Documentary producer Peter Grilli ‘59 talks to Matt Wilce about Paper Lanterns, his visit to ASIJ and a lifelong love of Japanese culture.
It was a scene many never expected to see in their lifetimes—a sitting US President visiting Hiroshima and embracing a survivor of the atomic bomb blast. Seventy-one years after the devastating bombing of the city, President Obama made a historic speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, May 27, 2016. Among the survivors the President met was Shigeaki Mori, who was 8 years old when the bomb fell. For decades, Mori has spent his time researching the fate of American prisoners of war who were killed in the bomb- ing, reaching out to their families and working tirelessly to see them acknowledged as victims of the bombing. While the President’s em- brace brought him briefly to the attention of the world, Mori’s story was already known to a team of documentarians working to shine a light on this overlooked piece of history. Among the filmmakers was producer Peter Grilli ‘59, President Emeritus of the Japan Society of Boston, who brought Paper Lanterns and its director Barry Frechette to ASIJ, where he spoke to us about his involvement in the project and his family’s role in post-war Japan.
On August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima. Among the hundreds of thousands of people killed in the blast were 12 American POWs who were imprisoned 1,300 feet from ground zero. Among the survivors, witnesses to the devastation that morning, was Shigeaki Mori, who later discovered that the American victims were not recognized among Japan’s memorials and consequently set about registering the victims’ names, tracing their histories and families, with the goal of creating a memorial where there was none. Paper Lanterns centers around Normand Brissette and Ralph Neal, two of the American POW casualties. Mori worked tirelessly over 35 years to track down each of the prisoner’s families with the aim to give some closure and even solace by letting them know what happened. Mori “looked at them not as merely as a symbol of those who had dropped the bomb, but as victims,” says Frechette who directed Paper Lanterns. “They were sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. And they deserved to be treated as such. No matter what uniform they wore. That is Shigeaki Mori’s legacy.” The film is the story of that search and the reconciliation of former foes through simple acts of kindness.
“I had nothing to do with the beginning of the film,” says Peter regarding the project that Barry had already begun work on after his interest was piqued by stories of his uncle’s friend. Barry recalls “My uncle Eddie always talked about his friend who died in Hiroshima, but the magnitude of that never really sank in ... In 2012, I came across a document that the Brissette family had put together and I was just mesmerized by this picture of a 19-year- old man who found himself in Hiroshima and died there.” After initial research online and discovering “the common thread” that ran between all of the POWs’ stories—Mr Mori— Barry journeyed to Japan and shot some research footage at the Moris’ house.
When he saw the early footage, Peter decided to get involved. “My whole life since graduating from the American School has been about bringing Japan and America together in various different ways,” he explains. “Every once in awhile, in order to get a sense of what people out there are interested in with regard to Japan, I’ll go onto Kickstarter and I’ll punch in ‘Japan’ and start looking at Japan-related projects seeking funding. It’s very informative to me in an indirect way, even though most of the projects are of no interest to me. Every once in a while a project pops up that fascinates me and that seems incredibly valuable in some larger way. That’s how I discovered Barry and the Paper Lanterns film project.” Watching the initial interview that Barry had recorded with Mori and hearing the details of his fascinating quest in the Kickstarter campaign Barry had put together convinced Peter to come on board the project as a producer.
Despite a lifetime involved in US-Japan relations Peter admits, “I didn’t know 12 Americans had been killed by our bomb ... I’d been to Hiroshima and Hiroshima had always somehow been part of my life because I grew up in Japan, but I didn’t know anything about this.” Once he got in contact with Barry, they discovered that they lived about 10-miles apart and from there the project really took off.
Peter was no stranger to the world of film, having worked for decades to promote Japanese cinema in the United States. Peter’s work as director of the Japan Society’s New York Film Center also led him to produce several award-winning films “I didn’t consider myself a filmmaker, but I had to bring Japanese content to films I worked on,” Peter told Vivienne Kenrick, whose children also attended ASIJ, in a Japan Times profile. “I had a wonderful role model in Donald Richie,” he said. “I’ve known him since I was about 6, when he used to read to me. I consider him an uncle.”
Peter Grilli would go on to produce several major documentary films about Japan: Shinto: Nature, Gods and Man in Japan (1978); Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden (1993); and a film biography of his friend, the eminent composer Toru Takemitsu: Music for the Movies (1994). He also edited a catalogue of Japan-related documentaries, Japan in Film. In 1981, he facilitated Akira Kurosawa’s visit to New York to attend the first complete retrospective of the famed Japanese director’s films, a project for the Japan Society of New York. This event became the subject of a fascinating profile in the New Yorker, authored by the esteemed writer Lillian Ross. “I’ll never forget the whole Kurosawa experience and the experience of working with Ross on that long profile,” Peter told us. He would continue to work with the renowned director over the following decades, visiting him on set in Japan and interviewing him for the New York Times in 1985. Peter later drew on his relationship with the filmmaker to co- produce for PBS and the BBC a two-hour TV biography titled Akira Kurosawa in 2001.
