Japan's Art Of War

Shigeo Sasaki remembers the moment Japan started forgetting its past. It happened on Aug. 15, 1945, the day Emperor Hirohito ordered his subjects to "endure the unendurable" and surrendered unconditionally to Allied forces in the Pacific. "Teachers instructed us to tear certain pages out of our textbooks," he recalls. "One day the Americans were animals and devils, the next they were good people." Sasaki was just 14, but the memory of his country's "180-degree turn"--and the subsequent simplistic portrayal of the war record--still burns. So much so, in fact, that the 68-year-old retired banker has launched a crusade to reconstruct Japan's wartime history in a field that has become his life's obsession: art history.

Sasaki is doing his bit to set the record straight. Without fanfare last week, he opened Tokyo's first postwar exhibition dedicated to Japanese war art. Set in Gallery Kawafune, a basement space just outside Tokyo's neon-lit Ginza district, the show includes paintings, posters, books and magazines produced mostly between 1931 and 1945 to glorify Japan's land grabs across Asia. It's wartime propaganda that Japan's leaders would rather keep hidden. The moment the war ended, the government began censoring books, shredding files and otherwise conspiring to whitewash Japan's bloodiest secrets. Initially officials rationalized the cover-up by claiming that citizens should focus their energy on reconstruction. Later they hid the truth so as not to upset Japan's wartime victims. The real goal was to dodge the issue of war responsibility by pinning blame on a handful of generals. That sanitized account is under fire from historians eager to review the war through its art. "I am of the generation of Japanese who were completely misinformed about what was happening during the war," says Sasaki. "We are determined not to be deceived again."

Young Japanese know next to nothing of such deception. Textbooks talk about Japan's guilt, but blame a handful of fascists without asking why the whole society became so militarized. The Sasaki exhibit exposes it all, from the glory and gore to the patriotic frenzy that overtook Japan. In prints tacked to the walls, infantrymen storm a hilltop in British Hong Kong and paratroopers float earthward over Sumatra. "The Picture Album of the Holy War," on a table in the gallery, glorifies Japan's invasion of China. "We say, 'Put a lid on something that stinks'," said Yoshiaki Tachibana, a Buddhist monk visiting the exhibit last week. "Young people aren't exposed to anything about the war except toys. If all you do is play with a toy airplane, how can you understand that you might become the villain, not the victim?"

Academic interest has surged in recent years, making war art a hot subject at Japan's elite schools. "It was just me exclusively studying this five years ago," says Akihiko Kawata, a 33-year-old lecturer who teaches Japan's first course on war art at Waseda University in Tokyo. "Now a dozen graduate students are doing it. It's exciting." Two private collectors, Sasaki and Taro Fukutomi, have helped blow open the debate. Both believe in facing the past. Fukutomi, the country's top collector of war paintings, lost his family to American B-29 bombers and might have died in battle had the war not ended so abruptly. When Japan surrendered, he deserted from the Youth Pilots Corps--a unit that trained kamikaze pilots--and organized Tokyo's street kids into shoeshine brigades for Allied troops. By the 1960s, he owned a string of cabarets and started collecting art. When a dealer offered him a war painting, he snapped it up. Fukutomi has accumulated more than 100 canvases. His favorite is a portrait of a young kamikaze pilot as he departs on a suicide mission. Fukutomi admires the devoted, brave soldiers in the paintings, which he will show for the first time in another exhibit next week. "But let me be clear, I'm not a right-winger," he says. "I'm still afraid of the military, and I hate war."

Unlike the flashy cabaret boss, ex-banker Sasaki approaches art history with an accountant's precision. His collection, garnered from used-book stores, includes about 90 percent of all war-related articles published before Japan's surrender. Sasaki often writes articles in art journals quoting from primary documents that he hopes will fill "an empty hole in Japanese modern-art history." He plans to donate his vast document collection to a public archive.

The real treasures have yet to be seen. Japan's national museum has kept 153 war paintings in storage. In 1977, curators pushed to exhibit the paintings, after a long debate about how to portray the art and the artists. Should the art be shown as art or as a reflection of a dark period in history? Should the artists be portrayed as victims or willing accomplices? The artists' relatives gave permission for a show. But the prime minister decided to tour Asia, and the exhibit was canceled for fear of offending Japan's neighbors. The cabinet-level Cultural Affairs Agency says it still can't show the work out of "concern for the feelings of people in neighboring nations," agency spokesman Satoshi Nara told NEWSWEEK. "How to manage these paintings has been one of the museum's top concerns," says Kunio Motoe, an art-college professor, who was a curator at the museum when the exhibit was canceled. "The question is always 'How do we present them?' "

The paintings, which glorify the war, could be shocking to anyone who experienced the Japanese invasion. The heroic imagery of Takeshiro Kanokogi's 1940 "Triumphal Entry Into Nanjing" is a jarring interpretation of the horror recalled by historians as "the rape of Nanking." Tokyo mobilized Japan's artists after escalating its war in China in 1937. Organized into the Great Japan Army Painters' Association, several hundred chronicled the Army's exploits on the continent. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and sent its forces blitzing southward across the Pacific in 1941, the military began recruiting top painters. Their mandate, spelled out by an Army propagandist: create masterpieces to evoke "a Japanese war spirit" that "lingers for generations." Their first canvases debuted in 1942 in the "First Greater East Asia War Exhibition." The star attraction: Saburo Miyamoto's depiction of the British surrender in Singapore, "The Meeting of General Yamashita and General Percival." The painting shows the earnest Japanese commander dictating terms to his humiliated European adversaries, ending white colonial rule in Asia.

