Japan has an intriguing relationship with patriotism, nationalism and its military, tied up with its experience of the Second World War and subsequent international policy. There was recently a big stink about changing the Education Law to define patriotism as an aim of the education system, which shows that even discussing it is still a big issue even now.
Japan is a curious country, as you can see outbursts of extreme nationalism in public, and similar views expressed by public intellectuals and political figures. At the same time, while most Japanese are proud of their country and will always ask you what you like best about Japan (trust me on this), they don’t go for big outward expressions of patriotism. In that respect, they’ve got nothing on South Korea. (Then again, if patriotism looked this good in Japan, I’m sure they’d be all for it.)
So, inspired by this very interesting article on representations of the military and nation in recent Japanese films, I decided to rent one of the films discussed in the article: 亡国のイージス, translatable in English as A Lost Country’s Aegis. I watched it with English subtitles, but was pleasantly surprised to find that my Japanese was good enough to recognise the occasional rough translation or contraction from the original phrase.
First off, it was a really enjoyable film. An action flick with a conscience, it has a Japanese Self-Defence Forces Aegis-class destroyer taken over by a group of nationalist naval officers, who claim that a country without a military is a country without meaning or identity – the ship they control is merely “a shield for a lost nation”. Only the decent, paternal petty officer Sengoku and a gung-ho secret agent stand between Tokyo and the U.S.-developed chemical weapon the ship is carrying.
The nationalists are already in a conflicted position, being assisted in their takeover by some freelance terrorists/commandos from a foreign country. There’s an explicit contrast made between the willingness for mass sacrifice of the commandos and Sengoku’s determination to prevent loss of life (he only shoots to kill once in the entire film). In this way, the film presents a triumphal view of Japanese military personnel, but without the WWII-era attitudes of heroic sacrifice in a losing cause.
This is summed up in Sengoku’s line towards the climax of the film, also the film’s tagline: “生きろ！ 絶対に 生きろ！” (“Live! Above all, you must live!”) The humanist appeal to life over death is for me, one of the more interesting aspects of the resurgence in patriotic attitudes in Japanese film.
EDIT: I just noticed a post on nationalism in Northeast Asia, written about the same time as this post. Although the writer is blogging from Korea, it deals with all three countries in the equation – Korea, Japan and China.