When Paper Lanterns was screened in Tokyo at the International House of Japan in April 2016, ASIJ’s Japan Center encouraged faculty to attend. Those who did were moved by the film and recognized how much our students could benefit from viewing it. Half-way across the globe, Mia Weinland ‘15 happened to meet Peter at the 68th Japan-America Student Conference in Boston, where there was a screening of the film. Eager to bring Paper Lanterns to ASIJ, Mia reached out to her former high school teachers to encourage them to screen the film for students at ASIJ. Over the following months, the Japan Center worked with Peter and Barry to schedule a screening and visit to campus.
Prior to their visit, the film was screened for around 100 parents, faculty and students. A further 150 students from classes such as Japan Seminar, Modern World History, Japanese 9 and Media Literacy watched the film in their classes, reflected and identified key questions and discussion points to address to the Paper Lanterns crew during their visit on November 8. Barry, Peter and music composer Chad Cannon listened to the students’ responses to their film and answered questions on the film’s themes, their views on the bombings and the filmmaking process.
“Teachers are always searching for authentic experiences for their students,” said Japan Seminar teacher, Kathy Krauth. “I know the interaction with those involved in the production of Paper Lanterns left a significant and lasting impression on the Japan Seminar students, especially the example of individual and personal perseverance and how individual commitment can make a difference in the world.”
Peter’s lifelong connection to Japan dates back to a childhood spent in Tokyo. His father Marcel was a civilian member of GHQ, who came to Tokyo weeks after the war ended in 1945. “One of my father’s jobs was to work closely with a skilled team of nisei [second generation
Japanese-American] military officers who every morning read and translated important articles in the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun. My father would edit their translations and boil them down into a kind of digest of several pages. He would then bring that digest in to the General so that MacArthur could start every day by reading what the Japanese press was saying.”
Peter, his mother Elise and sister Diana ‘62, joined Marcel in Tokyo in 1947. Initially, the children attended elementary school at Washington Heights and Pershing Heights and later moved to ASIJ in 1952 as the Occupation came to an end. “My father was born in Italy and my mother was born in Austria. They both emigrated to the United States around the time of the First World War and got their high school and college education in the States and they met up, I guess in college, and married before the war. So they were naturalized American citizens but they ended up living by far the longest part of their lives in Japan of all places just sort of due to an accident of war.”
“During their early years in Japan, both my parents became increasingly fascinated with this country where they had come to know many artists and creative individuals. After the Occupation, they decided to stay on in Japan instead of returning to America. My father worked in broadcasting with NHK and also wrote music reviews for the Japan Times. My mother studied Japanese art history, wrote books and taught at Sophia University; she also was the art critic for the Japan Times. They continued to live in Tokyo for the rest of their lives.”
Another important role model for Peter was the great historian of Japan Edwin O Reischauer ’27. Reischauer was the first editor of the Chochin yearbook, as Peter himself would be in his senior year. He later was to be one of Peter’s teachers at Harvard. Peter recalls Reischauer’s visits to ASIJ in the 1950s: “Long before he became Ambassador to Japan, he came to ASIJ to give several talks to students. I really admired him. My parents knew him as a friend, and to me he was a very erai sempai [elite upperclassman].” Seeing a graduate of ASIJ leverage his background in Japan in important ways inspired Peter to think “he’s doing something that maybe I could do in my life.”
At that time, there was little focus on Japanese at ASIJ—something that Peter was happy to see has changed. With the United States the victor in war and the occupying force, Japan’s economy and infrastructure yet to recover, there was limited interest among the business community for Japanese culture or language.
“My mother regularly advocated greater involvement by ASIJ students in Japanese cultural activities, but at PTA meetings she was often rebuffed. ‘Nobody is interested in Japan. No one cares about Japan. Why should our students study Japan? When they go off to college in America, no one will be interested.’ This was in the mid-1950s, when Japan was just emerging from the Occupation, and those sentiments may have seemed reasonable at that time. But it sounded terrible to my mother to be told that no one was interested and that it would be a waste of her kids’ time and energy to learn Japanese because it would prove to be useless when they grow up and go out into the world. To her, Japan was the most fascinating country in the world!” Unperturbed by the prevailing sentiment and encouraged by parents who were deeply interested in Japanese culture themselves, Peter took advantage of opportunities outside of class.
“Spring vacation of my junior year, I just took off by myself. I went down to Kyoto, got off the train, rented a bicycle and started biking up in the mountains there and over to the Japan Sea side and then rode up the Japan Sea coast... I just got fascinated with people that I was meeting and places that I was going. So I got into the Japan thing at a pretty early age.”
On graduating from ASIJ, Peter headed to Harvard where he experienced a degree of culture shock. “I was American, right. I’d grown up in Tokyo as an American, but now I was going back to America where I’d never really lived in any kind of significant way ... I got off the boat and I felt like a foreign student. I really know how Japanese foreign students feel when they arrive. I’ve never really experienced anything like it.”
