Monday, June 2, 2008

Evils of Disregard and Denial

Having just seen the documentary Nanking, produced under the auspices of HBO Documentary Films and both written and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, I find it hard to avoid returning to my reflections on Hannah Arendt, her concept of the "banality of evil," and Tony Judt's reflection on that concept. Here, again, is Judt's central point:

But if we wish to grasp the true significance of evil—what Hannah Arendt intended by calling it "banal"—then we must remember that what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews [in the Holocaust] is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little.

Perhaps the most important point made by this documentary is that the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Nanking did not matter "so little" but, in fact, mattered a great deal to the Japanese authorities. One might even say that the degree to which these acts mattered increased as one got further from Nanking and closer to Tokyo; but the conclusion from the Guttentag-Sturman script is that just about every step along the chain of command went to great lengths to make sure that eyewitness accounts did not leak out of Nanking while, at the same time, not allowing any harm to come to any of the foreigners who remained after a mass evacuation prior to the entry of the Japanese (whose documents are read by talking-head actors in the film). Nevertheless, both film footage and the foreign eyewitnesses themselves did eventually leave Nanking and still had to contend with intransigent denial from both "official" and "unofficial" Japanese.

I also have a greater appreciation of why so much controversy now surrounds the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. As the Wikipedia entry explains, this controversy emerged from "the enshrinement of the 14 Class-A war criminals in 1978." Those criminals included several key figures involved with the Nanking Massacre:

Based on evidence of mass atrocities, General Iwane Matsui was tried by the Tokyo tribunal for "crimes against humanity". At trial he went out of his way to protect Prince Asaka by shifting blame to lower ranking division commanders. Matsui was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed in 1948. Generals Hisao Tani and Rensuke Isogai were sentenced to death by the Nanking tribunal.

Under the pact concluded between General MacArthur and Hirohito, the Emperor himself and all the members of the imperial family were not prosecuted. Prince Asaka, who was the ranking officer in the city at the height of the atrocities, made only a deposition to the International Prosecution Section of the Tokyo tribunal on 1 May 1946. Asaka denied any massacre of Chinese and claimed never to have received complaints about the conduct of his troops.[32] Prince Kan'in, who was chief of staff of the Army during the massacre, had died before the end of the war, in May 1945.

I do not wish to argue with Judt over whether denial or disregard is the greater evil. What may be more important is that the denial continues, since Japanese filmmaker Satoru Mizushima has made a documentary of his own, The Truth about Nanjing, to refute the Guttentag-Sturman documentary. Ultimately, it probably comes down to quibbling over whether a sin involves commission (denial) or omission (disregard), which often does little than distract from the underlying proposition that, no matter how you cut it, it is still a sin.

No comments: