TOKYO — On Tuesday, the 61st anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, Imperial Army veteran Waichi Okumura frowned when he heard of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are enshrined.
Like a squadron of ants, he and fellow soldiers fought World War II as they were told, Mr. Okumura said. But he refuses to worship at the Tokyo shrine, which also honors 14 officials convicted by a postwar Allied tribunal as Class-A war criminals.
“Those who fought in the war of aggression and died are not gods,” he said in a recent documentary about the war.
“The Ants” [“Ari no Heitai”], the story about Mr. Okumura and fellow soldiers left in China after the war, attempts to prevent war memories from fading into oblivion. The film came as many politicians, scholars and journalists shrug off memories of the war and as Mr. Koizumi’s visit to the shrine aggravates Japan’s relations with Asian neighbors and draws criticism from the United States.
The film, directed by Kaoru Ikeya, did not feature celebrities or generate a media blitz as some nationalistic war movies have, but it played to packed theaters in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, causing managers to increase the number of showings.
In hopes of saving some of Japan’s military might, 2,600 of the 59,000 soldiers in Mr. Okumura’s division were ordered to remain in Shanxi province after the war ended. They joined the Chinese nationalist army of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, fighting the communist army led by Mao Zedong. The movie suggests that Japan violated the Allied 1945 Potsdam Declaration, which called for Japan’s unconditional surrender and the complete disarmament of its military.
The film is significant because Mr. Okumura is one of the few former soldiers willing to speak out about Japan’s wartime atrocities. Many are reluctant to do so, and some glorify the war. A sense of guilt kept Mr. Okumura from discussing the war with his wife before he and the film crew traveled to China last year, he said.
During the Chinese civil war, 550 of the remaining Japanese soldiers died and 700, including Mr. Okumura, were taken prisoner by the communists. Mr. Okumura came under mortar attack in battle, was injured and lost all his teeth and the hearing in his left ear. Meanwhile, the Japanese commander, Gen. Raishiro Sumita, left his men behind and returned home.
In the film, testimony from survivors on both sides reveals a secret agreement between Gen. Sumita and nationalist Gen. Yan Xishan. The latter asked Gen. Sumita to leave Japanese troops in China to help fight Mao, according to the film and earlier studies, and is said to have promised to protect the Japanese commander, accused of war crimes.
Coming home nine years after World War II, Mr. Okumura was appalled to learn that the Japanese troops in China had been discharged from the military while fighting there and denied military pensions. Officially, they were regarded as “volunteers” in the Chinese nationalist army.
Mr. Okumura and others waged a legal battle against the Japanese government to show that the military had kept them in China. Despite the evidence he provided, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ final appeal in September.
“They completely ignored it,” Mr. Okumura said. “Otherwise, they would have had to admit Japan’s breach of the Potsdam Declaration.” Mr. Okumura and the film crew traveled to China and covered more than 2,000 miles in 22 days. He managed to cross mountainous areas leaning on his stick.
While painstakingly looking for evidence, Mr. Okumura also had to face his past and atrocities committed by the Imperial Army. Like other recruits, he was forced to stab an innocent Chinese with a bayonet during training because superior officers wanted “to test his courage.” In the film, he revisited the site of his first killing, in Ningwu County, and prayed for the dead.
“We were turned into so-called killing machines,” he recalled. “I want to reveal how the military deprived us of our rational nature.” He also said that he acted as a lookout while fellow soldiers committed rape.
Asked in the film whether he, too, had raped Chinese women, he responded in the negative. But he emphasized that the issue was not “who did or who didn’t, but a problem of the whole military.” In a compelling scene, a Chinese woman tells Mr. Okumura how she was kidnapped, confined and gang-raped by seven Japanese soldiers and later by a Chinese officer when she was 16. But she offered forgiveness to Mr. Okumura for killing innocent Chinese.
Toward the end, the film suggests U.S. complicity in the issue. Mr. Okumura said he discovered a letter in China from Gen. Sumita telling Gen. Yan that he would return to Japan under an assumed name to meet with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces. Gen. Sumita, whose son Satoshi later became governor of the Bank of Japan, went unpunished.
The film showed that “the Allied powers were accomplices,” said Asaho Mizushima, a law professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “The Japanese soldiers fought the communists so the United States didn’t have to send its own troops.”
“They were the victims of multiple countries and also victims of the Cold War,” Mr. Mizushima said. “That war against China was the first Japan fought after World War II. As many as 550 soldiers were the first victims. … The [Japanese] government, however, cannot admit it.”
“If they did, they would have to implement a fundamental review of the national government in the postwar era. At stake is not only Japan’s breach of the Potsdam Declaration but a question of war-renouncing Article 9. Japan was not disarmed after all, and the U.S. knew it. Mr. Okumura is a living witness to that.”
“The Ants” won the Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Documentary at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in April and may be entered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
“The film tenaciously pursued what war is all about. Our generation failed to do that, as we stopped discussing it at a certain level and put economic growth first. Everybody thinks so, I believe,” said Kenichi Hanzawa, a supporter of the film who retired after working for major financial companies. “This is probably the last resistance from the war generations.”
Today, critics say, more people dwell on changing Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution and defend the visits of political leaders to Yasukuni.
They talk about such issues “without discussing what the Imperial Japanese Army was all about in the war,” said Mr. Ikeya, the director of “The Ants.” The film tells you that “the war is not over yet. Once you go to battle, the war won’t let you go until you die.”