Taro's War: Memoir of a Japanese torn between two worlds

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Forty years ago next month the war in the Pacific began with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most Japanese followed their leaders into battle against the United States without question. For others, it was not so simple. This is the story of one young soldier who found himself caught between the two nations he loved the most.

Date: Dec. 8, 1941.

Place: A middle school classroom in Tokyo. Pupils in black, braided uniforms mill around, excitedly chattering about the news on the morning radio - news from half a world, half a day away. ''I hope we have enough battleships out there in the western Pacific,'' one says. ''Why?'' asks a latecomer. ''Haven't you heard? Imperial Japanese forces have clashed with American and British forces in the western Pacific.'' Soon, the entire school is called out into the courtyard to hear their white-gloved principal read the Emperor's proclamation declaring war on the United States and Britain. In due course, the Emperor's loyal subjects learn that Pearl Harbor was attacked and that nearly the entire American Pacific fleet was sunk or disabled. That winter Japanese troops overrun the Philippines, capture Singapore, sweep through Burma and the Dutch East Indies.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Date: Aug. 15, 1945.

The latecomer of four winters ago, now a draftee in the Imperial Japanese Army, stands in the entrance hall of a family friend's home, listening to a broadcast by the Emperor - the first time he or any other ordinary Japanese has heard the Emperor's own voice. The house is small, tile-roofed, with tatami mats on the floors. The mistress of the house, in kimono, sits on the floor. Her middle-aged husband, with silver-rimmed glasses, wears a suit and tie as a mark of respect, despite the hot July weather. The draftee, in khaki uniform, boots, and gaiters, stands at attention in the doorway because it would take too much time for him to take off his boots and gaiters and come up onto the tatami floor.

The radio crackles and reception is bad. The draftee - let's call him Taro - is part of a kitchen squad carting vegetables from a city warehouse to the primary school in which his regiment is temporarily quartered. In two days this regiment is to be transferred to the Boso Peninsula east of Tokyo, to help man the beaches against an expected American invasion. The leader of the kitchen squad had given Taro permission to say goodbye to his family friends and to listen to the imperial broadcast while the rest of the squad took a noon break by the roadside. He and his friends strain to hear the Emperor's high-pitched voice. The essential part of the message comes through: ''We have decided . . . to endure the unendurable . . . and to accept the Potsdam declaration.'' In other words, to surrender.

Taro's friend, a man of his father's generation, is thunderstruck. His wife is weeping. ''Do you realize what this means?'' the friend shouts. ''We lose everything we have gained since the Meiji restoration! Korea goes, Taiwan goes, Karafuto (Sakhalin) goes. We will be a fourth-rate nation!'' Taro's own eyes well - not with sadness, but with wonder and gratitude. Japan has surrendered, but the nation survives. The two countries he loved the most - his own, and the United States - are no longer at war. And the world is at peace.

The war had been long, and bitter, and increasingly desperate. Taro remembers an episode that had taken place just two weeks before, when he and others in basic training were out on a grassy field under the summer sun. Somewhere in the immense sky a lark was singing, full-throated, sweet and clear. Down on the ground the trainees were given long sticks with balls of straw at the end.

''Now watch me, and do as I do,'' said the instructor, a middle-aged corporal. ''Lie down in the grass, so. A tank is coming at you, but he doesn't know you're there. Now, thrust out your stick, with the straw ball in front, about where you might expect the tank to pass, so. The straw ball is an explosive charge, and the tank's most vulnerable part is its belly, its underside. That's right, you thrust out your stick so the tank's treads go over it and the explosive charge is right under its belly. That's the motion I want you to practice.''

The trainees watched, then lay down and imitated the corporal's actions. But it was hard to think of tanks and explosive charges when all one had was a stick and a ball of straw. Besides, the sun was hot, a lark was trilling, and green grass caressed one's cheek. Even the corporal did not seem to have his heart in it much. ''At ease,'' he said, finally, although none of the trainees had been working very hard. ''You think this is all a joke, don't you? But remember, if you're really out there on the field and a tank is coming at you and you get your explosive under it, you may blow up the tank, but you will most certainly blow yourself up as well. That's how we're going to have to fight when the Americans land in Japan.''

The night after this exercise in the field, Kofu, the regimental town 50 miles west of Tokyo where the draftees were being trained, was bombed by American B-29s. The whole place went up in flames, except, ironically, the barracks, which were at one edge.

