 1983).

NHK's choice of a modern story set in the war years breaks a long tradition of weekend prime-time costume fare about larger-than-life courtier-warrior heroes of the pristine past. But nationalistic sentiments may linger behind the decision to go a full year with a drama that focuses on discrimination against Japanese immigrants and their descendants in the United States before and after Pearl Harbour, the atomic bombs that ended the war, and the "victor's justice" that was dealt Japan's leaders who were blamed for the war at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

A plethora of non-fiction books and novels as well as many films and TV programmes, have explored each of these three problems in depth. But in a story line that has become the envy of other revisionist writers, Yamasaki has integrated all the emotional historical issues through the eyes of a bilingual and bicultural Japanese American, who also serves as a vehicle for her message that Japanese should take more pride in the "Yamato blood" that surges through their veins.

Yamasaki now finds herself at odds with both NHK and Japanese Americans, who in turn are embattled over differences of opinion about the US showing of the drama. The first 16 episodes were set before Pearl Harbour, from which Yamasaki's novel begins. NHK has made an effort to balance Yamasaki's focus on American prejudices and injustices by showing Japanese brutality at home and in China, but she feels that the network has gone too far the other way and is "fawning to the Americans."

Critical Japanese-Americans are displeased with Yamasaki's title, and her use of an atypical Japanese American hero who feels he has two countries, both of which he loves. Some Japanese Americans who have seen the drama in Japan shake their heads (or shrug their shoulders) at the way the Japanese American characters -- all played by popular Japanese actors -- turn out to speak, believe, and think like present-day Japanese, instead of like Americans at the time of the war.

The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), centered in San Francisco, expressed its concern about how an American showing of the series would affect its congressional movement to get the US government to pay reparations and apologise to the thousands of Japanese Americans who were placed in relocation camps during the war in violation of their constitutional rights. But JACL also worries about Japanese American stereotypes that a year of flawed melodrama could engrave on the minds of Japanese viewers. They are as unprepared to evaluate its inaccuracies, the JACL believes, as US audiences were in the case of Shogun.

Neither NHK nor Yamasaki can quite figure out why Japanese Americans have become so excited. Yamasaki thought she was doing her "blood brothers" in the US a favour by telling their story. But her critics, who include some of the hundreds of people she talked to before writing, feel that while her interest in Japanese Americans is sincere, she has used them as a foil in her "social mission" to alert Japanese to the erosion of their national identity.

Yamasaki claims some of the Japanese Americans criticising her novel are unable to read Japanese, while those who can read Japanese do not know how to read her work as a novel. She defends her use of an atypical hero by insisting that she could not have written a dramatic story with an ordinary protagonist. But this revelation came after she had explained her choice of a dual-national Japanese American as a means of carrying out her "social mission" without arousing suspicion.

But Yamasaki is most upset by assertions that her novel is "anti-American." She believes that the "US-Japan partnership" must be based on a mutual sense of justice and fairness, and she expects Americans to tolerate her criticism of the US role in the war. Thus Yamasaki sees herself as a victim of a kind of "McCarthyism," and she wonders why she must bear the burden of the beef and citrus wars. She calls the movement to "censor" the US showing of Sanga moyu "an act of suicide for democracy" -- a point with which most Japanese Americans, even her critics, agree.

NHK had thought that its talks with JACL officials in Japan at the end of 1983 had eased their anxieties; but the network apparently mistook the congeniality of their American adversaires for Japanese-style tacit understanding and approval.

But written appeals to NHK from individual Japanese Americans -- in particular, the closely typed 15-page letter from Washington lobbyist Mike Masaoka in early February -- apparently played the deciding role in NHK's decision to "indefinitely postpone" the US debut of Sanga moyu. The first episode was scheduled for screening in Los Angeles and other US cities with large numbers of Japanese American and Japanese residents, in late spring.

Japanese and US diplomats have unofficially expressed their concerns about the reaction in the two countries to a 51-episode drama that promises to arouse sleeping dogs at a time when supposedly "improving relations" are being strained by increasing disagreements over trade and defence. Japan's Foreign Ministry apparently is alarmed also by criticism from domestic and other Asian quarters of the early episodes which depict Japanese atrocities in China.

