Unbroken: Rumor and hyperbole

There are two petitions on Change.org that support the banning of Angelina Jolie’s new movie, “Unbroken.” The movie is based upon Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” and details the war time experiences of the recently deceased Los Angeles resident Louis Zamperini.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen the movie. “Unbroken” is based on  Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 biography on Louis Zamperini: “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” Zamperini lived to be 97 and died in July of this year, 2014. By the age of 27, Zamperini had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, survived a military airplane crash that killed 8 of the 11 crew members, was adrift in the Pacific ocean in a life raft for 47 days–starting out with only a few chocolate bars for food, was “rescued” by the enemy Japanese navy and then spent over two years being brutalized and nearly starved to death in a prisoner of war camp. Then, troubled by post-traumatic stress syndrome, he found salvation after attending a sermon by the legendary evangelist Billy Graham. The movie covers his youth and wartime experiences and adds an epilogue that tells us briefly what happens later.

The movie isn’t scheduled for release in Japan. A petition against showing the film in Japan was started on 5 June 2014. By 1 December 2014, it had collected 8,000 supporters. On the evening of 17 December 2014, the petition had 8,811 supporters. A petition has also been started in English but had less than 50 electronic signatures.

The main petition specifically takes exception cannibalism. It mentions that this is not a Japanese custom. It notes that the Japanese were in Taiwan (Takasago) and there was no evidence of cannibalism there. It asks why should the Japanese then begin cannibalism in other areas.

Further, it asks one to consider the indiscriminate bombing of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. It also refers to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It does not mention the comfort women. It does not mention torture. It does not mention whether America forced Japan into a war. It does mention France. “What about France?”

The petition has sparked some articles claiming that “Japan not happy with Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’ “(Fox News, 12 December 2014), “Angelina Jolie: Far East Furor” (The National Enquirer, 14 December 2014), ‘’Unbroken’ Creating Tremors of Protests in Japan” (International Business Times (13 December 2014).

Reaction in American and British media

The IBT article relates there are “silent protests” on social media discussions and trending topics and that “some natives are even demanding to boycott the movie as protest” and cites a New York Post article. The New York Post published an Associated Press article “Japan outraged over ‘Unbroken’” on 12 December 2014. This AP article quotes Mutsuhiro Takeuchi, “a nationalist-leaning educator and a priest in the traditional Shinto religion” of the Japanese Cultural Intelligence Association.

The AP article notes that due to protests the 2009 “The Cove” canceled screenings. Dolphin slaughter in Japan and war aren’t exactly the same thing. Roland Kelts was quoted as saying the protest over “Unbroken” was “banal and predictable.” For the casual reader, the article, while factual, might mislead one to believe that the protests against “The Cove” were effective.

Yet “The Cove” was not a movie that was widely released in the U.S. It had a limited release in the US on 31 July 2009. It was presented at the Tokyo International Film Festival that October. By December, the DVD was released in the US. In July of the next year, the movie was released in Japan.

Further, Japanese theaters took legal action against the protestors and the police provided supervision to insure free access to the customers according to Kyodo News.  A theater in Tokyo and one in Yokohama were able to get court injunctions that prohibited protesters from gathering outside of their theaters. Further a local Taiji group distributed DVDs to residents for free during March of 2011. Journalists and other media figures and the Directors Guild of Japan spoke out in support of the movie out of fear that freedom of speech was being threatened.

With the recent controversy over the release “The Interview,” the implication that protests in Japan always results in censorship and this is uniquely a Japanese problem is proven false. “The Interview,” unlike “The Cove,” was like “Unbroken” set for wide release in the US and the question is not whether it will open in North or South Korea, but whether it will open in the U.S. “Unbroken” is still set for release in the U.S.

The AP article should have stated that threats canceled some of the screenings, but led to actions in Japan to protect freedom of speech. Otherwise, the reader is likely to believe that the protests were successful and the issue of free speech and artistic freedom were not addressed.