Taro had been called up July 2, 1942, long after most of his classmates. Okinawa had fallen to the Americans, and Tokyo was a charred, flattened plain in which only occasional concrete buildings and rusted safes stood mournful sentinel. Everyone was hungry. Rice was rationed, and so was everything else. City folk bicycled or rode trains to villages to buy sweet potatoes or corn, barley, or even bran.

Taro remembered the first time he had bran pancakes. They tasted rather good. Gradually the pancakes were diluted with sweet potato peelings and any other semi-edible substance until finally they tasted like straw. And rice was almost always thinned into gruel. For most Japanese, the victory at Pearl Harbor was an intoxication that lasted less than a year. By June, the tide of war had turned at Midway, although to the Japanese that battle was presented as a victory. Early in 1943 came the retreat from Guadalcanal, an event that forced imperial headquarters to coin a new phrase, ''turn and advance,'' since ''forward'' was the only command the Japanese Army said it knew.

Taro was a Japanese, but he had no sympathy for the war. His mother had grown up in Canada and the United States. His father had worked for an American company. From as early as he could remember, Taro had been brought up in two cultures, spoken two languages. His home in suburban Tokyo, like those of his neighbors, was a blend of Western and Japanese styles. It had a Western entrance hall, parlor, and dining room, plus Japanese-style tatami rooms. In neighbors' homes, the Western-style rooms were usually cold and ill-heated and used only to receive visitors. The tatami rooms were cosy, warm, and lived-in. But in Taro's house, the Western-style rooms outnumbered the tatami rooms. His father wore a kimono to breakfast and changed into pin-striped suits to go to the office. The boy's morning chores were to sweep his own room and shine his father's shoes.

Taro's best friend in early childhood was his next-door neighbor's son, Jun. Jun had a bamboo grove and a carp pond and liked to handle snakes. Taro liked to play tag with Jun and the other neighborhood children, none of whom spoke anything but Japanese. These children attended the neighborhood school, just a 10-minute walk from their homes. But Taro had to take a tram and a commuter train to get to the American school, where he was enrolled from the first to the fifth grades.

The first English word he learned to write was ''ooh.'' (''The wind went ooh.'') In music class he sang ''My Country 'Tis of Thee'' and ''America the Beautiful'' with enthusiasm. In second grade he was Hiawatha in the school play. In fifth grade he played the role of Alexander Hamilton in a reenactment of the constitutional convention.

To conform to governmental regulations about compulsory Japanese education, in sixth grade Taro had had to transfer to a Japanese school. From then on, somehow, classes were not as much fun as they had been before. He remembered how shocked his Japanese tutor had been when he reminisced about how his American music teacher had walked into the classroom munching an orange. ''How could you respect a teacher like that?'' the tutor had demanded.

The Japanese school Taro attended was a Protestant missionary institution, but it conformed to the regular government curriculum in every respect. On the second floor of the three-story school building was a shrinelike structure. Every pupil had to make a deep bow in front of it before going to his classroom every morning. The shrine contained the photographs of the Emperor and Empress.

On national holidays, pupils had to come to school and attend a ceremony in which the principal, with white gloves, pulled the cords of the purple curtain veiling the photographs of the imperial couple. He then read the imperial rescript on education, that began ''Know ye, our subjects . . .'' and exhorted loyalty to the state and filial piety. Taro had been hoping to go to college in the United States, but Pearl Harbor seemed to shatter that dream. He poured out his disappointment and his distress to his mother, who never wavered in her convictions. ''Some day,'' she said, ''this war is going to end. I don't know what your work is going to be, but it must be something that helps to bring Japan and America together.''

How could that ever be, Taro would ask himself. America was a land that considered all men free and equal, whereas the Japanese were supposed to be special people, descended from Amaterasu the sun goddess. Her direct descendant was the Emperor. Maybe not all Japanese literally believed this to be so. But no one Taro knew openly opposed it, not even the school chaplain. Taro had grown up in a period when sabre-rattling military officers had become progressively more powerful, the basis of their claim to lord it over the nation being that they were immediate subordinates of the Emperor himself, with a mandate to rid the country of corrupt politicians and decadent Western ways. The Emperor himself spoke but rarely, in Delphic utterrances.

Sometimes Taro would go down to Kamakura, on the seashore, to visit family friends and to walk along the beach, looking out at the placid sea that filled the eastern horizon. Beyond that horizon lay America, where some of his former schoolmates were. Did they ever think of Japan, as he thought of America? Could there ever come a time of healing?

