The Wind Rises: reclaiming the Pacific War

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A controversial symbol…and a controversial film…

The Wind Rises [Kaze Tachinu], the swan song of Miyazaki Hayao, will probably be remembered as his most controversial film. Most Japanese fans celebrate his beautiful beautiful, occasionally whimsical, fantasies, but as the years wore on, Miyazaki increasingly made politics a central theme in the works he produced. Many Japanese people I’ve spoken to love My Neighbour Totoro and Laputa for the escapism they provide, whilst finding Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away too political. With The Wing Rises, however, Miyazaki firmly places a contemporary political debate right in front of his viewers, and showcases how ‘the problems of modern Japanese history’ hold different meanings for different groups of people.

For overseas viewers, the controversy surrounding The Wind Rises seems to have been dominated by accusations of right wing sentiment. Many Koreans and Chinese critics, in particular, felt that Miyazaki was trying to glorify the creator of the Zero fighter, Japan’s most famous and most impressive technological achievement from the Second World War (or the Pacific War). In not addressing directly the wrongs that Japan committed during the war, and worse, presenting the Zero fighter’s creator Hirikoshi Jirō as a young man simply trying to fulfil his dream of creating a beautiful airplane, they argued that Miyazaki, too, does not acknowledge these wrongs.

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All he wanted to do was fly…

That couldn’t be further than the truth. Miyazaki and the other Ghibli old hands are, as far as I can tell, progressives that do not condone what Japan did in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, the month that The Wind Rises was released in Japan, the studio dedicated a special edition of their newsletter, “Neppū,” to arguing against constitutional reform, which the Abe government had been testing the waters for. Their essays criticised the controversial views of the war that held by Japan’s current elites, such as the denials about the comfort women. This caused a fair amount of confusion in Japan, and saw Miyazaki lambasted from both the left and the right. Nationalists attacked him for his unpatriotic views as expressed both in his essay and through the pacifist message of the film, whilst progressives questioned the absence of any real critique of the Japanese Empire and the problematic depiction of a killing machine as an object of beauty.

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And after a frustrating failure, he succeeded in producing an object of beauty…

This mixed domestic reaction to the film reflects the complexity of the issue in Japan. The revisionist statements and actions that grab the attention of the Chinese and Koreans reflect the attitudes of a pretty small minority in Japan, albeit an increasingly vocal and politically powerful one. Alarmingly, it is also a growing one. There are many reasons for this, all of which arguably stem from what happened during the US Occupation and the first decade or so after Japan returned to being a sovereign country in 1952—well, except for Okinawa and several other southern islands, which remained under US administration. The ‘victor’s justice’ nature of the Tokyo Trials, the abandonment of the trials because of the fear of communism (many of the accused who had yet to be tried were released, and some later returned to positions of power), the fraught relations with neighbours that depended not only of the personal preferences of Japan’s post-war Prime Ministers but also on what the US wanted, the fact that the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Tiaoyu islands remained under US administration until 1972: all of these—and more—have contributed to what many foreigners regard as ‘Japan’s inability to face its past’.

But let me present another side of the issue. One widely accepted truth accepted in my field of expertise—international relations—is that Japan is not a ‘normal’ country. The Japanese constitution states that the country has given up its ability to declare and wage war, and should not possess a military force with such capabilities; however, this is worded vaguely enough to allow for the capability for ‘self-defence’. In recent years, the debate has been about whether Japan is entitled to the right that all states have for ‘collective self-defence’, as stated in Article VII of the UN Charter, and what kinds of capabilities that allows. For example, the Izumo-class helicopter destroyers have raised protests from a number of observers because, as carriers, they are effectively offensive rather than defensive weapons. But here is an example of why restrictions based on this distinction are quite ridiculous. Amphibious landing vehicles are regarded as offensive capabilities because they allow militaries to conduct offensive operations on foreign shores. However, these vehicles are also necessary for disaster relief operations: one anecdote that I’ve heard about Japan’s SDF is that, when they arrived at the Tohoku region in the wake of the triple disaster in 2011, they found themselves stuck offshore because they had no amphibious capabilities. And let me emphasise something people might not be aware of: overnight temperatures in March in that region often drop below freezing. Of course, politics also plays an important role, but this is just one example of how Japan’s ‘abnormality’ has further constrained its ability to operate as any other first world state would.

