“Japan at War” by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

The book’s format is inspired by and identical to Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” – a collection of oral histories of soldiers and others involved in World War 2 – only this time we hear from the Japanese perspective.  And there is absolutely no way that this collection could have shared Terkel’s title.  This was one of the saddest, most depressing books I have read in a long time.

Some of the things that happened in the war are indeed stranger than fiction.  And much more horrifying:

  • Infectious disease research on local populations in Manchuria by Unit 731.
  • Ghastly vivisections and practice battlefield surgeries – like amputating both arms and reattaching them backwards, just for kicks – on Chinese prisoners by military doctors.  Oh yeah, and no anesthetics either.
  • During the Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the fire-stoked wind was so intense that people were blown away into the flames.  One mother was carrying her baby on her back while trying to reach safety – the baby burned to death while still attached, badly burning the mother, too.  The mother survived, even though several of her children died.  In later years she poured water on their graves, saying “You must have been so hot.”
  • During the invasion of Saipan, soldiers and civilians hid in caves from the devil Americans.  Mothers were ordered to kill their crying babies so as not to alert the enemy.  I don’t know how they brought themselves to do it, but many did so.
  • Similarly on Okinawa, many civilians committed suicide or killed family members rather than face the horrors they were told would be inflicted on them when captured by the Americans.  The kids in one family killed their mother by hitting her head with rocks.  Then the older boys killed their younger brother and sister.  They were deciding which of them should kill the other when they were found by American soldiers.
  • Kaiten and kamikaze pilots.

The final oral history in the book is very fitting.  Long after the war ended, a man is giving a tour of a bombed-out Mitsubishi factory in Nagasaki.  He says that the torpedoes used in the attack on Pearl Harbor were manufactured there, in the same place where an atomic bomb would destroy everything several years later.  “We fought a stupid war, didn’t we?”

There is one similarity with America’s experience as in “The Good War” – the common man in Japan felt like he was doing what must be done to save his country.  Sadly, the common man was misled by the de facto military dictatorship of Japan.  Questioning the Emperor’s will was a crime, and the Emperor delegated his authority to the military.  The Emperor, being divine, could never be wrong, so everything had to be justified even by lying.  Sometimes even military planners didn’t know the true situation on the battlefield due to all the false stories and propaganda in the newspapers and official reports.  “The closer you got to the front, the less often you found a burning and unflinching belief in victory.”  The Army and Navy planners stayed mainly in Tokyo.

The war against China demanded oil, and Japan needed to seize that oil from the Western colonies in the Pacific, and stop America from interfering, in order to keep up the fight in China.  Japan’s industrial capacity was 1/13th the size of America’s at the outbreak of war.  It never really stood a chance.  As a Zero ace said, “You need altitude, speed, and firepower to win an air engagement.  No amount of bushido will help.”

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2 responses

  1. […] Best non-fiction: Blue Latitudes, with very honorable mentions to Stanley and Japan at War […]

  2. Just read a tremendous essay on World War II: http://leesandlin.com/articles/LosingTheWar.htm

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