THE BLOG

Japan's Grief Is the World's Grief. It Wasn't Always Like This.

03/23/2011 04:23 pm 16:23:57 | Updated May 25, 2011

Japan's capacity to absorb its current natural and made-made assaults is one of those important teaching moments we keep hearing about. Civility and dignity rule instead of rioting and looting. Says a lot about this ancient culture. So it may be a surprise to many Americans under 65 to hear we did not always sing in praise of these worthy folks.

For example, if you're a Pacific theater combat veteran from the diminishing 'Greatest Generation' you might have been singing this Perry Como hit from the war torn '40s. And if you're not, the song IS REALLY OFFENSIVE.

Well, a hubba, hubba, hubba, let's shoot some breeze
Say, whatever happened to the Japanese?

A hubba, hubba, hubba, haven't you heard?
A hubba, hubba, hubba, slip me the word
I got it from a guy who was in the know
It was mighty smoky over Tokyo

A friend of mine in a B-29 dropped another load for luck
As he flew away, he was heard to say
A hubba, hubba, hubba, yuk, yuk

How times have changed. Back then folks on the West coast were expecting Japanese air raids at any moment. Passions and fears ruled. When you read, or better yet, listen to Edward Herrmann's absorbing narration (Random House Audio) of Laura Hillenbrand's riveting book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, you come away with a visceral appreciation of the rampant anxiety in America and why anti-Japanese sentiment was so very virulent and, most of all, what it means to survive as an American GI imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp. These were some of the most horrific and degrading conditions we humans can create.

The reason this book sits atop various best seller lists is, like all well-told stories, it pits a compelling and tenacious hero against an unrelenting and sadistic villain.

Louis Zamperini is the good guy, an American Olympic gold- winning miler and the fellow manning the bomb-bay doors of a B24 on its way to Japan when enemy flak forces it down somewhere over the Pacific. For over a month Zamperini and two crew members are adrift in a two-man raft somewhere, they-know-not-where. While eating raw pelicans and trapping occasional rain water, the scalding equatorial sun makes their upper lips burn and crack, ballooning so dramatically it obstructs their nostrils while the lower lips bulge against their chins. And that's just for starters.

Fighting off self-entitled sharks, they finally do get rescued by the wrong side and this former hell-raising, competitive Olympian spends the next several years as a prisoner in Japan.

Virtually nothing about Japan's prisoner policies conformed with the Geneva Convention, writes Hillenbrand. To be an enlisted-man POW under the Japanese was to be a slave.

The villain doing the breaking part in Unbroken is a mere corporal they called The Bird, whose domination of prisoners made Bridge on the River Kwai look like Hogan's Heroes. The Bird got sexual satisfaction from the brutal beatings he administered daily: fracturing their windpipes, rupturing eardrums, shattering their teeth, tearing one man's ear half- off. As the most sadistic guard in all of Japan, he practiced Judo on appendectomy patients. Gripped in the ecstasy on an assault he howled and wailed, drooling and frothing sometimes sobbing tears running down his cheeks." That's right, we're talking Olympic-sized sociopath against a real Olympian.

In addition to being slapped and beaten daily, Zamperini and his fellow POWs were subjected to medical experiments. More than 10,000 prisoners and infants all throughout the Japanese POW system were used as test subjects in bio and chemical warfare. In addition, Dengue fever and Beriberi were rampant in all the camps.

Above all, Unbroken is a riveting and true story of survival and triumph in unimaginable situations and how one person with enormous tenacity and an Olympic-sized need-to-win, could not be broken.

While some actor's over-ripe narration would overwhelm a dramatic story like this, Edward Herrmann's nuanced reading allows the listener to collaborate in creating the affecting images Hillenbrand creates so well on the page.

This is a winning combination of story, performance and a just a bit of hubba-hubba. But beware: the Japan of WWII and the Japan of today -- the contrast is stark.