The Sad Story Of A Japanese Gaming Legend Who Pretends War Crimes Never Happened

Here at Total Recall, we deal in history. Partly because I love my video games, but also because as a graduate in the field I love my history as well. So it saddens me deeply when I see people involved in video games trying to mess with real, actual history.

Which leads me to something I read earlier today that I’d never known before, and which has really bummed me out: Koichi Sugiyama, one of the most accomplished and well-known video game composers in the business, likes to pretend some of Japan’s most atrocious crimes during the Second World War never happened.

There are few things worse on this planet than historical revisionists. It’s one thing to analyse events and argue their relevance or influence (as most historical study and debate usually entails), but it’s another to try and pretend things that happened never actually happened, all in the name of a political agenda.

It’s why, for example, people trying to claim the Holocaust is make-believe can be locked up in countries like Germany. Reckless historical revisionism can be, for a lot of people, some serious shit.

There’s no doubting Sugiyama’s achievements in video games. The guy’s work composing the theme to Dragon Quest, for example, will forever mark him as a legend in the field. Actually, in all of Japan, as the catchy song has become one of the nation’s most iconic tunes over the last 30 years. Anime fans will also have a lot of nice things to say about him for his work on the original Gatchaman.

But as this great piece on 1UP points out, there can come a point where a person’s personal life, views and actions negatively impact our opinions of them as a content creator. An example used is Roman Polanski; a great filmmaker, no doubt, but a lot of people won’t watch his movies because he had sex with a 13 year-old girl.

In this case, and for me, my tipping point comes alongside Sugiyama’s views on history. In particular, Japan’s conduct during both the Second Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45 and the Second World War.

Looking past the fact that Japan was invading other countries as an aggressive Imperial power, the nation’s actions during both wars have long been condemned by veterans and historians alike, as they are punctuated by frequent acts of extreme cruelty.

Examples include the Nanking Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, in which an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 of the Chinese city’s civilian population were butchered by Japanese troops over a six-week period. Another is the widespread use of “comfort women” by Imperial forces, a practice which saw tens of thousands of women across Asia seized by Japanese troops and forced into work in army brothels.

As the Wu-Tang Clan so poignantly say, what’s been done can’t be undone, son.

And that’s before we even get to the more general, widespread abuses committed by Japanese troops against both civilian populations and captured enemy forces during the Second World War.

Now, war is a horrible thing. Awful acts are committed on all sides. The Allies, for example, didn’t just bomb Japanese cities, they often firebombed them, levelling entire settlements and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. There’s also the matter of the United States detonating not one but two atomic bombs over cities predominantly occupied by innocent people.

But we’re not here to argue over the acts of the war. Those were, well, acts of war, and have been dealt with one way or another since. As the Wu-Tang Clan so poignantly say, what’s been done can’t be undone, son. As awful as the Allied bombing campaign over Japan was, there has never been any doubt that it took place.

What Sugiyama and his fellow revisionists (or, to use a more correct term, negationists) are doing is something different. They think the scale of Japanese atrocities is simply a concoction of the West, that the years of testimony and research supporting the use of “comfort women” (something acknowledged by the Japanese government itself in 1993) is actually a collection of “fallacies, distortions, biases and factual errors”. Some of his colleagues in negationist movements like the “Committee for Historical Facts” even believe the Rape of Nanking simply didn’t take place.

These men, all of them politically conservative and many of them of an age to remember the war, can be found lightly scattered amongst Japanese politics. Shinzo Abe, for example, Prime Minister of Japan in 2006-07, held similar views. They are deeply committed to their beliefs, to the extent that on June 14, 2007, they took out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, in which they argued that the use of comfort women was “anything but the truth”.

(This report even states Sugiyama initiated the whole thing).

This is not simply “revising” history. That happens all the time, as new research uncovers evidence that alters our accepted views on an event. This is “ignoring” history, putting your head in the sand. Trying to have something stricken from the record. Which is one of the worst things we, as human beings, can do.

I could say I understand what it’s like to grow up being told your entire life you and your people were the “bad guys” in the Second World War, but that would be lying. As an Australian with family who served in both the Australian (some involved with the Japanese bombing of Darwin) and British armed forces, I’ve grown up with my nation’s conscience – at least in this instance – being relatively clean. Having to face up to the acts committed by my ancestors or, in Sugiyama’s case, peers (he was born in 1931), must be a great challenge.

History is, quite literally, our story. It can be both the catalogue of our actions as a species and a reflection of our interpretation of those events. I think it’s one of the most important things on the planet, because it shapes who we are, how we view the world and how we relate to our friends and neighbours.

To purposefully attempt to deny indisputable events, then, really gets under my skin. And, as the 1UP piece highlights, has sadly coloured my views on Sugiyama’s achievements as an artist. I don’t think he’s an asshole. I don’t think he’s a monster. By all accounts he’s a really nice guy who has done a lot of great work for music and video games.

Nor am I saying his views effect the quality of his work. The Dragon Quest theme is catchy as all hell. What’s being affected here is my ability (or lack thereof) to fully appreciate it with the knowledge he has some pretty messed up political views.

Which says as much about me as it does him; many of you probably won’t give a shit! History is for books, and if you dig his music, then you dig his music, etc. But just as there will be people who won’t play Fez because they don’t like Phil Fish, or won’t play a DICE game because it’s published by EA, this crosses a particular line of mine. It’s not like I won’t ever play Dragon Quest ever again, but the next time I hear that iconic theme music, it just sadly won’t be the same.

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