Degree of Protest

For Angelina Jolie’s movie, “Unbroken,” none of the articles I read cited street protests. Public protests are not unknown in Japan. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security in 1960 did result in massive street protests. There have also been student protest over US involvement in the Vietnam War and protests over nuclear armaments. “The Cove” also inspired picketing.

Let’s put the petition into perspective. Out of the current population of Japan, if the petition reaches 9,000 signatures, that will only represent 0.00007 or .007 percent of the October 2010 Japanese population of 128,057,352. How does it compare to other Change.org campaigns? I could not find a petition for “The Cove.”

A more recent Japanese social media protest targeted the Swiss-born Julien Blanc.  Blanc bills himself as a dating coach and pickup artist who works for the Los Angeles-based Real Social Dynamics.

There are several petitions in English on Change.org against Blanc. The Japanese protest campaign was in reaction to his 8 September 2014 YouTube video “White male fucks Asian women in Tokyo (and the beautiful methods to it)” that encouraged white men to sexually harass and batter Asian women. The video was brought to the attention of the Japanese embassy by an Asian American woman, Jennifer Li, who initiated the hashtag campaign: #takedownjulienblanc

For his Japan visit, Queen Jackal led a Change.org petition: 「白人ならどんな日本人女性ともヤレる」と、自らのセミナーで発言をする、強制わいせつデートコーチのJulien Blancの入国を阻止せよ! Stop “pick-up artist” Julien Blanc, who profits off of teaching seminars on how to abuse women, from entering Japan!” That petition had 51,674 signatures in less than a week. In Japan, the crime of forcible indecency (強制猥褻)requires the victim to testify so the YouTube videos could not be used against Blanc unless the victims stepped forward. The videos have been taken down or changed to a private setting.

The protest against “Unbroken” seems to be relatively small, quiet or “silent” and based on something that doesn’t exist—the topic or representation of cannibalism in Angelina Jolie’s movie “Unbroken.”

The Business of Movie Distribution

There are other reasons why Japan might not have scheduled a release date for “Unbroken.” It is a dark movie. As a Japanese friend once told me, some types of movies don’t make it to Japan, or if they do are short runs on limited screens.

Even living in Los Angeles, I’m sometimes frustrated about what I can see. Some foreign language releases are shown for a short time and only at one theater. Some English-language films that are hard to sell might also be given a limited release. Before Roger Ebert’s glowing review of the 2011 “Bernie” it was showing in only one theater in Los Angeles. That movie was released in Japan on 13 July 2013 according to the IMDb.

Another hard to market movie, the Academy Award-nominated “Frances” (1982) was released on 3 December 1982 but made it to Japan on 17 January 1986. More recently, “Inside Llewyn Davis” was released 6 December 2013 (limited) and released in Japan on 30 May 2014. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” like “Unbroken” was written by Ethan and Joel Coen.

Yet the business of can one sell tickets goes both ways. The thoughtful animated feature “Colorful” was released in Japan on 21 August 2010. It was never released in the US but eventually came to HuluPlus.”Colorful” won an Audience Award at the 2011 Annecy International Animated Film Festival and was nominated for the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year (“The Secret World of Arrietty” won).

Will “Unbroken” be released in Japan? Other films about prisoners of war have made it to Japan. “Empire of the Sun” was released in the US on 9 December 1987 and made it to Japan on 2 April 1988. Maybe like “The Cove,” controversy will work in its favor.

The AP article further notes that Japanese directors have made movies critical of the war (“No Regrets for Our Youth,” “Ran,” “Seven Samurai,” “The Human Bullet,” and “The Burmese Harp”).

But the AP article doesn’t mention the more recent documentary “Riben Guizi” or “Japanese Devils” which records the testimony of 14 World War II Japanese soldiers and the war crimes they committed.Writer/director Minoru Matsui won a Costa Azul Award at the Festróia – Tróia International Film Festival in 2001. The movie was released in 2001 in Japan (1 December 2001) and shown at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. However, it was never released in the US according to IMDb. 

