April 22, 1999

A Tojo Battles History, for Grandpa and for Japan


TOKYO -- Yuko Tojo stiffens in her chair as she recalls how her beloved grandpa vanished at the end of World War II and her mother eventually told her that he had been killed on the battlefield.
Hideki Tojo was hanged as a war criminal, but was he a great Japanese patriot?

Then, when she was in the fifth-grade, she moved to Tokyo from the remote village where she had been sheltered during the war and its aftermath, and the other children teased her by making faces as if they were being strangled. She did not understand, and her mother would not explain.

She heard the mysterious word "koshukei" whispered about her grandfather, and so finally she looked up the word in a picture dictionary. It meant "to be hanged to death," and the dictionary included a picture of a man in a black hood being hanged from a gallows. Suddenly everything became clear.

Now, 50 years after a U.S.-backed tribunal hanged her grandfather, Hideki Tojo, as a war criminal -- he was Japan's wartime prime minister and the man who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor -- Mrs. Tojo is leading a campaign to revise his image. In just a few years, she has been remarkably successful in winning a measure of public support in Japan for her portrayal of Tojo as a national hero.

"He died for his country," she said firmly in an interview in the building where she keeps an office to fight for his memory. "He died to save his people."

Mrs. Tojo, 59, spoke on the sofas in the lobby of the building, steadfastly refusing repeated suggestions that her office might be more interesting for an interview, and she was accompanied by a burly man, her aide, who towered over her but ran about on her instructions to fetch tea and newspaper clippings.

Mrs. Tojo's campaign is part of a larger struggle by Japanese conservatives to change the way Japan perceives its past, so that children can feel pride rather than shame for what their grandparents and great-grandparents did in the war.

The issues are extremely sensitive both within Japan and among neighboring countries -- where millions died during Japan's invasions and brutal occupations -- but there is little doubt that it is becoming more acceptable than ever before to say openly in Japan that Tojo was a great man or that Japan had no choice but to attack Pearl Harbor.

"This isn't a private matter about my grandpa," Mrs. Tojo said, somehow managing to speak both primly and passionately. "To improve the image of Tojo is to improve the image of wartime Japan, and that's my aim."

Mrs. Tojo first stepped into the limelight a few years ago, writing a book about her grandfather that became a best seller, with 100,000 copies sold. Then there was a movie, "Pride," which portrayed Tojo as a gentle hero and was the highest-grossing Japanese movie in the first half of last year.

Another sign of the growing assertiveness of the revisionist movement was the huge success of an adult comic book, Sensoron, which came out last year and has sold 550,000 copies so far. It portrays Tojo as trying "to protect the honor of Japan" and argues that the root cause of World War II was that white people were colonizing Asia and that the United States was provoking Japan.

"Some Asian country had to stand up against Western white imperialism," the book declares. "And Japan did."

Just this month, Tokyo voters elected as their new governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist who has denounced as "a lie" the Rape of Nanking -- an assault on the Chinese city by Japanese troops in 1937 in which, most historians believe, tens of thousands died.

"With the United States occupation after the war, there was mind control over the Japanese people about their history, and only now is the mind control being lifted." Mrs. Tojo said. "Now is the first time that many people are learning the real history of Japan."

Leaning forward in her chair, putting down her canned tea, Mrs. Tojo suddenly grew even more intense.

"People always talk about Hitler and Tojo in the same breath," she said fervently. "But they were utterly different. Hitler murdered the Jews, but Tojo didn't kill his own people.

"Japan was encircled by hostile nations before the war, and it was strangled by sanctions and had no resources," she added. "So General Tojo, for the sake of the survival of his people, had to resort to arms."

This interpretation of history does not find many followers elsewhere in Asia, and some Chinese and Koreans worry that Japanese denials of wartime atrocities mean that the country is likely to become more militaristic and belligerent in the coming decades.

But Yasuaki Onuma, a law professor and leader in the efforts to get Japan to atone for wartime atrocities, said that while right-wing historical revisionists like Mrs. Tojo are becoming more outspoken and visible, fundamentally that is because they are losing ground.

Onuma noted that in recent years the Japanese government has apologized more openly than ever for wartime misconduct and has acknowledged some brutalities in recent editions of school textbooks.

"These changes have frustrated right-wing people," Onuma said. "They feel desperate, and so they have become more vocal."

Mrs. Tojo comes across in conversation as a staunch nationalist, but not as particularly anti-American. Indeed, she recently returned from a trip to the United States, where she visited Pearl Harbor to pay her respects to those killed in the 1941 attack. She also dropped off her daughter, who is now studying English in Seattle.

It might seem odd for General Tojo's great-granddaughter to be studying in the country that he attacked. But Mrs. Tojo says that the general's dying wish, expressed in writings to his family members, was to have reconciliation among the wartime enemies and some kind of joint memorial service.

For now, Mrs. Tojo is planning to continue her campaign to restore her grandfather's image by building several memorial halls that would portray the truth of the war as she sees it. She says her campaign is inspired by her mother's counsel when Mrs. Tojo was a girl and no one would play with her because of her family name.

"When we were constantly persecuted, Mom always insisted to us that grandpa had died for his country," Mrs. Tojo recalled, pausing with a wistful smile. "She used to say, 'Be brave and be proud!' "

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