Saturday, March 27, 2010

Some Truths About America’s Anti-Racist History: Portraying the Japanese in World War Two Films

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By Barry Rubin

This year, my son—who is attending the fourth grade at an American public school—has been subjected to an unending barrage of anti-Americanism, especially around the issue of racism. For some reason the main focus is alleged American racism toward the Japanese in World War Two. In addition, literally not a single positive word has been spoken about America during the entire school year.

At the same time, I have been watching a number of American films about the Pacific theatre during World War Two, not seeking them out but merely because they have been shown on television. The controversy over Tom Hanks’ statement and his new series on that war has added to the interest.

One thing very clear to me is that American films about the Pacific theatre are remarkably free from vicious or “racialist” incitement. On the contrary, it is remarkable how restrained they are. In many films that focus on combat—say, “Wake Island” or “They Were Expendable,” among them--there little talk about the Japanese at all, much less any demonizing of them. They are an enemy being fought and, if possible, killed, but there is no racialist message.

Another film, “Bataan,” (1943) shows Americans and Filipinos fighting together in the early days of the war. The two allies are seen interacting on a basis of equality. Remember that Japanese are not a race and World War Two American stereotypes of other Asians—especially Filipinos and Chinese—are quite sympathetic. About the only characterization of the Japanese in this film is that while hated as foes the American soldiers describe them as very brave and skilled soldiers.

In “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” about the first American air raid on Japan, led by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, there is one remarkable exchange in which a flier says that Americans should not be prejudiced against the Japanese people as a whole. He says that his family employed a Japanese gardener who was a pretty nice guy. While today this might be portrayed as patronizing, the context was that Japanese were human beings like everyone else.

Incidentally, when the plane crews crash-land in China, their lives are saved by heroic Chinese peasants shown as defending themselves against Japanese aggression. They risk their own lives and give of their few possessions to help save Americans. Asians are thus portrayed very favorably.

If you want to see a film that expresses the American self-conception at the time, try "The Human Comedy" (1943), written by the Armenian-American Californian William Saroyan. Many now consider the film embarrassingly sentimental and corny. But it is actually quite noble. I'd love to see this film being shown as representative of how Americans thought--or at least the standard they set for themselves--during those days.

Mickey Rooney plays a boy working at the telegraph office in a California town who watches his brother go off to war. But he has to deliver telegrams telling families that their sons are killed, wounded, or missing. There is a moving scene when he has to do so to a Mexican-American family (treated very sympathetically) and a truly remarkable one when his boss is driving through the park past all the different ethnic versions of July 4 celebrations, pointing them out as examples of American pluralism. I believe that in a scene of American soldiers heading east on a troop train, there are a couple of Asian-Americans in uniform, though no one remarks on the fact. This film should be mandatory viewing for public school students today to know that their ancestors weren’t neo-Nazi skinheads.

Especially interesting is the 1944 film, “Destination Tokyo.” It’s about an American submarine crew given a mission to sneak into Tokyo Bay with a Japanese-speaking American officer to gather intelligence for the raid mentioned above. So how did this wartime movie, chosen pretty much at random, deal with the Japanese? Is it an example of American racism and chauvinism, like schoolkids are taught nowadays?

There are two scenes in which the Japanese come up and they are both pretty remarkable. Remember the war was at its height when this film was made. In the first scene, the submarine is passing through the Aleutian islands when it is attacked by two Japanese planes. It shoots both of them down—perhaps an unreasonable amount of heroics but necessary to the plot since the mission would have to be cancelled if they are spotted.

One of the Japanese pilots parachutes and the captain orders him to be taken aboard for questioning. I think this is most unrealistic since they couldn’t go on a long mission with a Japanese officer on board. If it had happened in real life, they probably would have done nothing and he would have been dead of hypothermia in those icy waters within a few minutes.
But following orders, Mike, one of the most popular crew members, tries to pull him aboard. The pilot stabs him to death and is immediately machinegunned by Mike's comrades. This is not unrealistic since Japanese soldiers—especially officers—rarely surrendered and did use such tactics on many occasions.

At any rate, this could have been the basis for a real hate-Japanese diatribe. Instead, though, the speeches made by a crew member and by the captain (played by Cary Grant) to the crew are remarkable.