Taro remembered a snowy morning in February 1936, when he was still a primary school pupil. Young Army officers had rebelled and led their troops against some of the Emperor's most senior ministers and advisers. Parts of central Tokyo were in the hands of the rebels. School was dismissed early, and as he went to the tram station to come home, Taro noticed soldiers with fixed bayonets standing guard in the square.

That night, at his grandfather's, Taro listened as older relatives discussed the events of the day and what it meant for Japan. ''Someone is using those young officers,'' said Taro's uncle, himself a retired major. ''But who? They claim to be acting in the name of the Emperor, but they are only the cat's-paws of ambitious generals.''

Japan had already withdrawn from the League of -Nations, which disapproved of Japan's 1931 occupation of Manchuria and its establishment of a puppet regime there headed by Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China. In 1937, when Taro was a first-year middle-school pupil, Japanese troops clashed with Chinese forces at the Marco Polo bridge just outside Peking. The war soon spread to Shanghai, and beyond. By December that year, Japan had occupied Nanking (Nanjing), and the Chinese Nationalist government fled, first to Hangchow (Hangzhou), then to Chungking (Chongging).

The Japanese invasion of China further strained Tokyo's relations with Washington, already under stress because of Manchuria. In 1938, Taro had wanted to see American family friends in Peking, who frequently visited his family on their way back and forth from China to the United States. He -received a letter, saying, in effect, that he was not welcome because this family had many Chinese friends angered by the Japanese occupation of their homeland. It was Taro's first lesson in how national feelings could cut across individual and family relations.

''Personally, I would love to have Taro,'' his friend's mother had written his own mother. ''But he would hear many things that would make him unhappy, and I am not sure he would be ready to handle that kind of situation.'' Taro had no Chinese friends or acquaintances, but it seemed all wrong to him that Japan, an Asian country that had striven with might and main to emerge from feudalism and to catch up with the Western nations, should behave toward China, a fellow Asian country, exactly as did the imperialist, colonial powers. The economic invasion of China by the Western nations had at least been tempered by the humanitarian and educational work of the missionaries, but Taro could see little beyond brute force in Japan's actions toward its mainland neighbor.

The youth could not express these feelings to his middle-school classmates. He seemed to lead two lives, one outside his home, in which he conformed to all the tightening controls on speech and public behavior, the other at home and in his own thoughts. Here he could give his imagination free scope, and he often wondered what it would be like to be in a country where the individual did not always have to conform to society. Some of his classmates, however, were bolder. ''How do you know the Emperor is not a monkey?'' said one during a march to the school's athletic field. ''What do you mean?'' Taro asked cautiously. ''Just what I said,'' the friend replied. ''Have you ever seen the Emperor? Well, I never have. So how do I know he's not a monkey?''

By the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan had been at war with China for more than four years. Taro's uncle, recalled into the Army, was commanding a battalion in north China. One cousin's husband, a captain, was killed on the central China front.

Taro had been living in a war atmosphere from the time he was 12. Every year, the mental climate was a bit more tense. Every year, material goods were scarcer. Cotton goods disappeared, and tins of salmon, and then, gradually, sugar, milk, butter. Staple foods were rationed, as were cotton clothes. Government propaganda intensified against the United States, which allegedly was trying to encircle and frustrate Japan. Even before Pearl Harbor, Taro's hopes for a college education in America seemed to fade each day as polemics between Tokyo and Washington sharpened.

Why were Americans so ill-prepared for what happened? Taro could understand that Japan had violated international law by not declaring war before attacking Pearl Harbor. But he found it difficult to conceive how Americans could think of the attack itself as a bolt from the blue. (To Americans, the attack occurred on Sunday, Dec. 7. In Japan, because of the time difference, the Pacific war was always regarded as having begun on Monday, Dec. 8.)

In April 1942 Taro entered university - a missionary institution, like his middle school. On the first day of classes, the university's crusty military training instructor, a retired colonel, told the freshmen in a speech that was a series of shouts that the only qualities they needed to defeat the beastly Americans were loyalty and filial piety. Defiantly, the dean of the junior college, a Christian, told the incoming class of the American bishop who had founded the college, of the deprivations he endured, the sacrifices he made, the crises he went through to establish and build up the institution. ''It was a noble life,'' the dean concluded, as the colonel glared at him.

