Veterans weigh in on 'Emperor'

A panel discussion that followed the preview screening of the feature film, “Emperor” revealed two distinct lines of thought concerning the story of how America dealt with Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his ruined nation in the aftermath of World War II.

The film was shown on Feb. 26, during The American Legion’s 53rd Washington Conference. Panelists included Legionnaire and World War II veteran Bill Christoffersen, producers Gary Foster and Eugene Nomura, and historical consultant Michael Green.

Bill Detweiler, past national commander of the Legion and consultant for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, served as moderator. The question of the evening, he said, was whether the decision to keep Hirohito on as emperor -- for the sake of a more peaceful Japan -- was a good and proper one.

The film’s narrative reveals how Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his aide, Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers, determined the fate of Hirohito -- revered as a god by his people but reviled as a war criminal by most Americans. The movie debuts in theaters nationwide March 8. Producers of the film are encouraging Legionnaires to watch it and have panel discussions at their posts afterward to address the issues it raises.

Green, a professor at Georgetown University, believed that protecting Hirohito was the right thing to do. “Without the emperor, Japan would have ventured into chaos. Without Japan beginning to rebuild, we would have had a heck of a time responding to Korea … we would not have been able to contain the Soviets in the Pacific and, today, it’s the U.S.-Japan alliance that gives us the best chance we have, should China rise.”

Gary Foster, one of the film’s producers, said his creative team wanted to tell the story of “how these two countries had somehow, after a brutal battle, found a way to make peace, and to have a lasting peace.” It was a story that Foster knew little about and “I marveled at the fact that … people found a way to take a look at the bigger picture, and to try to figure out -- it’s not about revenge, it’s about long-term peace and how to move forward.”

“Emperor” zeroes in on the tragedy of a war-torn Japan, the desperate state of a half-starving population, and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“I was a little bit disappointed that it didn’t show what brought us to dropping that bomb,” Christoffersen aid. “I was 18 years old, in the infantry, spent all my time in the Pacific, seeing kamikaze attacks and other things. And some of the inhuman things that went on by the enemy to our soldiers, I can’t even describe and I won’t.

“If it hadn’t been for that atomic bomb, I wouldn’t be sitting here. We were just over their horizon, waiting to make sure that treaty was signed. And had it not been signed, we would have invaded Japan, and a lot of us -- I’d say multitudes of us -- would have not come home.”

Christoffersen, who fought in the Philippines, thought that “Emperor” should have included some background on what Japanese forces did to Americans in the Pacific. “Our young people coming up in the United States today see this movie, and (it doesn’t) show any of the things that brought us to dropping that bomb.”

Green agreed that it would have been good to show what got America into the war, but wondered if a younger generation of Americans would be able to “see between the lines that this is what Japan brought upon themselves.”

Some scenes were shot that showed people inside Fellers’ office, looking at horrific images of American troops in Japanese prisoner of war camps. “And we chose not to include it,” Foster said, “because we felt that it would be difficult to tell both stories …. Our hope is that people will see this movie and delve further into reading and looking into the history of what happened in World War II in the Pacific.”

Detweiler pointed out to the producers that the Pacific War “left a lot of scars and it is clear that Bill (Christoffersen) was telling us this. And I don’t know if you’re going to put out a DVD eventually and put some extras on it, but you might want to think about what he’s telling you.”

“No doubt,” Foster said. “We have tremendous pride for the sacrifice that was made by the soldiers of the U.S. during the war. In fact, I think this film honors not only the overall global war, but the tough decisions made … and the world is a better place for it.”

“It’s a tough call that the directors and producers had on how much to tell the story of the war itself,” Green said. “But I think the way you did it is going to make the most impact in terms of how this is debated.”

Christoffersen stuck to his argument. “I still think it should have shown a little background …. One thing I want you all to remember, our freedom is not free.”

Several audience members commented on the film and asked questions. Jake Comer, also a past national commander of the Legion, said he fully supported Christoffersen's position on the film and thought it should have opened with a scene about the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It would show why we had to drop the bomb,“ Comer said. “They started the war, not us. But it looked like that we were starting something there with the (atomic) bombing of two cities. I would like to see the start of the war, showing Pearl Harbor, and then go into the bombing of the two cities.”

Showing the Pearl Harbor attack, Green said, “would also have shown how angry the American people were, and how extraordinary some of these (later) decisions were.”

Douglas Williams, a Legionnaire and legislative affairs chairman for the Department of Michigan, noted schools usually pay scant attention to World War II and the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings. “I think you’ll find that, a lot of times, the curriculum doesn’t even get there.”

Williams then asked Christofferson -- who fought under MacArthur’s command -- if the film’s portrayal of the general as “somewhat of an egomaniac” was accurate.

“Well, you’ve asked me a question that if I answer, you’ll probably throw me out,“ Christoffersen said. Then he mentioned the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, where MacArthur made his famous “I have returned!“ announcement after being driven from there by the Japanese in 1942. “Yeah,“ the Pacific War veterans chuckled. “After everything was settled down!”