A new movie about WW II Japanese asks where the war-crimes buck stops
The film, which starts shooting on June 2, concerns the postwar trial, in Yokohama, of Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada, former commander of the 13th Area Army in the Tokai region (the area centered on the prefectures of Aichi and Mie). Nineteen of the general's subordinates were also on trial with him.
The court proceedings stemmed from the last months of World War II, when giant American B-29s carried out relentless and indiscriminate bombings of the region, using high-explosives, napalm and other incendiary ordnance. Tens of thousands of civilians, including women and children, were burnt to death.
Thirty-eight American aircrew who parachuted out of their planes were captured, summarily tried and executed as war criminals in June and July 1945. The war ended with the Emperor's capitulation on Aug. 15, 1945.
The subsequent Yokohama War Crimes Trials garnered much less publicity than those held in Tokyo. For one thing, the latter dealt with alleged Class-A war criminals, such as wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. The trials in Yokohama were for alleged B- and C-Class war criminals.
Also, by the time the Yokohama trials were under way, the people of Japan, like the Allied Occupation forces governing them, were turning their attention to reconstruction and away from retribution.
Nonetheless, the claims against Okada and his cohorts were grave. They were that the American airmen had not been given fair trials, and they could hardly be held responsible for merely following orders.
Therein lies the crux of the film.
What is a war crime and who is responsible for one when it occurs?
Fairness of the proceedings
Okada was in his late 50s when he was confined, arraigned and tried. A graduate of the Tottori Military School in 1909, he later went to the Military Staff College and joined the ranks of the Imperial Japanese Army. He served for three years as a military attache at Japan's embassy in London.
We based the film's storyline on thousands of pages of court records, as well as on a book about Okada titled "Nagai Tabi (The Long Journey)" by Shohei Ooka. In the film, as in the real trial, Okada praised the fairness of the proceedings, telling the military commission that tried him between March 8 and May 19, 1948:
This trial has been very generous in its proceedings.
I firmly believe that my feelings of gratitude will be the basis of a spiritual bond between the elder brother, America, and the younger brother, Japan, uniting our two countries in the future.
In fact, having read virtually the entire record of the trial, I came away with a feeling of its utter fairness. Okada was defended with vigor and integrity by his defense team, led by Joseph Featherstone. The judges, who had ample reason to exact revenge from a brutal former enemy, ran the trial with admirable impartiality. I could not help but feel how profoundly American military justice has been degraded since those days.
The truly fine thing about Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada the man resides in his exemplary character. He was the only general in the Imperial Army who, after the war, personally took responsibility for his actions and those of the men under his command.
Naturally, he did not believe that he was committing a crime by trying and executing men whom he regarded as mass murderers. But he accepted the verdict of the commission and considered it only fair that he pay his price.
This stands in stark contrast to the example of many leaders around the world today — leaders who routinely shirk responsibility for their countries' criminal actions in wartime, instead dumping it on those far below who acted in their name.
Okada and his 19 subordinates were all found guilty. The lower ranks were given long sentences at hard labor. Okada was handed the death sentence.
Appeals for clemency
After the trial, even Chief Prosecuting Attorney Richard Burnett, among many others, appealed for clemency. The commission itself recommended clemency. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan, rejected all appeals for a lighter sentence, and Okada was hanged.
Awaiting his execution in his cell at Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, Okada, who was a devout Buddhist, wrote to his wife, Haruko:
Please do not honor me after I am gone.
Haruko, has this life been short or long?
It has seemed both, and I am deeply indebted to you.
We have given two children to this world, too. I feel great contentment over this.
Were I to have had my remaining years, I would have dearly loved to look after my elderly wife, but I will do so now from the other world.
Was Lt. Gen. Tasuku Okada a hero?
It is a general rule of war that the conquered are disallowed heroes, however sincere their motives. In my mind, Okada serves as an example to history, and this makes his story heroic. If deeds done in wartime are subsequently, and fairly, deemed criminal, then the people who issued the command must be held accountable for them.
There was a time when American justice was genuinely that: justice.
In our present day, such justice is being manipulated by cynical leaders, and those far down the chain of command are being held accountable for those leaders' heinous misdeeds.
"Best Wishes for Tomorrow" is not a film about the wars being fought today in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But its message may just turn out to be as relevant to us today as it was to those, on both sides of World War II, who gave their lives to deliver it to the future.
Okada (who will be played by veteran actor Makoto Fujita) had hopes for a better world after he was gone. Yet he was a realist, too. He wrote in his Sugamo Prison diary, shortly before his death:
Humanity should eradicate war by whatever means necessary.
Nonetheless, I am afraid that wars will be with us in this world forever.
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