Disney has taken pains to soften its Pearl Harbor movie so as not to offend Japanese audiences: It altered scenes slightly, changed epithets such as "Japs" to "enemies" in the Japanese subtitles and opted to advertise the film as an epic love story rather than a tale of war.
Perhaps the movie makers needn't have bothered. Many Japanese have remarkably little knowledge of what actually happened at Pearl Harbor in 1941, when the Japanese bombed Hawaii, killing 2,403 Americans, destroying three battleships and precipitating the U.S. involvement in World War II.
The movie, which premiered here Thursday before a crowd of at least 25,000 at the Tokyo Dome, may spur some Japanese viewers to find out what really happened in Hawaii and why.
"I was thinking that I should study history again because the movie portrays Japan as a bad nation, and I want to find out what really happened," said Tomoko Nakayama, 30, an editor of a magazine for teenagers.
Indeed, the success or failure of "Pearl Harbor" in Japan is likely to have little to do with how people here feel about war films. Instead, it will come down to the appeal of its love story, its spectacular cinematography and battle scenes and the popularity of Ben Affleck. Young women screamed, "Ben!" and "aishiteru!" as Affleck spoke briefly in front of the 600-square-yard screen at the premiere. "I love you too!" he shot back, apparently recognizing the Japanese expression.
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said in a telephone interview Thursday from Burbank that the Tokyo debut "exceeded our expectations."
Disney Banking On $70 Million in Japan
The movie could do well when it opens here in mid-July, if the reactions of several people after the premiere are any indication.
"It was so fantastic," Noriko Yamamoto, 47, gushed as she emerged from the stadium--home to the Yomiuri Giants baseball team--with her equally enthralled 16-year-old daughter. Like most of those in the audience, she applied for the free preview tickets through a magazine. "The battle scenes were so great."
Japan is the top foreign market for American films, making the success of "Pearl Harbor" here important to Disney. The studio's top international executive has said the movie has the potential to earn at least $70 million in the Asian nation.
The opening-day crowd seemed overwhelmingly young. And though most of those interviewed after the preview and earlier press showings called the movie "spectacular," they noted what they said were minor gripes: a "predictable" love story, a "stereotypical and biased" portrayal of the Japanese military, heroes who do far beyond the impossible, and "an American film with an American point of view."
A magazine editor who saw the movie notes that the bombing of Pearl Harbor took up 40 minutes of the film, while only five minutes were devoted to the Americans' retaliatory bombing of Tokyo in April 1942.
How the movie will go over with the generation that lived through World War II remains to be seen. At least one veteran is eager to see it. "The sky above Pearl Harbor was one page of my youth," Shinsaku Yamakawa, 81, a pilot during the 1941 raid, said in a telephone interview.
Miyoko Fujihashi, 68, who lived through World War II as an elementary school student in Tokyo, believed the advertisements portraying the film as a love story. But she wound up weeping during the bombing scenes, reliving the terror she endured in American counterattacks.
The tremendous thudding and booming in the stadium were so real, so evocative, she said, "it was like living through the B-29 bombings in Tokyo."
She recalls stepping over blackened bodies, children diving into the Sumida River to soothe burning skin, and her younger brother being caught up in the wind vacuums that always followed the attacks. "I just didn't expect such a film," she said, her handkerchief still in hand. "In the beginning, I just cried and thought, 'Why do I have to watch this?' "
Still, Fujihashi says she will definitely recommend the film to her friends and to young people. "We're too used to peace--it's time for us to think about the past," she said.
Schoolchildren have done little thinking about Japan's wartime past over the last decades. It's one reason that folks such as Tokyo homemaker Kumiko Shinya, 55, say they know little about Pearl Harbor. And it's why several people of varying ages randomly interviewed in Tokyo in the last week could at best describe Pearl Harbor as "a sneak attack" by the Japanese and perhaps give the date: Dec. 8, 1941. It is remembered as a day later in Japan than in the U.S. because of the time difference.
Moreover, there is a strong sense in Japan that the country was a victim rather than an aggressor, especially because of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, says Sadao Morikawa, a professor at Waseda University.
Tokyo homemaker Mikako Murakami, 28, typifies Japanese sentiments with her comments: "I feel that Japan got roped into World War II."
Miki Mori, 34, a salaryman in Tokyo, counters a question about Pearl Harbor by noting that he had heard that half the people who participated a survey in the U.S. didn't know about the atomic bombings of the two Japanese port cities.
"I think what is important is not to discuss the rights and wrongs about the conduct itself but to learn a lesson from the incidents," he said. "The [Pearl Harbor] attack without the declaration of war is against the international law, but indiscriminate bombings such as Tokyo air raids by the U.S. were also against international law."
Asked whether he thought that Japan should have bombed Pearl Harbor, moviegoer Rei Matsuzaki, 19, said: "It's not a question of whether it's good or bad, it's one of the strategies Japan used. It didn't have any choice."
Indeed, often voiced here is the theory that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the attack was coming and did nothing to thwart it, looking for an excuse to get into the war raging in Europe.
Schools Teach Little About World War II
To be sure, most Japanese will denounce war of any type when asked. And there are many who think that their nation was completely wrong in World War II and are ashamed. "The Japanese attack was disgraceful and against the samurai spirit," said Shuji Sugai, 49, a salaryman in Tokyo.
Why is there so little taught in schools about World War II in a country with extremely high literacy rates? For one thing, most courses start with ancient dates and run out of time to make it to the 20th century by the end of the school year, educators say.
Moreover, little about World War II is on college entrance exams, so there's little incentive to teach or study it.
Most history textbooks have only a few lines about Pearl Harbor. Some teachers supplement the information with other materials, while many others don't.
In its few paragraphs about Pearl Harbor, a high school textbook published by the Japanese Society of History Textbook Reform notes the economic embargo against Japan by the U.S. and other nations before the Pearl Harbor attack but does not mention the cause: Japan's invasion of China.
The text notes that the U.S. wanted Japan to withdraw from China immediately but that Tokyo viewed such a move as surrendering to Washington. "Therefore the government of Japan decided to make war against the U.S.," the textbook says.
"On December 8th, 1941, at 7 a.m., people got to know by special newscast that the Japanese military [had] erupted into open warfare against the American and British armies. . . ."
It also notes that Japan's aggressions in Southeast Asia thereafter "were to maintain self-existence and self-defense and to liberate Asia from the rule by Western nations--Japan was intoxicated by its triumphs."
In recent years, such textbook descriptions and glossing over of Japan's wartime atrocities have incurred the wrath of Asian nations that were occupied, such as China and Korea.
Some Japanese worry that their nation has never really adequately confronted its militaristic past in the thorough way Germany has been doing. The concerns come at a time when new Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has called for revising the Japanese Constitution, drafted after Japan's World War II defeat, which bars the nation from raising an army for anything more than self-defense.
"The problem is that people are not conscious of any guilt about the past in Japan," said Katsumoto Saotome, an author of wartime books who is chronicling the bombings of Tokyo. "History is just like a rearview mirror. Without any sense--or [with] an inaccurate one--of what's behind us, we cannot drive forward in the right direction. We need to know the past."
Taking stock: Despite a string of recent setbacks, analysts continue to applaud Walt Disney Co. C1