I will venture to assume (even though I know if I “assume” I make an “ass” out of “u” and “me,”)that most foreigners here are just as shocked as I was when they realize how little young Japanese know about World War II, and their tendency to see their country as the victim of American aggression.
It’s a topic I’ve learned to just avoid. To so many Japanese people, any conversation about the war starts and ends with Hiroshima. Full stop.
But the older generation knows better.
They don’t have to be much older. My father-in-law, 70, remembers watching his father bicycle, hidden by a cover of darkness, over 100km to a relative’s farm to get food for his starving family. (For reasons he didn’t understand, this was illegal.) He remembers how the neighborhood he grew up in pooled their resources together to buy a few eggs for him when he was on the verge of losing his sight to malnutrition. Since he was the oldest son, that would have been a disaster for his family.
He remembers the American soldiers who always had bubble gum and chocolate for the children. He would join in the gaggle of children following the soldiers’ jeep down the street. FIL’s speaks almost no English at all, but to this day, he can say “Gimme chocolate!” like a native.
But if you talk to people just a bit older than him, you will find a much darker version of events.
Last night I watched a surprisingly frank (for Japanese TV anyway) documentary on NHK (public television.) They interviewed several people in their 90s, all from the same town in Nagano, about events during the war. Many had never spoken of their experiences before. One man put it bluntly, “My family, raised in peace time, would never be able to understand why I did the things I did. We were less than human.”
Another man described how on the day he arrived in China, he and the new arrivals were taken to a clearing in the woods where a Chinese man was tied to a tree. He was alive. They were told to use him for bayonet practice. At first, the new arrivals thought this must be some sort of sick joke, but soon realized otherwise when they were told that those who did not obey would be court martialed and executed immediately. To die in battle was greatly respected, but to be executed for disobedience was a great shame for the family back home. With trembling arms and tears in their eyes, the young arrivals did as they were told.
An old couple were interviewed from their living room. “My husband never leaves the house if he doesn’t have to. He wouldn’t visit our daughter when she was in the hospital after giving birth. He wouldn’t visit our son when he built a new house. The war did something to his head.”
The old man turns to the camera and says in a low voice his wife cannot hear, “How can I dare to enjoy myself when I let so many in my charge die?” He was the commander of a company of 200, only four of whom survived.
The program closed with a lady, now 96, who lost her young husband in the Philippines. She never received any part of his body, so he never had a proper burial. “Perhaps he isn’t really gone,” she said, wistfully. “Oh, I know he would be close to 100 years old and people don’t usually live that long, but every night I look at his picture and imagine him working with a saw and hammer, he loved to build things, in a a far-off land, and hope he is in good health.”
The saddest part is, though, that similar stories could probably be found all across the globe. War victimizes everyone it touches.