Additionally, there is a debate going on among Japanese Americans over the question of dual loyalties, and a timely discussion in the Japanese Parliament as to whether the in-progress revisions of Japan's Nationality Law should permit dual citizenship. Both issues are perennial and pertinent for ethnic minorities conscious of their ancestry, and for governments which feel insecure about the implications of multinationality in the ranks of their citizens.

Barry Saiki, a business consultant in Tokyo since his retirement from the US Army nearly two decades ago, feels the question of divided loyalties cannot be dismissed as readily as critics of Yamasaki and NHK would have it. Saiki has asked some very probing, if fundamental, questions. For example: "Does the loyalty of the [polycultural] person belong to the country he was born in, the one he is living in, and the one he is paying taxes to, or the one his wife is from?"

Meanwhile, Sanga Moyu viewers hungering for assurances that Japan's defeat in the war should not donemn Japanese to suffer an inferiority complex -- or to feel too guilty about the past -- are being shown how they too can love Mt. Fuji without shame. In one highly emotional scene Kenji Amoh, the drama's brooding Japanese American hero, wonders why, though "the blood that flows throughout my body is unmistakably the blood of a Japanese," he cannot die for Japan like his Japanese friends. NHK's version of Shigemori Togo (1882-1950) -- a career diplomat and wartime foreign minister whose record as a promoter of peace saved him from the gallows at the Tokyo trials -- consoles Kenji: "That I love Japan is not because I am Japanese; rather I love her because for me she is a good country."

Kenji fails to convince all his white compatriots that his criticism of the US is proof of his loyalty to the American principles of justice and fairness. As Saiko points out, it is the fate of the dual-national to be expected at times of peace to serve as a link in building mutual understandin, but to be asked in wartime to choose between one parent or the other. But this is not a choice Kenji is prepared to make: he loves the best and hates the worst of "the country which is his father" (Japan) and "the country which is his mother" (the US).

Sanga moyu does not tell us what rational patriotism is supposed to be. Japan is shown to be a good country because Kenji's younger brother Tadashi, in Japan for the first time, weeps when he sees Mt Fuji. Socrates, of course, would have wondered if the sacred mountain deserved tears because the gods loved it, or if the gods loved it because it deserved tears. But the father of Greek philosophy is also credited with saying "I am not an Athenian of a Greek, but a citizen of the world." And perhaps the Kenjis of the world will find peace when nationalistic artists and networks in all countries stop worrying so much about patriotism.


When writing this review and similar articles, I was technically violating the unwritten journalistic code that one should not pretend to write objectively about issues in which one is personally involved. The problem is, whether writing about national stereotypes, ethnic discrimination, or suicide, I could not help but be emotionally involved, as all such issues entanged my personal life.

At the time I wrote this article, I was a very active member of the Japan Chapter of JACL. I participated in all its activities concerning both Yamasaki's novel Futatsu no sokoku and NHK's dramatization Sanga moyu. This included a dinner at which Yamasaki was the guest speaker, and a panel discussion on the impact of the novel and drama.

I was also well acquainted with Barry Saiki, the founder of the Japan Chapter. Barry, a Stockton, California boy, was studying sociology at the University of California at Berkeley when Pearl Harbor changed his life forever. He had come to Japan as an

I was also at the time a parental co-defendant in the nationality lawsuits against the Japanese government contending that my children were victims of discrimination against their mother in the then patrilineal Nationality Law. Opponents of making the law also matrilineal -- argued that an ambilineal law would increase dual nationality, which was then widely opposed in most countries of the world.

What struck me about Yamasaki's speech, and about other remarks she made by way of explaining her motives for writing the novel, are that she was very naive about her own racialism. It was clear that the "blood" metaphors she put into the mouths of her characters were her own. It seemed as though she herself could not quite accept the idea of a "Japanese American" as just an "American".

I now regard Yamasaki's remark about why she needed a Kenji-like "dramatic" character as merely an expression of her preference for writing larger-than-life soap operas. The plots of all of her novels have involved situations and relationships contrived to make them dramatically thick. She was simply not interested in telling stories about ordinary people.