Another film not mentioned by the AP article is “Sandakan No. 8.” This 1974 Japanese movie deals with a Japanese woman sold into prostitution as a karayuki-san (person going to China). The movie is based on a controversial book by Tomoko Yamasaki.

Some Japanese willing to made movies about Japanese war crimes and the negative effects of war. Not everyone in Japan is in denial of their history during World War II. Further, the question not being asked is would Americans want to see a Vietnamese movie about a Vietnamese war hero who was tortured by the Americans?  By reversing the situation, we can see that the business of movies is also part of the story and not necessarily that the majority of the Japanese do not want to see movies made in America about World War II. Even the awful 2012 movie “Emperor” was show in Japan (27 July 2013). 

Keeping on Topic

The anonymous person who started the Change.org has not been interviewed. At the time the petition was posted, the person had not seen the movie and likely has not read the book (which has not been translated into Japanese).  The person is not listed by name. The 8,000 people who signed the petition electronically by 1 December 2014 had also not seen the movie. The main objection was to the portrayal of cannibalism.

The book does mention cannibalism according to other sources (I have not read the book), but in the context of general treatment of the POWs in Japan. Zamperini did not witness cannibalism. In the book “Unbroken,” the Washington Post notes Hillenbrand wrote: “Japan murdered thousands of POWs on death marches, and worked thousands of others to death in slavery, including some 16,000 POWs who died alongside as many as 100,000 Asian laborers forced to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Thousands of other POWs were beaten, burned, stabbed, or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments, or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism.” 

The author of the book also discusses cannibalism but in the context of Zamperini making a decision not to eat the flesh of the crew mate who died during the 47 days he and the pilot were adrift in the open sea. 

While it is true that there is no custom in Japanese society of cannibalism, the war crimes do record and punish Japanese soldiers of cannibalism.

Other articles have quoted Hiromichi Moteki, the secretary general of the Society of the Dissemination of Historical Fact (“Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken is racist, say Japanese nationalists” 9 December 2014 in The Guardian). Moteki spoke with the Telegraph saying “If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims. This movie has no credibility and is immoral.” Moteki hasn’t seen the movie and the Society doesn’t have an official statement against the movie on its website.

Other articles bring up rape and mass executions, but this is not actually the topic of the petition. It is not clear that the petitioner denies wartime rapes and massacres by the Japanese Imperial forces. It does mention France and while I was at first puzzled, I discovered there was a recent case of cannibalism in France by a former soldier  who had been in Afghanistan. Is this what the petition originating person meant? Possibly, but I cannot be sure.

The focus of the petition is the portrayal of cannibalism as being portrayed as a part of Japanese culture not as an aberration of war. Yet cannibalism is not portrayed in the movie “Unbroken.”  If the protest is specifically about this one issue, it is wrong to assume that the people supporting the petition are all denialists or want to revise Japanese history to avoid including negative aspects and episodes. One petition signer specifically notes not being a “nationalist” and being willing to accept unpleasant facts of history, but doesn’t want to see a movie purporting to be a true story that portrays cannibalism where there was none.

Petition Comments: What People Are Actually Writing

To say that Japan as a nation is outraged or suffering tremors of protests is likely hyperbole. The petition and its signers mostly take issue with the charge of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers during World War II. Although Zamperini was caught in the Pacific, he was held as a prisoner of war in Japan at camps where there was no history of cannibalism.

There is no custom of cannibalism in Japanese culture prior to the war, Cannibalism during wartime has been divided into two types by some researchers such as Richard Sugg: consensual cannibalism and aggressive cannibalism. Sugg was writing in response to recent allegations by a former US soldier, Brad McCall, that he heard a story about a soldier in another company eating the flesh of an Iraqi civilian.  According to Sugg, the author of “Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The Human Body in Religion, Medicine and Science from Shakespeare to Dracula,” cannibalism and cannibalistic medicines have a place in European and Chinese cultures.

