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23 July 2001updated 30 Aug 2021 7:46am

Japan snores through Pearl Harbor

The Hollywood turkey about the Second World War does not excite the Japanese. But that says more abo

By Victoria James

Apathy reigned. The turnout proved lower than hoped, and young people seemed unimpressed. With such a predictable ending, many reasoned, why endure the interminable wait? Pundits lamented the evident decline of a nation’s interest in its own affairs.

Before you turn the page, this is an analysis of a film, not a general election post-mortem that missed its deadline. Yet Japan’s reception of the blockbuster manque Pearl Harbor is another non-event with more to it than meets the eye.

Ringing round Tokyo cinemas on the Monday morning after the film’s opening weekend, I found that the responses soon became repetitive: audience turnout satisfactory, thank you (although no comparison with other recent releases such as AI or The Mummy Returns, and absolutely no mention of “queue” or “sell-out”). Pearl Harbor was reportedly popular with couples – even though the audiences were on average 65 per cent male, making it either an unlikely gay date choice or proof that bombs and guns (surprise, surprise) still appeal more to grown-up boys than to twentysomething girls.

So Pearl Harbor may be on the way to milking Japan’s movie-goers for the estimated $100m (£71.4m) needed to balance the production books. The head of Disney Studios, Peter Schneider, factored in zero for Japanese box-office receipts when calculating the film’s possible profits. But after the critical drubbing in the US, which caused takings to slip from the top spot after only one week, success at the world’s second-largest box office became essential. A record $10m (£7.1m) was spent on marketing the film in Japan. The trailer hype boomed “Pearl Harbor: love story” over a soundtrack from which all references to “dirty Japs” had been cut. The billboard image resembles that for Titanic, Japan’s highest grosser of all time, and if the ship is smoking rather than sinking, at least its bombed-out glow might be mistaken for a sunset.

Sensing a story, the international media have been circling for months. Japan’s two surviving Pearl Harbor veterans, the Zero bombers Sadamu Komaki and Zenji Abe, have relived their day of glory – or infamy – in column inch after column inch. The office of the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, obligingly condemned the film as a “fictitious and one-sided” piece of American history-making. A lawyer representing families of those lost on the Ehime Maru criticised the film’s launch party, held on a US Navy carrier not far from where the Japanese trawler was sunk in February by a US submarine. News-papers printed word-for-word studio puffs, predicting the film’s triumph at the Japanese box office, and waited, pens at the ready, for the backlash.

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The backlash never came. But the coverage certainly got Disney scared. Keiji Kobayashi, the manager of the small-screen Ueno Central, explained how the film’s distributors, Buena Vista International, produced a manual advising Japanese theatres on how to cope with right-wing action or other protests. The fears were unfounded: doors opened, the fans came in respectable numbers, and the rightists’ black trucks with loud hailers, which disrupt certain state visits or speeches, stayed away.

The headline piranhas have been cheated of a feast. But Japan’s indifference to Pearl Harbor is more interesting than any outcry would have been. Military history is supposedly a hot issue in Japan right now. A dispute with South Korea and China – over government approval of a high-school textbook that glosses over Japan’s imperial aggression – intensified when Seoul cancelled a range of joint activities, including school exchanges. Claiming that “there are no right or wrong wars”, the book’s authors call themselves “revisionists” of history as written by the victors – of which Pearl Harbor‘s Hollywood make-over into a US triumph might be a good example.

Now, Koizumi plans to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, where the nation’s war dead are revered. Among the 2.4 million souls are those of class-A war criminals executed on the orders of the Allied forces’ Tokyo Tribunal, including the infamous Admiral Tojo. Japanese heads of state have traditionally attended Yasukuni, a favourite gathering place of right-wingers, in a private rather than public capacity.

Meanwhile, another scene was added to the long-running saga of Okinawa, when the US authorities proved slow to hand over a young marine accused of rape – the second such incident in the same small community this year.

Against this backdrop, Pearl Harbor‘s Japanese debut could have been explosive. Instead, it is a middle-of-the-road success, arousing rather less excitement than Brendan Fraser’s tight breeches in The Mummy Returns.

For the generation that was there, this calm is rather a relief. “It’s all a thing of the past,” sighed the Zero bomber Komaki to reporters. My friend Henry Ikemoto was one of a group of Japanese American veterans rounded up for a press screening in the US, where community leaders feared a backlash against Asian Americans. Ikemoto remained sanguine about the film (perhaps the reason his interview was never used) and told me: “As time passes, we get less angry and more ‘that was war, now let’s move along’.”

Yet, while those who lived through the war have earned the right to grieve, reflect and at last lay their memories to one side, younger generations of Japanese are growing up with little understanding of the events 60 years ago. The Bridge on the River Kwai was the country’s top taker in 1957, when its events were still fresh in the mind and Japan was still prepared – albeit defensively – to examine its own role in the war. But, in 2001, Pearl Harbor‘s lukewarm reception suggests an audience too indifferent to inquire and too apathetic to boycott.

The Korean and Chinese protesters may not realise that Japan suppresses its domestic history, too. One fact to emerge from the schoolbook debate is that those Japanese who fought the imperial court or the establishment are routinely omitted from lists of prominent figures recommended for study. By contrast, the Hinomaru flag and the Kimigayo, the anthem of emperor worship, colonial and Pacific war, both rallying symbols of Japanese nationalism, were reinstated by the Diet in 1999.

While a few dedicated teachers pioneer the use of source material, the study of history in Japan’s high schools remains mainly a feat of memorising, the all- important “why” buried under lists of “who”, “what” and “when”. The spirit of independent inquiry is an impediment, not an asset, in the country’s educational system. An American girl logged on to a Japanese discussion website to warn film-goers that “after three hours [of Pearl Harbor], I would rather just have opened a history book and read about it”. She obviously didn’t know that, in Japan, the Hollywood version of history (where the polio-crippled Franklin D Roosevelt stands and energetically thumps a table) is probably a sight more accurate than the textbooks.

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