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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Documentary tells the story of one veteran's fight for justice

Staff writer

It took nine excruciating years for Waichi Okumura to make it home after the end of World War II, but that wasn't the end of his ordeal. When he finally set foot in Japan, instead of receiving a warm homecoming, he was treated like a refugee and denied his rights as a veteran.

News photo
Kaoru Ikeya, director of the documentary "The Ants," poses Thursday in front of a poster for the film at his office in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

In the documentary "The Ants," which opens on July 22, 47-year-old director Kaoru Ikeya chronicles Okumura's fight to clear his name of a false charge of desertion, and to reveal a secret pact between China's Nationalist Army and the Japanese military that had remained buried for over 60 years.

Okumura, now 81, was one of 2,600 soldiers from the Imperial army's First Imperial Unit who stayed behind in Shanxi Province, China, after Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces in August 1945. The soldiers were ordered by their superiors to join the Nationalist Army of China and hold off the communists of the People's Liberation Army, who were locked in a war for control of China.

The troops "obeyed their orders and kept on fighting like an army of ants," Okumura recalls in the film.

In the ensuing battles, 550 Japanese died and over 700 were captured and pressed into forced labor. Okumura himself barely survived his ordeal in a coal mine as a prisoner.

But when he returned to Japan in 1954, something far more cruel lay in store: The government nullified his military registration in 1946, making him ineligible for a veteran's pension.

The government claimed the soldiers who stayed were deserters who voluntarily stayed behind to fight in China's civil war.

For over half a century, Okumura has been collecting evidence to prove his innocence and correct a historical falsehood.

"I have tremendous respect for people who seek the truth," director Ikeya said when asked why he made the film.

By the time he met the former soldier in April 2004, 13 veterans, including Okumura, had filed suit against the government demanding full reinstatement of their military pensions. But not only were their demands rejected by the Tokyo District Court that same month, they were also largely ignored by the media.

But Okumura wasn't prepared to let his fight go at that. He jumped at Ikeya's documentary idea, sending him boxes of materials he had collected within a week of their first meeting. The documents Okamura collected served as the basis of the film.

"It's difficult for the older generation to talk about the war, but at the same time, they are all waiting to tell their story," Ikeya said in explaining Okumura's zeal.

Filming began in late 2004 and yielded 150 hours of footage shot in both Japan and China. Off screen, the veterans experienced another defeat, this time at the hands of the Tokyo High Court in early 2005.

On screen, Okumura visits old battlefields and struggles to tell his wife how he killed a man during the war.

The film reaches its defining moment with a letter Okamura uncovers in Shanxi Province in early summer 2005 that reveals that Gen. Raishiro Sumida of the First Imperial Unit and Nationalist Army Gen. Yan Xishan made a pact to keep a part of the Japanese forces in China. In return, Sumida was granted Nationalist Army protection as he traveled back to Japan.

The movie shows Okumura stabbing the incriminating letter with his finger. Here is the vital piece of evidence proving his version of events is true. But unlike a Hollywood blockbuster, this film has no happy ending. The Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs' final appeal last December despite the evidence.

The top court ruled that the letter could not be regarded as proof that such a pact existed and upheld the lower court decisions that Okumura and the others had remained in Shanxi Province of their own will.

"The court never really intended to review the case," Ikeya said.

But his respect for Okumura is undiminished.

"Okumura wasn't fighting in court to take revenge against the country," he said. "It wasn't the military pension that he was really asking for. He was fighting to set the record straight.

"In other words, he was in the trial to pursue the truth for the rest of us."

Ikeya, born in Tokyo, became fascinated by China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and believes documentaries have an impact that outweighs fiction.

"It's amazing how an event that took place 60 years ago still grabs hold of a man's life," he said, reflecting on the fervor Okumura showed during the shooting.

The former soldier is still a campaigner, and Ikeya hints a sequel may be in the works. Okumura is now focused on publishing his biography and selling advance tickets to the movie.

"Off screen, he is just another 'shochu' (distilled spirits)-loving old man," Ikeya said of his hero.

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