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But it was not just a plane, it was a symbol of death and destruction…

However, the more surprising issues are arguably those that aren’t institutionalised by the constitution or law, but rather the constraints imposed by both domestic and international pressure based on historical memory. Many of the Japanese people I have met are uneasy about the way that the US commemorates Remembrance Day, or Australia ANZAC Day. The last person I spoke to about it revealed a discomfort with ‘the celebration of war and militarism’ that they felt was inherent in the way we remember all of the people who have died for our countries. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are quite controversial in the West…but can you imagine the relatives of those who were lost being told that they should not remember the sacrifices made by their family members because of ill-informed decisions made by their leaders?

These are some of the issues that have fed into the revisionist trends that are arguably growing in Japan. Again, Japanese domestic politics and bureaucratic elements that have long worked at toning down negative representations of Imperial Japan’s actions have also been significant, as are the historical controversies mentioned above. The problem is that, everything associated with the war is automatically red-carded by Japan’s critics. Why should the Japanese not remember those that gave up their lives for their country like the rest of us do? Why have the numerous apologies and attempts to pay reparations over the years been rejected? Why do certain countries continue to refuse to meet Japan halfway, and expect it to correct the admittedly biased representation of the war in its textbooks without addressing their own biased depictions of what Japan did? And why do the victors get away with the war crimes that they committed, whilst Japanese and German leaders were put on trial for actions that were declared criminal post hoc? Given all these controversies, is it really that surprising that there are people in Japan who argue that ‘Japan did nothing wrong, for it was just doing what everyone else had done for centuries’?

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“Make a war in China. Here we forget.”

I’m not trying to argue that Japan did nothing wrong, or that it’s okay for them to blindly celebrate the great technological feats they did achieve during that time. And perhaps, complex and competing feelings of guilt and pride are emotions that Miyazaki has poured into The Wind Rises. In her review (also linked above), long time Japan scholar Professor Susan Napier suggests that the film represents the director’s own struggle with a question that has defined his life and work: what is the price of beauty, achievement and great technological advancement? Military geeks around the world recognise that the Zero was one of the great technological achievements of the time, with its high manoeuvrability allowing it to outperform many other contemporary fighters in the air. Miyazaki himself has a connection to this aspect of Japan’s war history, as his family owned an aircraft factory — the word is that he had considered purchasing one of the few remaining Zero fighters, before his wife voiced her opposition to the idea. Napier suggests that the director might still be “working through a complex combination of guilt and nostalgia over the factory’s role in the war and also his family’s relatively comfortable lifestyle.”

Alternatively, perhaps The Wind Rises represents Miyazaki’s attempt to reclaim the association between Japan’s military and Japanese pride from the revisionists. In painting Jiro as someone who, whilst wanting to create beautiful planes, also recognised the horror and destruction that was wrought as a result, the director seems to be trying to argue that there are technological achievements that Japan can be proud of whilst still accepting that what Japan did in the war was wrong. The critique of Imperial Japan is developed in the film through Castorp, a mysterious German man that Jiro encounters at the countryside sanctuary where he is sent to recuperate his spirit following the failure of one of his designs. Other viewers have suggested that the character, clearly a callback to his namesake in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, represents how the ideals of the young Weimar Republic were forced out by the advent of war. Despite this, however, and despite the wreckage that is all that remains of his plane, Caproni tells Jiro that he can and should still take pride in the beautiful airplane that he had created. But Jiro also has to live on, with the implication that he must continue to contemplate the consequences of his part in the war.

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Can we not claim them back?

In short, The Wind Rises reflects the complexities of the debate in Japan over its history, complexities that need to be understood and explored from all sides if East Asia is to overcome the historical issues that continue to hijack Japan’s relations with its closest neighbours. Miyazaki’s own connections with the subject matter of the film represent these complications. In fact, despite the appreciation that he shows for the elegantly crafted Zero fighter in his film, the director continues to speak out strongly against revisionist views of the Pacific War and Abe’s attempts to revise the constitution. But he may have been trying to make a truly important point through this apparent contradiction. If the Japanese people are to reclaim the war from the revisionists, then progressives both within and without Japan may need to acknowledge the few facets of the wartime nation that are actually worthy of praise, even as they continue to remind the Japanese people of the history they must not repeat.

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

6 Responses to The Wind Rises: reclaiming the Pacific War

  1. sikvod00 says:

    This is some heavy reading, so it’ll take some time for me to absorb it all, heh. ^_^ But I can sympathize with the right wing nationalists on one point: A country denying that it has the right to self-defense is absurd. If Germany can have an army, why can’t they?:/ Now I understand some of the strange political sentiment that creeps in anime forums for some shows, a current one being gate.