Aggressive cannibalism is an “extreme form of physical dominance” that is “always associated with contempt.”

Cannibalism occurred in other regions during World War II (Siege of Lenigrad) and and post-World War II in China during times of famine.

Daniel Greenfield concluded his piece for FrontPageMag.com, writing “I can’t speak for Shinto, but it was Americans who forgot and forgave. A Japanese occupation of America would not have involved a lot of forgetting or forgiving. It would have involved the same mass murder, mass rape and ritual cannibalism as the Japanese occupations elsewhere.” 

Greenfield extends his views beyond the actual objections made by the petition and in a way proves the point made. While there was evidence of cannibalism during World War II by the Japanese, cannibalism is not a part of Japanese culture. It might be statistically speaking an anomaly, an act of exceptional people just was in the movie The Bird is portrayed as exceptionally cruel and by other accounts was not well-liked by his fellow Japanese soldiers because of his excessively violent nature.

The comments on the petition do include ones of complete denial of cannibalism during World War II, some comments feel the movies is Korean or Chinese propaganda and some call for the banning of not only the movie but of Jolie (and even Brad Pitt) from entering Japan.

And yet some of the comments by the people signing the petition indicate that it isn’t what they don’t know or deny happening but rather what they do know.

To understand some of the criticism, you must understand that the International Military Tribunal for the Far East was not without problems. One judge of International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Justice Radhabinod Pal of the recently liberated country of India wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that because Western colonialism and the use of the atomic bomb were excluded (as well as the absence of judges from the defeated countries), made the trials little more that retaliation. Justice Professor Bert Röling of the Netherlands wrote “ It was horrible that we went there for the purpose of vindicating the laws of war, and yet saw every day how the Allies had violated them dreadfully.”

As the last surviving member of the tribunal, Röling was bitterly angry when he later learned that the US military had covered up evidence of biological warfare and experimentation.

The American occupation originally banned Judge Pal’s 1,235-page dissenting opinion in Japan. The ban was lifted after the occupation ended.

Contrary to Greenfield’s supposition, there was mass rape in Japan. This was another thing the occupation headquarters suppressed.

More than one petition comment mentioned the rape of Japanese women and one petition signer noted “American soldiers showed brutality toward the Japanese” and continued “Before you condemn Japan over the comfort women issue, the United States devastated many Japanese women as sex slaves.” There are records of American soldiers raping not only Japanese civilians, but non-Japanese comfort women. 

There was also the mutilation of corpses, with American, British and Australian soldiers taking body parts of Japanese soldiers as trophies. 

One petition comment noted that President Roosevelt received a letter opener made from a Japanese human bone. This is true. Other body parts included skulls of Japanese soldiers, ears, noses and teeth. The mutilation of dead soldiers seems particular to the Pacific war  and was later similarly practiced in Vietnam. Greed was also a reason for trophy taking as some men took gold fillings from dead and living Japanese soldiers (per Eugene B. Sledge in his autobiographical “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa”). Racism against Asians is a suggested reason why Japanese corpse were more likely to be mutilated than German or Italian corpses—the difference between distant enemies and near enemies, between white and yellow.

Several petition signers commented on the mutilation of Japanese corpses to take skulls as trophies or steal the gold teeth by American soldiers. World War II was a time when the troops were segregated.

In the decade leading up to and during World War II, laws made Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Latinos and African Americans second-class citizens in the United States Japan, China and Korea were under the unequal treaties up until World War II with the US, the UK and France.

As one comment noted that the US was built “on an indigenous Native American massacre.” Another petition signer called the Atomic bomb “civilian genocide” and specifically refers to the US as the country of Jim Crow. In many ways, the terrorism of Jim Crow laws and lynching were a holocaust that lasted longer than the Nazi initiated European Holocaust.