“I did feel more affinity with foreign students than with the totally American students. Harvard is a really complicated place and the range of different backgrounds of students is very, very varied and very complex,” he adds. “I felt very out of place. I was Salutatorian at ASIJ and so I was well educated and I read books and I knew what things were about, but I went to my first classes at Harvard and I was just overwhelmed. There were all these kids who could speak so well—not just that they spoke English, my English was fine, but they had been so much better trained than I. There was this kind of Socratic method and they all seemed so good at speaking up and expressing themselves. I was shy and sort of stunned into silence.” Peter soon found his feet— and his tongue. “I was so admiring of them, then I began to realize that they didn’t necessarily have anything to say. Some of them did, but some of them had the sort of gift of talking without an awful lot of content.”
After his sophomore year at Harvard, Peter took a leave-of-absence for two years, and returned to Tokyo to polish his Japanese language skills and study literature at Waseda University. Then he returned to Harvard and went on to earn his bachelor’s and a master’s in Japanese studies. A Fulbright fellowship to do research at Tokyo University followed. Peter then entered the publishing world, drawing on his experience editing the Chochin and working on the student newspaper at ASIJ.
“My first real job after I finished graduate school was in a publishing company and I can see the direct links there. Simply doing the yearbook was incredibly good training. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be an editor or anything, but I was an editor at this publishing company for six years or so—I’ve not been a publisher since then, but that kind of training was very fundamental and really really important.”
It was Peter’s connection to Japan that proved to be the stronger influence. After working as an editor at Weatherhill in Tokyo and New York, where he specialized in books about Asia, Peter looked for other opportunities to draw on his Japanese background. “I knew I wanted to do US-Japan relations and cultural exchange and that sort of thing. And that’s basically what I’ve done all my life through the Japan Society and other nonprofits organizations.”
Peter began his work with the Japan Society of New York in 1974 as their director of education, later adding film and performing arts to his job description. In 1986, he transferred to WNET, the New York public-television station, and launched the Japan Project Consortium, an effort linking eight major PBS stations in developing Japanese programming and underwriting. In 1989, he was asked by CBS News to be chief Japan consultant for a broad series of programs about Japan centering on the death of Emperor Hirohito and the transition from the Showa to the Heisei era. He later opened an independent consulting office in New York, specializing in Japan-related media and communications. During this time, he also authored numerous articles on Japan, wrote books on Japanese design and the o-furo culture of bathing, and from 1996 to 2000 he served as executive director of the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. Peter is the epitome of a cultural ambassador.
In 2003, in recognition of a lifetime dedicated to cultural exchange between Japan and the United States and his contributions to promoting friendship and understanding, Peter was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon by the Japanese government. He received the award in part for his long service to the Japan Society of Boston— the oldest of the 45 societies—which celebrated its centennial in 2004. His father, Marcel, had also received the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1986 in a rare case of multi-generational honorees.
Peter also received the Shigemitsu Mamoru Award for International Cultural Communications. The honor is named for the wartime foreign minister who signed the surrender documents ending World War II and later worked tirelessly to get Japan accepted into the United Nations. Peter was the third person to receive this award, joining Donald Keene, the prominent scholar of Japanese literature and professor emeritus at Columbia University and the late Kenneth Butler, the longtime director of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies as a recipient.
The Paper Lanterns project draws together many strands of Peter’s life—his childhood in post-war Tokyo, his love of Japanese culture and history, his professional network and connections on both sides of the Pacific and his filmmaking experience—into a neat mizuhiki knot. Even bringing him back to ASIJ. In discussing Paper Lanterns with ASIJ students, Peter said “War is an historical event when terrible things happen, but in some sense it’s an abstraction.
When we hear about 300,000 people dying in Hiroshima, that number is an abstraction—it’s too large and overwhelming for us to comprehend. That’s something that we just cannot understand. When we read history books about war happening and its causes and results, those also may seem to be abstractions. It is important to read history, of course, but for me a much more compelling story is learning about the experiences of individual people in wartime. Everyone suffers in war, and each person, on both sides of the conflict, suffers in a unique and personal way. Hearing their stories makes war immediate and concrete.”
“There was much debate leading up to President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, and many people in the White House and the American government advised him not to go. For an American President to go to Hiroshima would be seen as America’s apology for dropping the atomic bomb, they feared. But, following a long and complex series of discussions, the President decided to visit Hiroshima. In his historic speech at the Peace Memorial Park, he asked the question ‘Why do we go to Hiroshima?’ And he answers by saying we must try to understand the personal experiences of those who perished there in order not to repeat such a terrible event. President Obama stated that ‘ordinary people can understand this.’ To me, that’s the point of our film, and the point of history. War is something that brings horrendous suffering to ordinary people, and it is the ordinary people who suffer much more terribly than the politicians and national leaders who create the war,” Peter told students during the Q&A session.
“For us, an essential audience for this film is young people who may have no prior knowledge of nuclear warfare or the Hiroshima/Nagasaki experience,” he said. “They are the future.”