Remembering Pearl Harbor, forgetting Ke Awalau o Pu’uloa

I recently visited the new exhibition at the Arizona Memorial.  The exhibit is ripe for political, psychological and cultural analyses.  But here I only offer a few initial impressions:

On the one hand, the new exhibit tells a more complex and nuanced story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the origins of World War II than the previous exhibit.  Japanese points of view are included throughout.  The internment of persons of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps (Sand Island, Honouliuli, Pu’unene, Kilauea Military Camp) is featured prominently.  The exhibit even included a small plaque about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an extremely sensitive topic.

A $100,000 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs funded displays that added some Native Hawaiian and local perspectives on the militarization of Ke Awalau o Pu’uloa and the war. While these adjustments may seem minor, in the ideologically and symbolically charged field of the Pearl Harbor Story, these small shifts in the “official” narrative reflect some opening of public attitudes and understanding.   A park administrator describes the ultimate message as one of peace.

On the other hand, the exhibit flinches when it comes to examining the destructive forces of 20th century imperialism, Japanese, European and American, which generated so many of our bloodiest wars.   One sign describes the U.S. backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in a detached third person voice: the Hawaiian Kingdom “was overthrown”.   But it fails to describe who was responsible and why the overthrow took place – the U.S. desire for empire and a military foothold in the Pacific.   The exhibit conveys a sense of the tragedy and the human costs of war, but fails to discuss the social and environmental costs of militarism and empire.  By way of what it excludes, the exhibit privileges certain stories over others, reinforcing and normalizing the military’s presence in Hawai’i.  The effectiveness of the new state of the art displays in telling the war stories only highlights the voices that are missing.

These other voices about World War II and Pearl Harbor will have to come from outside the U.S. government.  It will come from the peace activists and revolutionaries, from the Hawaiian nationals and environmentalists, from women and refugees, from peoples and places across the sea where the military storm surges emanating from Hawai’i crash upon whole cities and countrysides.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Japan Mutual Security Treaty which established the vast network of U.S. military bases in Japan and returned Okinawa to Japan.   That anniversary was overshadowed by the controversy over the U.S. military bases in Okinawa and widespread questioning of the mutual security treaty.   This disturbance in what has been described as the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is sure to make foreign policy elites nervous.

In  “Tora! Tora! Tora! and the Fate of (Trans)national Memory” published on the Japan Focus website, Marie Thorsten and University of Hawai’i professor Geoffrey White examine the history of how Pearl Harbor has been remembered (or forgotten) by Americans and Japanese through films and what these different narratives have to say about the state of U.S. Japanese relations.  They argue that at the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. needed to solidify Japan as an Asian ally against Communism, the rhetoric and memory about Pearl Harbor warmed up and allowed for the bi-national production of the film Tora! Tora! Tora!

In 2011, given the erupting contradictions of the U.S. Japan partnership, it will be interesting to see how the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor is remembered.


Binational Pearl Harbor?

Tora! Tora! Tora! and the Fate of (Trans)national Memory

Marie Thorsten and Geoffrey M. White

The fifty-year anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, signed on January 19, 1960, was not exactly a cause for unrestrained celebration. In 2010, contentious disagreements over the relocation and expansion of the American military presence in Okinawa, lawsuits against the Toyota Motor Corporation, ongoing restrictions on the import of American beef, and disclosures of secret pacts that have allowed American nuclear-armed warships to enter Japan for decades, subdued commemorative tributes to the U.S.-Japan security agreement commonly known as “Ampo” in Japan.1

In this atmosphere it is nevertheless worth recalling another sort of U.S.-Japan pact marking the tenth anniversary of Ampo, the 1970 historical feature film, Tora! Tora! Tora! (dir. Richard Fleisher, Fukasaku Kinji and Masuda Toshio).2 Whereas the formal security treaty of 1960 officially prepared the two nations to resist future military attacks, Tora! Tora! Tora! unofficially scripted the two nations’ interpretations of  the key event that put them into a bitter war, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Although conceived by the American film studio Twentieth-Century Fox as a way to mark a new beginning for the two nations, certain popular opinions at the time, particularly in Japan, regarded Tora! Tora! Tora! as a cultural extension of the unequal security partnership.