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    • karice says:

      It is a huge topic — I’ve probably covered only a fraction of it, and not very well. But I do feel that many people miss the complexity of the debate in Japan, largely because of the way it is reported overseas. As you point out, there seems to some ‘strange political sentiment’ creeping into anime forums here and there when we discuss certain shows – before GATE, I saw it happening with Zankyou no Terror and Mahouka as well. However, it becomes a little less strange when we consider the domestic political context of the issues as well, but these hardly ever make the English-language news.

      I’d definitely be interested in seeing what people think after getting a more rounded picture of what’s going on within Japan itself – if you’re up for it, of course. There are actually a few things I’ve learned in the last year that have deepened even my own understanding of what’s going on, even if my basic view of who was ‘in the wrong’ during the Pacific War doesn’t change much…

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  2. sikvod00 says:

    Sure, I’m down to learn more! These types of readings are super insightful and make anime more interesting to watch (I plan on seeing this film sometime soon ). I’m far from an expert on international relations, but it really looks a discipline that emphasizes taking a balanced stance and being sensitive to cultural differences. I see that quite a bit in your writings, so not at all surprised it’s your expertise. Hopefully that didn’t come off as presumptuous, lol.

    Question: Are China and Korea the primary countries opposed to Japan having their own army? Or is this more of an internal debate? I just can’t think of a reason for countries like the U.S. etc. to care, (we do have bases there, so maybe I’m totally wrong).

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    • karice says:

      Well…I don’t know if international relations is a discipline that emphasises taking a balanced stance and being sensitive to cultural differences — many practitioners and scholars alike most certainly do not, and there are still clashes between universalists and (cultural) relativists, for example. I do try to understand other points of view, though I wouldn’t say that I always succeed, even after having been at this for the last five years or so. I’m still learning myself, and I must admit that I expect to keep learning for as long as I live ^^;

      Yeah, as far as I know, it’s pretty much just China and Korea (well, both Koreas, probably–we just don’t really know what the other one’s thinking). But some would argue that the internal debate is the bigger barrier. You should see all the debates over the years about how to explain Japan’s ‘abnormality’!

      The US actually wants Japan to rearm, so that it can take more responsibility for the security of the East Asian (West Pacific) region, and also support the US better elsewhere. Admittedly, right after the end of WW2, there were probably quite a few Americans that didn’t want Japan to rearm, but that changed pretty quickly–within two to three years, when it became clear that the CCP was ahead of the nationalists in China. Taiwan, Japan and arguably South Korea effectively became bulwarks against communism (American leaders have used such language over the years), and the US wanted a NATO-like community too, though it didn’t happen for a number of reasons…

      er…I’d better stop here… ^^;;;

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  3. I think alot of what you writing has a lot of incomplete hole. This problem you are refer to is a lot deeper that this many many paragraph. Too many thing has be said in this many 70 years of rebuild and changing but there a cycle of deterioration that japan is supple well in a negative factor, in my thing are not looking well for japan in the present and the future. this is not vague it just your article is very very incomplete. Too many negative wont factor in a positive outcome.
    thank you taking for talking the time to read this many many short line.

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    • karice says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      I have to admit, though, that I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. I know that I haven’t covered ever aspect of these issues — you can write several books on them, and people have — and I don’t think I’ve tried to claim that I did. I’m merely trying to present a few sides of the issue that most people have not heard about, such as the fact that Japan should have been better able to deal with the 2011 Earthquake but was restricted because it couldn’t have ‘offensive capabilities’. I’m also trying to present some of the perspectives seen by Japanese people.

      This doesn’t mean I’m trying to relieve Japan of all blame. The reason this post (and the next one on this subject) is focused on their side, as opposed to the international/Chinese/Korean sides is that most people seem to focus on the latter, and I argue that understanding and acknowledging BOTH sides is key to moving forward on this issue. And this understanding can’t be expected just from the Japanese side — it has to happen in all the international nations as well. Putting aside the Western countries, even though China and Korea were clearly just victims during the first half of the 20th century, what they (or rather, various groups within them) are doing now is not helping. I know that there are a lot of complex issues involved, but the issues don’t just lie with Japan: they lie with China, Korea and the US as well. And no one is going to be able to move forward if even one country remains stubborn and refuses to compromise on their position.

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