Racism and Reality

While Japan is supposedly raging and in deep denial as the headlines scream, what do the Japanese, the majority of the Japanese really think about World War II?

In a 2006 Asahi Shimbun poll of 3,000 people with 1,730 valid answers, only 7 percent felt that World War II was “a war of self-defense” while 31 percent felt it was a “war of aggression” and 45 percent felt it had “both aspects.” Only 15 percent felt that the Emperor Hirohito (now Showa) had no responsibility while 54 percent felt then military had the greatest responsibility and 47 percent felt the politicians had the greatest responsibility for the war. OF the 27 percent who knew something about the tribunal  17 percent (5) felt the trials were just, 34 percent (9) felt it was unjust and 48 percent felt that while the trials had problems they were “necessary to bring closure.”

The poll also found that 50 percent agreed with a Japanese prime minister visiting the Yasukuni Shrine because “it is memorializing the war dead” (which includes those from the Japanese civil wars who supported the restoration of the Emperor Meiji).

A more recent poll (28 January 2014) showed that 51 percent agreed with the prime minister visiting Yasukuni. By age, 59 percent of those in their 50s approved of the visit (1,914 valid responses from 3,439 voters).

Maybe, we’d have a better understanding if we knew what percentage of the dead at the Yasukuni shrine are actually World War II criminals? And yet, there still is the issue of victor’s justice and sovereignty. Do we still honor the villains of other wars? Our patriots might be seen as traitors from another point of view.

Would we want Japan telling our president where he should go within our country? Post-World War II the US Army was involved  in the My Lai Massacre, historians like David Cesarani consider the US governmental policies in support of Manifest Destiny as genocide. History if often written by the victors and only tell one side of the story.

While Hillenbrand does mention biological experimentation, it is worth remembering the medical practices of that era. There is evidence that the US military performed biological warfare experiments on civilians in New York City (1966), Tampa Bay, Florida (1955), and Georgia and Florida (1955-1957). Further, American scientists during the 1930s and 1940s also experimented in marginalized populations such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932-1972). A similar experiment was conducted by US researchers in Guatemala.

“Unbroken” is timely in its portrayal of human rights violations and torture, but not because it pertains solely to the Japanese, rather because it pertains to a universal problem during war. The media has raised some questions about race and racism at a time when race relations have improved in American enough that there is an African American president. Perhaps in the 1940s, the conversation might have been nearly impossible, but not now.

After all, the world knows that American soldiers and government organizations torture. American soldiers at war and the CIA have been involved in human rights violations against the detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. While the Bush administration portrayed these as isolated incidents, the Red Cross and Amnesty International had different conclusions. The American reaction to the CIA torture report released this month show that 51 percent of those polled by NBC News felt the practices used during the Bush era were acceptable. So is it okay for Americans to torture non-Europeans?

Senator John McCain, who is critical of the screening cancellation of “The Interview,”  challenged the use of water boarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan by American operatives. McCain knows about torture. He was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. In 2007, he noted that Japanese soldiers were put to death or imprisoned for water boarding. During the Tokyo Tribunals, water boarding was classified as torture. It was a war crime for the Japanese. Is it not a war crime for Americans.

Can Americans continue to vilify the Japanese and other non-Caucasian adversaries during times of war and in our remembrances of wartime, when Americans likewise torture and condone it. Even if Americans can’t see the hypocrisy of the situation, one can’t sure sure that others do not.

Angelina Jolie’s film “Unbroken,” could potentially open up a dialogue that will force Americans to re-evaluate history and methods of treating enemy prisoners as well as how we judge war crimes. If Jolie’s movie is about forgiveness, something that Zamperini found as his salvation, then it’s a message that is desperately needed here. Rumor initiated a petition that was without merit, the petition raised some suspicious and even racist assumption in the American and British press and hypocrisy was exposed. It was much ado about nothing but showed a global community that there’s still much work to do to combat racism and prejudice.

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