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Monday, Nov. 24, 2003


High price of media-fabricated heroism

NEW YORK -- Good for her. U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, finally given a chance on TV to have her say, punctured the notion of heroism concocted by the Hollywood publicist placed in Baghdad and the American mass media, ever the willing partner of their government when it comes to war.

Lynch is lucky, too. Unless something goes awfully wrong, she is unlikely to be punished for the fiction in whose creation she had no part. The core of the fiction was harmless, though some of the attendant allegations were repulsive.

Two Japanese soldiers during World War II who were turned into unlikely heroes in a set of two newspaper accounts weren't lucky. After Japan's defeat, they were tried, found guilty and executed.

The story began with an article in the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun -- the predecessor of today's Mainichi Shimbun -- on Nov. 30, 1937. A dispatch from Changzhou, a city between Nanjing and Shanghai, it had the kind of headline that was apparently created to delight the credulous of the day: "A Contest to Cut Down 100 people! Two Lieutenants Already Fell 80." It told of two young officers who pledged to compete to see which could kill 100 people first: Toshiaki Mukai, whose sword was of the famous Seki no Magoroku make, and Tsuyoshi Noda, whose sword was no brand-name product but still "a treasure handed down from his ancestors."

"After leaving Wuhsi, it came about that 2nd Lt. Mukai would move with his corps along the railroad for 26 or 27 km to advance," said the dispatch, which was filed by Asami and two other special correspondents, "while 2nd Lt. Noda would advance parallel to the railroad, so they were parted. The morning after the departure, 2nd Lt. Noda, finding himself in a nameless village 8 km from Wuhsi, dashed into a pillbox and cut down four enemies to become the first to breach the enemy line. Hearing about this, 2nd Lt. Mukai worked himself up that night, jumped into an enemy camp with his men in Henlin Base, and cut down 55.

"Following that, 2nd Lt. Noda cut down nine in Henlin Base, six in Weiguan Base, and, on the 29th, six at Changzhou Station, a total of 25 people. For his part 2nd Lt. Mukai cut down four near Changzhou Station. When we reporters went to the station we happened upon the two being interviewed."

This article ends by quoting the two men. Mukai said, "At this rate, I expect to cut down 100 people by the time we reach Danyang, let alone Nanjing. Noda is the loser. My sword has cut down 56 but its blade is chipped in only one spot, I tell you." Noda said, "The two of us make it a rule not to cut down someone who tries to run. I can't raise my score because I'm working as a--t (censored) but I tell you I'll turn out a big score before Danyang."

The second dispatch two weeks later told the reader that by the time the two officers met next they had killed 105 and 106 people each with their swords but that since they couldn't tell which reached the goal of 100 first, they called it a draw and set out on a new round by raising the stakes to 150 (or to a new total of 150 -- the original report isn't clear on this). The article ends with Mukai showing his Seki no Magoroku to the reporter, nonchalantly standing amid "incoming enemy bullets."

As we read this story today, the two officers' swordsmanship is just about as farcical as that of Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino's latest fare, "Kill Bill." In comparison, a 19-year-old woman soldier in a horrible car crash "going down shooting" sounds like a model of truth.

But some went on to believe the 1937 story long after the puerile militaristic fervor disappeared -- most prominent among them Katsuichi Honda. The famous Asahi Shimbun reporter not only accepted it at face value in his recreations in the early 1970s of the atrocities the Japanese Imperial Army is said to have committed in China but he also went a few steps further. In retelling the story he changed those killed by Mukai and Noda from combatants to civilians, increased the numbers and added details.

If Lynch felt "hurt and embarrassed" when she learned of the story made up for her, Mukai, when he returned to Japan and read the newspaper articles, was "astonished" and "ashamed" -- the latter word used in the Japanese military's sense of ultimate condemnation. That is why Mukai willingly responded to a summons to go to the Chinese war-crimes tribunal set up in Nanjing after Japan's defeat. He thought no sane person would believe such a fantastic story.

Shichihei Yamamoto, who noted the military sense of the word "ashamed" as Mukai used it, wrote a meticulous account of his own life in the Japanese Imperial Army to demonstrate the utter improbability of the killing contest: "Watakushi no naka no Nihon-gun" (The Japanese Military within Myself). In it he marshaled an array of reasons -- not just to annihilate the veracity of the original account but also to explain how such a story may have come about. One point he makes is simple: the Japanese Army in battle would not have tolerated the kind of activities the two lieutenants are supposed to have engaged in. Yamamoto, who died in 1991, was in a position to know.

Like the two men, he held the lowest commissioned rank of second lieutenant. More to the point, like Mukai, he was in an artillery division and, like Noda, he was an adjutant, two of the many facts that the reporter Asami deliberately obfuscated in creating two sword-brandishing killing machines. Mukai, commanding an artillery piece, would certainly have been court-martialed had he left the weapon he was in charge of in the heat of battle. Noda as adjutant couldn't possibly have left his unit to indulge in a personal competition, even if his aim was to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible.

Sad to say, when Mukai asked Asami from his prison cell in Nanjing to provide testimony that his account was a piece of fiction, the reporter refused. And he stuck to his guns to the very end.

In contrast, the Chinese defense attorney Cui Wenyuan was an astute, honorable man. He argued, though to no avail, that if Mukai and Noda told Asami and other reporters any kind of story of their samurai exploits, it was "an after-dinner joke," not a tale told amid "incoming enemy bullets."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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