One crewman, who has earlier made clear his ethnic pride in being a Greek, to which he then proudly adds, "Greek American," (in the kind of American pluralist statement so common in those wartime films), doesn’t attend Mike's funeral. The other crew members are angry at him but he explains that he doesn’t think he’s earned the right to do so because he hasn’t made any contribution to avenging those already dead. Back in Greece, he recounts, his uncle, a professor, was killed by the Nazis:

“Because he had brains. Because everybody’s got to be their slave and those who won’t, like my uncle, they kill….So I don’t forget my uncle. I read where an American flier gets killed and I think of my uncle. I see pictures of little Chinese kids getting bombed and I think of my uncle. I hear about a Russian guerrilla getting hanged and I think about my uncle. And I see Mike lying in there dead from a Jap killer and I think of my uncle.”

Again, many would see this as contrived and mawkish but it is hardly a chauvinistic American rant. His inclusion of the Chinese, who like the Japanese are Asians, makes it pretty PC by any standards. It also points out once again the very strong pro-Chinese feeling in the United States at the time. Overall, it wasn't a bad way to explain the war in both terms of freedom and human connections.

A short time later, the captain says:

“Mike was with me on my first patrol. I was his friend. I know his family….I remember Mike’s pride when he bought his first roller skates for his little five-year-old boy….Well that Jap got a present, too, when he was five, a dagger….The Japs have a ceremony that goes with it….At thirteen he can put a machine-gun together blindfolded . So as I see it, that Jap was started on the road twenty years ago to putting a knife in Mike’s back. There are lots of Mikes dying now, and lots more will die. Until we put a stop to a system that puts knives in the hands of five-year-old children. You know, if Mike were here to put it into words right now that’s just about what he died for: more roller-skates in this world, including some for the next generation of Japanese kids because that’s the kind of a man Mike was.”

This isn’t a sophisticated lecture on the samurai class. The machine-gun part is silly, of course. But what does the speech say? That a terrible system in Japan has created people who inevitably act in a certain way and that this system must be democratized, not only for America’s sake but for that of the Japanese as well so that they can enjoy a better life.

This is a remarkable prophecy of the post-war American occupation policy and successful transformation of Japan. Such sentiments are the opposite of a racist interpretation, which sees such behavior as innate and certainly doesn’t care about the lives of the enemy. One can’t help thinking of parallels in a system which teaches children to become suicide bombers today, programming them to hate and to want to commit genocide.

Yet there is even more here. While racism--mainly against those of African descent--was long a terrible feature of American life, there are powerful counter-ideas also in American history. Americans believed that people were not merely the outcome of innate, genetic determinism. What better description of the American world view is there to say that a peasant, the descendant of generations of peasants, could get off the boat and become a prosperous and respected citizen? And there would be little or no prejudice against the children of those immigrants because of their background.

True, each new wave of immigrants was hazed, and those from Africa faced by far the longest and greatest mistreatment. Yet ultimately it was because racism was contrary to the American system and world view that it could not survive.

Returning to the film, in a later scene, the captain asks the intelligence officer about Japanese society. While the conversation may not be accurate, it is also explicitly anti-racialist. The officer explains that there was a democratic movement in Japan but the leaders were assassinated. The people have no power and are downtrodden, “No unions, no free press, nothing.” Most of them “believe what they’re told. They’ve been sold a swindle and they accept it.” He explains that Japanese people live in appalling poverty in a way that stirs sympathy for them and that “females are useful there only to work and have children.”

Again, it is not that the Japanese are innately evil or inferior but merely that the people have been deprived of rights. They, too, are victims. There were heroic Japanese who wanted democracy but they were repressed. Note also that the oppression of women is an important issue, like today, in the mix which is said to make for an authoritarian society.

Of course, this is the Hollywood version of events, not what was going on in the field. But that’s precisely the point. This was the kind of thing Americans in their millions were being told: hate the Japanese as an enemy but not as a people or as a “race.” And, again, a very clear differentiation was being made among Asians based on nationality.

I’m not saying that these films are great art or accurate about how the war was fought. But inasmuch as there is an ideological statement in them, it is something Americans today can be proud of and it is also evidence that the rewriting of American history into a series of hate crimes is a lie.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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