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May 21, 2008 4:23 pm


J. G. Ballard and the Second World War



J. G. Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun and other acclaimed fiction, applauds Alexander Sokurov's remarkable film portrait of Hirohito, The Sun, in Tuesday’s Guardian. Ballard writes:

“Should Britain and France have stayed out of the war? No, emphatically. But we should have declared war on Germany only when we could win. By 1943, Hitler's forces were being ground down by the Red Army, and we would have had every chance of defeating the Germans in western Europe.

“As someone who was so affected by our war with Japan, I am more interested in the consequences of the British government's misguided decision. Would Japan have attacked Pearl Harbor, the most significant event of my life, if Britain and France had not declared war on Germany in 1939? I suspect not. The attack was a desperate gamble prompted by the American oil embargo, which would be lifted only if the Japanese withdrew from China. The oil that Japan eyed so eagerly was in the Dutch East Indies, but deterred by a strong British, French and Dutch presence, the Japanese might well have yielded to American demands and withdrawn from China.

“The Japanese tanks that I saw rolling into Shanghai on the day of the attack might have been moving in the opposite direction. The lives of millions of Chinese and Asians would have been spared, along with thousands of British soldiers in Burma and Singapore.”

Go here to read Ballard’s essay Secrets of the Emperor’s Bunker and his revisionist perspective on the Second World War.

And Sokurov's The Sun is a must-see movie.
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Jonathan Dresner - 9/14/2005

OK, then; I usually don't recommend that people go read something that I find implausible, without telling them why, first. My mistake. I feel for Ballard a bit: he's clearly working through personal traumas and tribulations in this counterfactual, but that's just weak wishing, not historical realities.

The main mythology which Sokurov is dealing in is the image of Emp. Hirohito as "childlike" and distracted. In fact, though there's a great deal about the book that is weak, Bix's biography of Hirohito (and Dower's book on the occupation) makes it clear that the Emperor was in much greater control of himself and his circumstances than the "distracted figurehead and fallen god" myth suggests.

The Japanese perpetuation of these myths is part of the national mythology of Japan as having been "led" or "decieved" into war by influential elements which preyed on the weakminded figurehead emperor.


Mark Brady - 9/13/2005

When I wrote of Ballard’s “revisionist perspective”, I made no comment about the quality of his revisionism! And, indeed, it does seem difficult to imagine that Japan would have withdrawn from China before 1941. Regarding the question of Japan’s attack on European colonies in Southeast Asia, is it plausible to envisage the British, Dutch and/or French offering to trade oil with Japan in defiance of the U.S.? And with regard to Ballard’s preference that the British and French had not declared war on Germany in September 1939, I guess Ballard would say they should never have made an unenforceable commitment to Poland in March 1939. Then it wouldn’t have been a question of ignoring treaty obligations because none would have been entered into. If Britain and France were to have stopped Hitler, the occasion surely was Munich, not six months later after Hitler had progressively annexed the Czech lands (Sudetenland, Bohemia-Moravia). Hitler didn’t want to fight the British empire so why would he have provoked Britain into a war over east-central Europe in 1940-41?

I’m interested to read any further thoughts you might wish to share on common mythologies about Japan and why Sokurov’s film is likely based on them. I’m sure you know a lot more about these mythologies than do I or most other readers. In fact, I originally wrote that The Sun seems to be a must-see movie. Perhaps it isn’t, after all.

Is anyone familiar with Sokurov’s films about Hitler and Lenin, and would like to tell us something about them?


Jonathan Dresner - 9/13/2005

...you mean ahistorical wishful claptrap, then yes, Ballard is a revisionist. It is almost impossible to construct a reasonable counterfactual that involves Japan withdrawing from China before 1941 rather than continuing the escalation and expansion which had gone on for four years. It is only slightly less difficult to find a way that Japan might have avoided attacking European holdings in Southeast Asia; it would require that the US embargo not have gone into effect as quickly, and that would require that the British, et al., ignored their treaty obligations and provocations for over two years while Hitler entrenched himself in Poland.

Sokurov's film sounds like it's based on common mythologies (some of them, to be fair, perpetuated by Japanese scholars) rather than the latest scholarship, to boot.

Wishing is not history.

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