Did Japan's greatest artists relish their propaganda work? The widow of Tsuguharu Fujita, who became Japan's pre-eminent battle-scene painter, has manipulated Japan's stringent copyright laws to try to conceal her husband's war record. She has sued against at least one publication that printed his work, including one war painting, without her permission, and won. Fujita sported shaggy bangs and huge hoop earrings until he fled Paris after the Nazi invasion in 1940. Back home, he shed his bohemian look and embraced the imperial cause, declaring: "I feel as though I have offered my right arm to the nation." "Fujita thrived on the war that the militarists had created," writes Bert Winther-Tamaki, an art historian at the University of California, Irvine. "It was as though the conflict sparked a religious conversion."

He was not alone. A few artists continued to work in the contemplative Nihonga style, producing traditional ink paintings on silk or paper, as in Ryushi Kawabata's strangely peaceful 1944 "March to Luoyang (Stone Buddha at Datong)." But overnight, a band of obscure Western-style painters began rendering epic battle scenes for a mass audience. Unlike Nihonga, these oils were crisp and documentary--a look that pleased Japan's propagandists. In one huge Fujita canvas, civilians, mainly women and children, prepare to commit suicide to avoid capture. As a lone gunman holds off the advancing Americans, they draw knives, swallow the barrels of their rifles or pray before jumping off a cliff. The message, says Kendall Brown, an art historian at California State University at Long Beach: "Soldiers and civilians must die for Japan to achieve spiritual victory."

After Japan's surrender, the artists--and many art critics, too--quickly reincarnated themselves as progressives. According to a 1957 book by journalist Kokichi Funado, Fujita's neighbors observed him burning stacks of sketch pads and photos in his yard. When a jeep carrying a GI pulled up to his house, neighbors were sure he would be arrested as a war criminal. Instead, the Americans offered him work collecting war art for U.S. military archives. In 1950 he settled in Paris and eventually became a French citizen. For the rest of his life, Fujita painted cats and nudes and said little about the war. In a rare 1995 interview to which she responded in writing, his widow called the war a "distant memory." "Fujita sleeps quietly in the graveyard of a small church of... a Paris suburb," she added. "This is all I can say." (She declined to be interviewed for this story, and refused permission to let NEWSWEEK publish his work.)

Allied occupation forces burned most of the battle paintings, but the U.S. military saved 153 as trophies of its Pacific conquests. Divided and sent to the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force museums, they were "discovered" in 1967 by Japanese photographer Ichiro Nakagawa. (Several of his photographs illustrate this article.) In 1970, the United States returned the paintings on "indefinite loan" to Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art with the idea that they would be shown as part of the national collection. When museum officials canceled the show in 1977, according to an internal museum report, they warned that "such an exhibition could stimulate national emotions in areas where battles occurred." Art critic Hideo Monden applied to see the work in 1977, but was rebuffed by museum gatekeepers.

Quietly, Sasaki's exhibit, which includes writings that suggest many of the artists willingly joined the propaganda efforts, is already fanning a debate. "It would be useful to teach people the fact that the whole of Japan was behind the war effort," says Hiroki Tanaka, 21, a German-literature student at the show. "Everybody, including artists and other people you wouldn't imagine, was involved in it. This is hard to see now, and it should be taught." The Yomiuri Shimbun published an article hailing the show as "a rare opportunity to touch on the facts of the war through art." In a veiled attack on the national museum, it highlighted the fact that the 153 paintings have never been shown in one exhibition.

Some experts argue that now that most of the people who were part of the war, including the artists and critics, are gone, the government should open up its propaganda-art collection to the public. "They should show the paintings, even if they are war paintings," Kabun Muto, former head of an LDP reform task force, told NEWSWEEK. "It has been more than 50 years." Some relatives of the painters believe the Japanese should know the real story about the role of Japan's artists in the war. Yoichiro Miyamoto, whose grandfather painted the British surrender at Singapore, teaches American cultural history at Tsukuba University outside Tokyo. It bothers him that for many Japanese students, history begins in 1945. "If they take that kind of attitude," he says, "they lose continuity between our past and our present. So I talk about my grandfather, my beloved grandfather, who took part in this imperialist war. We have to face Japanese history."

Even one of the few surviving war painters wants to show his work. On Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, 89-year-old Shu Ogawara is battling pneumonia in a small-town hospital. Ogawara abandoned surrealism in 1941 to document air battles for the Japanese Imperial Army. "The bureaucrats are just protecting themselves," he says, visibly upset. "I am not going to hide what I did." Holding a copy of "Bombing Attu," one of his two paintings locked in the national archive, he challenges the art museum to show his work and "leave others to make a judgment." So far, the government gatekeepers won't budge. "We do not think there is a debate among the Japanese people about having war-record paintings exhibited," says Nara of the Cultural Affairs Agency. Perhaps he should stop by Sasaki's exhibition.