I’m not going to go on a rant about Tom Hanks recent remarks about why we fought the Japanese during WWII, but I do have a comment or two to make. He said:
Back in World War II, we viewed the Japanese as ‘yellow, slant-eyed dogs’ that believed in different gods. They were out to kill us because our way of living was different. We, in turn, wanted to annihilate them because they were different. Does that sound familiar, by any chance, to what’s going on today?
It is easy to make ignorant statements like that when you decide you need to make a political point. We see it everyday in the three-ring circus we call politics. Bending history to fit your ideological point of view is nothing new and there’s certainly nothing so special about Tom Hanks that he’s above such nonsense. But he ought to know better, especially after making this new HBO miniseries about the Pacific war.
My dad served in the Army for 36 years and was on Saipan, Leyte and Okinawa. Unlike Hanks, he actually fought the Japanese in some very tough battles – especially the last one. He never talked about it much when I was a kid, although when old friends would stop by at the posts where we were assigned, I’d hear some of the stories by getting myself in an unobserved position in the next room and quietly listening.
I don’t remember he or any of his friends ever reflecting the sort of attitude Hanks would have us to believe was prevalent then. Sure, they referred to them as “Japs”, but not because they thought it was derrogatory or because they believed them to be “different”, but because, well, that’s what they were. The story I remember most concerned Saipan. As he told it, you could tell the memory had an effect on him. He told about Japanese families – women, kids – jumping off a cliff to avoid capture (“Suicide cliff” in Saipan). You could tell he thought it was awful and it was clear in the telling that the memory was vivid. They’d brought in Japanese speakers to try to talk the families out of jumping, but the indoctrination and the culture were so strong that they jumped anyway.
If you want to “annihilate” someone, you don’t make that sort of effort to save them. If you consider them as “different” in the way Hanks intimates, such things wouldn’t shake you as it obviously did my father and those he was with.
He said that the only Japanese captives they ever took were those who’d been either knocked unconscious before capture or were so badly wounded they couldn’t avoid it. Certainly they were “different” in the sense that their honor and culture called upon them to do things American culture would never call on its soldiers to do, but that didn’t make them less than human to my father. He certainly wasn’t at all pleased with the way the Japanese treated prisoners of war and held a hell of grudge about that. But I got the impression that he considered the Japanese barbaric because of that, not less than human. He held them responsible for that conduct because they were human beings. And after the war, we shocked them with the most humane occupation imaginable and the rebuilding of their nation.
The reason my dad and hundreds of thousands of other Americans fought the Japanese wasn’t because they were “different” racially or believed in a different god. Nor did they do it with the aim of “annihilating” them. It was because the had attacked the United States, were the enemy and that enemy had to be defeated. Period. My father and his comrades would have fought the Germans with the same ferocity they fought the Japanese had they been in Europe.
Tom Hanks is a fine actor and an excellent film maker. But he should stick with what he knows. Deciding how those fighting the Japanese thought of their enemy isn’t one of them. Making a film about them doesn’t suddenly make him some sort of expert in that regard either. And, pretending to know what motivates those of us who fight our enemies of today is just as mistaken.