Don't Mention The War

Sooner or later, anyone who wants to understand Japan's tortured relationship with its past will end up at the Yasukuni Shrine. Part religious site and part war memorial, Yasukuni, in downtown Tokyo, has become a political battleground. Controversies involving the shrine—which Shintos consider the home to the souls of 2.46 million dead soldiers, including 14 convicted Class A World War II war criminals—have sparked fury among Japan's former victims.

Given this history, and Japan's difficulties fully atoning for its past, Li Ying figured it was time to provoke a public debate about the shrine. The Chinese film director and 19-year Japan resident has just released "Yasukuni," which won the best-documentary prize at the Hong Kong Film Festival last month. It's a remarkable, well-balanced work. Yet if powerful right-wing forces in Japan get their way, many Japanese will never see the movie.

On March 12, after a magazine described the film as "anti-Japan," conservative lawmakers demanded a special screening, following which one prominent archconservative criticized its "ideological message." A few days later, citing threats from the right-wing speaker trucks that had gathered outside, a Tokyo theater declared that it was canceling plans to screen "Yasukuni." Other cinemas around the country have since followed suit, and none in Tokyo are daring to screen it (though a few outside the capital have vowed to do so).

The Asahi Shimbun has warned that "freedom of expression is under threat," and even the archconservative Sankei Shimbun has called the mess "disappointing." Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has made some vaguely disapproving remarks. But the public has been largely silent. "People would demonstrate if this happened in Europe," says Hidemi Suzuki, a professor of constitutional law at Osaka University Graduate School. "Today, there are hardly any signs" of that in Japan.

The conservative lawmakers who criticized "Yasukuni" insist they never meant to censor it, but argue that tax money shouldn't go to "political" works. ("Yasukuni" got a modest government grant.)

The great irony is that although "Yasukuni" shows some images of the 1937 Nanjing massacre—an event Japanese conservatives deny responsibility for, and the main source of the lawmakers' ire—the film takes great pains to be evenhanded. It gives a lot of time to the very conservatives who are working to prevent the film's release, and abstains from commentary, letting viewers make their own judgments. The result is a candid look at the misguided idealism, prickly victimhood and unresolved mourning that still inform Japanese attitudes toward World War II. "The film describes their viewpoint as well," says liberal parliamentarian Koichi Kato of the shrine's right-wing followers.

Given its symbolism, Yasukuni continues to hold the potential to provoke raw emotions and complicate relations with Japan's neighbors. Former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi repeatedly visited it during his 2001–06 term, insisting he did so only to mourn the war dead and pray for peace. But these assurances did little to assuage China and South Korea, which suffered mightily under Japanese occupation. Koizumi's successors, including Fukuda, have tried to quiet the controversy by avoiding the shrine and the issues it raises.

That's not leadership. The new scandal, which is just the latest in a string of right-wing attempts to silence open discussions of Japan's past, is raising worries about the state of Japanese democracy. Two years ago, Kato, the liberal lawmaker, lost his home in an arson attack, an apparent reprisal for his critical stance on Koizumi's visits to the shine. The conservative Shinzo Abe, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, apparently intervened to prevent Japan's public broadcasting network from showing a program on women forced into Japanese military brothels during the war. And last November, a Tokyo hotel canceled a labor-union convention due to threats from right-wing groups, leading the union to sue.

The tacit ban on Li's film could play a positive role if it makes more Japanese citizens aware of the right-wing threat to their fundamental freedoms. But that will be cold consolation to Li if his film never makes it to the screen in the country he considers his second home.