"Iwo Jima" Shows The Other Side Of WWII

Hiroshi Watanabe, as Lt. Colonel Fujita, far left, and Ken Watanabe, center, as General Kuribayashi are shown in a scene from the World War II drama "Letters From Iwo Jima". AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures

Iwo Jima was one of America's hardest-fought victories in World War II and was one of Japan's bitterest defeats.

Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi expected none of his men to survive. Sixty years later his family cherishes the letters he wrote his wife before the battle began.

"I hope you are doing well," he wrote. "It is the coldest time of year and I am concerned that you might have caught a cold." Such brief words from the General and his men inspired "Letters from Iwo Jima."

"I believe he was simply a human being, who sometimes felt anger, sometimes suffered and sometimes hesitated," Ken Watanabe, who played the general, told Sunday Morning correspondent Barry Peterson. "I would rather call the 20,000 soldiers who died the heroes of a tragedy."

Clint Eastwood directed "Flags of Our Fathers" about Americans fighting in Iwo Jima, and then went to work on telling the other side — what the Japanese went through. It is a huge hit in Japan, taking in more than $36 million. But it is doing more than making big money; it is causing soul searching about a war this country has worked generations to forget.

Tsuruji Akikusa is one of just a handful who came home from Iwo Jima. He had a severely wounded hand.

"Japanese soldiers died an honorable death on Iwo Jima, but people wiped it from their memory and wouldn't talk about it," he said.

For decades, he kept quiet. People assumed his wound was from a factory accident.

"My stories were so cruel," Akikusa said. "My parents would have been shocked."

The defeated soldiers came home to a country that wanted to forget them and the war and focus on rebuilding cities flattened by bombing. So this nation almost as one made a U-turn from militarism to pacifism. And, perhaps out of shame, taught their young almost nothing of that war.

As a result the Japanese actors knew little about Iwo Jima. Watanabe took it on himself to study the general who would not tolerate cruelty to his troops. Kuribayshi studied at Harvard and knew America from his many friends, and was considered by the high command an American sympathizer.

"I was surprised," Watanabe said, "that he had commanded the war in a top position having such an international point of view in that era."

Better than most, he knew he had neither men nor resources to beat the Americans. But despite liking America, despite the prospect of certain death on Iwo Jima, he made a plan and hid his men in caves so they could kill as many Americans as possible.

In the end, both sides paid a ghastly price, 7,000 Marines died in the battle — nearly one-third of all the Marines killed in World War II. And 20,000 Japanese, including Kuribayashi himself, whose body was never found. Many of the Japanese soldiers died by their own hand — preferring suicide to the dishonor of surrender.

Just 1,000 survived. Tsuruji Akikusa was among them. He was captured.

"I feel no guilty for surviving," he said. "No parent wants a son to come home in a coffin."

Akikusa was a radio-man fighting with other soldiers who believed the war had become a hopeless cause and accepted that no matter how brave, they would die — forgotten. If we had won this battle, those who survived would have been sent somewhere else and would have been killed.

The American-made movie tells this story in a human, sympathetic way, but that is not how the rest of Asia portrays Japan's occupying army. In other countries, they remember the massacres and rapes. And they accuse Japan of conveniently forgetting the atrocities and of being unrepentant to this day. Which may be why it took an American to tell this story, said historian John Dower.

"Had this film been made by a Japanese director, the outcry of protest from China and Korea would have been enormous," he said. "It would have been seen as a kind of glorification of people who fought to the bitter end, put country above self, and so on. So there are very strong political constraints against pushing that from the Japanese side."

Eastwood said he started simply wanting to tell the other side of a 60-year-old battle and wound up with a movie that has resonance in today's world.

"When you get various people who are at war because their God's better than your God, nobody can come to any logical, sensible conclusion to that," he said.

Kuribayashi's daughter in law still keeps his letters.

"I seldom get a bath," his last letter said. "I need vegetables so I'm planting a small garden."

"I can't help but feel sorry for him," his daughter-in-law said. "He was a nice man who had such an unpleasant duty."

To America, World War II was the "good war" fought by the Greatest Generation. To the Japanese it was a mistake that dragged on long after many realized the war was probably lost. But for the soldiers on both sides at Iwo Jima, it was about decent people forced to do unspeakable things, and men who lived to hold precious the stories of those who did not.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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