On the American side, Pearl Harbor has come to wield such iconic proprietorship that it may seem inconceivable that the authorship of such pivotal memory could ever be shared with the former enemy. Airing his vehement disapproval over whether to build a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center attacks, a controversy preoccupying Americans in 2010, political stalwart Newt Gingrich (former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives), analogized, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.”3 In the realm of education, a series of teacher workshops that had brought American and Japanese educators together to discuss approaches to teaching about Pearl Harbor was recently brought to an abrupt end when an American participant complained to federal sponsors that the program amounted to “an agenda-based attack on the U.S. military, military history, and American veterans.”4 The fact that this criticism, directed to the federal funding source (the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the U.S. Congress) quickly found receptive audiences through political blogs and veterans groups’ listservs suggests an insecure, zero-sum mentality in which listening to other controversies and points of view somehow erases dominant narratives, which must then be vigilantly protected.

Nevertheless, we consider Tora! Tora! Tora! a noteworthy exception to such assumed proprietorship for its splicing together of two, mostly parallel, national productions from America and Japan. It is perhaps inevitable that such a film encountered difficulties narrativizing the events of Pearl Harbor for two national audiences—events that have been the subject of contested and shifting memory for Americans throughout the postwar period. This shift has been made manifest in the last decade through highly misguided efforts to summon Pearl Harbor memory to serve America’s “war on terror” —in the hopes of recreating American revenge, triumph, occupation and democratization of the vanquished.5

Despite its claims to tell both national sides of the attack, Tora! Tora! Tora! evoked discussions of genre and accuracy in cinematic representations of war and nation, with much interest, especially in America, over the “American view” and the “Japanese view.” Japanese critics were less concerned about the film’s reference to Pearl Harbor in 1941 than the politics of the 1960s framing the film as an expression of unequal bilateral relations or glorification of state violence. While there is validity to such concerns, the film also offered a unique space for integrating narratives not entirely reducible to exigent security matters. Especially in response to the Gingrich statement above, we express some cautious appreciation of the film’s gesture not only of bridging the stories of both nations but also acknowledging mistakes made throughout the chains of command in both the United States and Japan leading to Pearl Harbor attack.

Tora! Tora! Tora!’s screenplay was adapted from the extensive writings of historian Gordon Prange, including an early work titled, Tora! Tora! Tora!6 and Ladislas Farago’s The Broken Seal (1967). Though Prange died in 1980, his former students, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, published his meticulously documented oeuvre on Pearl Harbor as the posthumous At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (1981), widely considered an epic, unparalleled book compiling Prange’s thirty-seven years of research. After researching both national perspectives and claiming “no preconceived thesis”7 (and originally intending to do primarily the Japanese side), Prange’s “reflective” rather than “judgmental” conclusion, expressed by Goldstein and Dillon, was that there were “no deliberate villains”:

[Prange] considered those involved on both sides to be honest, hardworking, dedicated, and for the most part, intelligent. But as human beings some were brilliant and some mediocre, some broad-minded and some of narrow vision, some strong and some weak—and every single one fallible, capable of mistakes of omission and commission.8

Writing mostly in the post-Occupation years yet before the 1980s, Prange’s Pearl Harbor books including At Dawn assumed a  “happy ending on both sides” marked by peaceful relations and the rise of the Japanese economy under the American military umbrella.9 As technical adviser to the film version of Tora! Tora! Tora! Prange’s signature themes of communication failures, mutual mistakes and diffused responsibility are prominent.


One Comment

Martha Duenas Baum

Pearl Harbor was bombed on 7 December 1941 which is 8 December in Guam. Guam was also bombed by the Japanese Imperial Army just a few hours after the Pearl Harbor bombing.

Two days later on 10 December the Japanese military then landed 5000 trained troops on our island.

Excerpt from Robert Rogers, “Destiny’s Landfall” page 161, Chap 9 – The Quest for Identity 1918 – 1941:

“Earlier, on 17 October, the last American military dependents, 104 women and children, departed Guam on the USS Henderson except for one pregnant navy wife, Mrs. J.A. Hellmers. The last issue of the Guam Recorder in November 1941 did not say a word about the threat of war, but the cover showed the Henderson departing full of American families with the word “Aloha” alongside. Many Chamorros, alarmed by the evacuation and by blackout drills, began hoarding food, and some began to movbe to their lanchos for safety in anticipation of a Japanese attack.”

Was Pear Harbor really a “surprise attack” that was used to force the United States into yet another war? Many of us in Guam don’t think so!!!!

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