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War criminal or patriot?

Gen. Hideki Tojo led Japan's World War II effort, for which he was convicted and executed as a war criminal by the victorious Allies.

A half century later, his granddaughter says he got a bum rap.

Indeed, she's just part of a larger movement in Japan, including a soon-to-be-released movie, that agrees with her. Yuko Iwanami's efforts to alter what she says is history's mistreatment of her grandfather began more than eight years ago, when she first opened the stained cardboard box containing his last possessions. Since then, she has written a sympathetic account of his life and helped publish his writings done while he was in prison between 1946 and 1948.

Now, in a sign that her views are gaining wider acceptance in Japan almost 50 years after her grandfather was executed by hanging, the image of Gen. Tojo as warmonger is being overhauled in a mainstream Japanese film. The movie, which stars one of Japan's most popular actors, questions Tojo's prosecution by the Allies after the war in Japan's equivalent of the Nuremberg trials in Germany.

"It says to people who thought he was nothing but a villain that there's another side to it," says Masahiko Tsugawa, who plays Tojo in the film and is the Japanese equivalent of Robert De Niro. As for the Allied war-crimes trial that condemned Tojo, Tsugawa calls it "little more than a retaliatory trial by the winners."

All of this is controversial in Japan, and certainly will be overseas, too. Efforts such as that of Iwanami, who still puts her maiden name, Tojo, on her business cards, strike many Japanese as somewhere between deluded and dangerous. And even the labor union representing workers of the film company that produced the Tojo movie, titled START ITAL Pride, the Fateful Moment, END ITAL vociferously has protested that the film is an effort to gloss over Japan's militaristic past.

"It's a denial of Japan's aggression in the war," says Kunio Takahashi, general-secretary of the Federation of Cinema and Theatrical Workers Union of Japan. "The film's depiction of Tojo as a person who protected the pride of the Japanese is a distortion of historical fact."

Still, the new view of Tojo reflects a larger backlash by some Japanese irked at their government's conciliatory stance over Japan's war actions. They are tired of Japan's apologizing, as government officials have done in several trips around Asia during the past several years. And they seek ways to revise school textbooks and public opinion with a softer view of Japan's role that, they assert, is more accurate.

What critics find worrisome about the new focus on Tojo isn't so much the attempt to change the historic evaluation of Tojo as it is the desire to use the memory of Tojo to make a broader political point. Iwanami, for example, hopes a rethinking of Tojo's image will lead to a rethinking of Japan and the war, itself.

"To have people know the truth about Tojo is to have them know the truth about Japan," she says.

Isao Nakamura, who controls a company that provided financial backing for the movie, has expressed similar sentiments. He also has funded groups pushing to revise textbooks. Toei Co., which produced the film, said tie-ups with companies to finance films aren't unusual and don't influence the content of the film.

Those pushing for a reappraisal have criticized the lumping together of Tojo with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as the epitome of evil in the minds of much of the public in Japan and beyond.

Some historians agree that equating Tojo with his European counterparts among the Axis powers is problematic. Tojo's power never approached that of a dictator, and he never even tried to create the cult of personality that surrounded Hitler and Mussolini. He wasn't powerful enough to prevent his ouster after the fall of Saipan in 1944, well before the end of the war.

Nor was he directly involved in some of the worst atrocities the Japanese committed in Asia. He was serving in Manchuria and Mongolia in 1937, for example, far from the chain of events in China that ran from the Marco Polo Bridge affair to the Rape of Nanking.

Nonetheless, Tojo, who was known as "the razor" for his decisiveness, and impatience with those who weren't, was a forceful advocate of war with the United States and Britain once it became clear the alternative was pulling out of China. He was premier and war minister when Pearl Harbor was attacked in late 1941. And while he claimed to have no direct knowledge of harsh treatment of prisoners of war, in the trial that followed the fighting he readily conceded ultimate responsibility for events that occurred. He was far and away the most powerful figure in Japan during much of the war.

For more than four decades after her grandfather's execution on Dec. 23, 1948, Iwanami, now 60 years old, and her family stayed faithful to Tojo's wish that they never respond to criticism of him or his leadership during World War II. That changed around 1990, when she finally opened a small cardboard box occupation officials passed along to the family.

Because her mother kept the box in a religious shrine within their home and always forbade her from opening it, Iwanami says she assumed the contents were her grandfather's remains. When she unfurled the yellowed silk wrapping _ careful to be sure she was out of sight of her mother _ she instead found what her mother has since told her are Tojo's last possessions: two pencils, sharpened from both ends to tiny nubs; the butt of his last cigarette; a hand-made cigarette holder; a few snippets of his hair; and two religious pendants.

Inside the lid of the box, which she says Tojo built himself in confinement, is a traditional Japanese poem he wrote and dedicated to her brother, Tojo's oldest grandson.

"When I saw these things, I wept," says Iwanami, whose box and story have played an important part in the publicity for the coming film, which will be released May 23. "Nobody knows anything but the political side of my grandfather. With these things, I found the personal side of Tojo."

She went on to write a book about Tojo's life, first published in 1992, in which she says his role in World War II was more a result of being caught up in "the air of the times" than bald, aggressive ambition. The book is titled My Grandfather Hideki Tojo, Speak Nothing of Him _ a reference to her grandfather's instructions for family members to hold their tongues.

Now in paperback, the book has reached sales of 70,000 copies in Japan. Iwanami _ a pleasant, energetic advocate with neat gray hair who tells her story over a cup of tea _ says she has received thousands of letters since writing the book, most of them sympathetic. They still come in at a rate of several each day, she says. She has used the publicity to help gather $76,000 in contributions, which she hopes to use someday to build a memorial in Japan for all the dead of World War II. She also says she has received interest from several publishers for an English-language edition.

Producers of the new Tojo movie sought out Iwanami for advice last June as the script was being drafted. The film takes on the most controversial and defining moment in the formation of Tojo's historical persona: the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which convened May 3, 1946, and concluded Nov. 4, 1948.

Modeled on the Nuremberg trials in West Germany after the war, the so-called Tokyo trial was conducted by the Allies to consider charges against 28 Japanese wartime political and military leaders. Gen. Tojo led the docket.

The filmmakers, who constructed an exact studio replica of the military tribunal, focus on what some Western historians have concluded was at best an awkward effort to punish Japanese actions as war crimes under international laws and at worst simple revenge dressed up as a legal proceeding.

For example, one key charge against the Japanese defendants was wartime "aggression," though as recently as two years before the trial three of the four Allied nations themselves had agreed that aggressive war wasn't a crime. The judge sent to the tribunal from India, Radhabinod Pal _ the one justice with an international law background and the only justice on the multinational military tribunal to find all 28 defendants innocent on all counts _ is a prominent character in the film.

The actor Tsugawa, a dead ringer for Tojo with his head shaved and the general's horn-rimmed spectacles placed high upon his nose, says he was initially attracted to the role because of Tojo's reputation.

"I like playing villains, bad guys, mean guys. He's known as the worst of the worst," Tsugawa says. But he says his image of Tojo turned around "180 degrees" as a result of the film project.

He says Iwanami's book helped him see a personal side of Tojo, a man who fretted about how his grandchildren were turned away from schools during his trial and who spent hours writing letters to his wife from prison. He now sees Tojo, who survived a suicide attempt just before he was arrested, as a man who bravely "lived on for his family" despite being "always prepared for his death."

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