Later, the colonel succeeded in getting the college anthem banned because it contained the refrain ''behold, our college, the seat of liberty.'' When American bombing raids on Tokyo began, the colonel personally led a detachment of students that ripped up the wooden pews of the chapel to be used as covers for air-raid shelters.

A real martinet, the colonel had an idiosyncrasy: he hated rain. At the slightest sign of a drizzle, he would suspend outdoor training and take the whole class inside for yet another stiff lecture on loyalty.

As American troops crept nearer and nearer Japan's home islands, Taro's classmates went off to war one by one, the rising sun flag draped sashlike from right shoulder to waist. One of Taro's cousins became a kamikaze pilot, and perished in the Philippines. Another cousin married her brother's best friend, also a kamikaze. Within a month of the wedding she was a widow.

Taro was conscripted for war work, smelting brass to make cartridge casings. He was released from this job to become an air raid warden at his college, sleeping at night on the tables where he studied by day. One night in May, the whole eastern horizon exploded in brilliant flames, soon obscured by billowing clouds of smoke. An eerie wind arose, hurling burning cinders and even fiery boards at the college buildings. No firebombs dropped on the campus itself, and in the morning the buildings were still intact. But from the inner city, all that day, refugees with soot-black faces and clothes, some of them severely injured, tramped onto the campus and collapsed with exhaustion in the halls and classrooms. Some stayed a couple of days, some nearly a week.

Taro overheard two women chatting with each other, each in kimono tucked neatly into bulging cotton pants:

''You know that ridge beyond our homes?'' one said. ''It was all I could do to get up it. When I finally got to the top, huffing and panting, and looked back, I could see our homes burning, and a long line of people struggling up the ridge, and then, behind the people, behind our homes, up there in the sky the full moon. It was so beautiful!''

Taro was reminded of something he had heard in Sunday school years before. (The Sunday school was closed when the authorities ordered all Christian churches to be grouped into three denominations - Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. Taro's church had decided not to join any one of these government-organized groups.) Explaining the passage, ''O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,'' Taro's teacher had said that the Jews worshipped the beauty of holiness, whereas the Greeks had worshipped the holiness of beauty. If that was so, Taro thought, there must be something Greek about the Japanese.

In June, the Americans overran Okinawa and Taro heard how even middle school pupils, both boys and girls, had killed themselves with grenades or jumped into the sea rather than surrender. Government propaganda exhorted all Japanese to be prepared to defend the homelands, even with bamboo spears.

Taro thought of an oft-quoted Chinese saying: ''Though the country may be defeated, the mountains and the streams endure.'' That was certainly true of China, but never of Japan, said a classics professor at Taro's college. He explained: in China, dynasty had succeeded dynasty. Sometimes barbarians overran China. Sometimes the Chinese conquered the barbarians. A Chinese could never count on his state enduring. All he could count on was his own family, and on his native mountains and streams. Japan was different. Japan had never suffered defeat in all its 2,000-year history. Nor could it ever do so, for the Emperor and his people were one, and they were protected by the sun goddess and all her 8 million subordinate deities.

Therefore, in Japan's case it was totally wrong to speak of mountains and streams enduring even amid defeat. But if defeat was unthinkable, victory was equally unattainable. Taro wondered whether, in the end, the whole nation would really be prepared to commit mass suicide, like the rajahs of Bali when they went down to the beaches dressed in their finest clothes to meet the Dutch invaders.

Eventually Taro received a summons to report to the 63rd Regiment, a training unit in the town of Kofu, 50 miles west of Tokyo, for induction into the Imperial Army. His father accompanied him to Kofu and introduced him to a family friend whose home he could visit on weekends. The training regiment was so short of equipment that when Taro said goodbye to his father his left boot was one size larger than his right boot. Guns, too, were scarce and could be used only for occasional target practice. Most of the time, the new recruits trained with wooden rifles. They were promised real rifles when they got to the Boso beaches defending Tokyo. Food was also in short supply. One day, when Taro was on kitchen duty, the sergeant told him to sweep the warehouse floor for stray grains of rice and dump the contents into the cooking pot. That night, the whole barracks buzzed with horror stories of broken glass and nails fished out of rice bowls.

Taro read about the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in a newspaper aboard a train from Tokyo to Kofu. He had been sent back to the capital for a week-long course on chemical warfare. On the return trip to Kofu, he borrowed a paper from a seatmate and read headlines about a ''new type bomb'' dropped by the enemy on Hiroshima. The word ''atom'' was not used, but the long fatality list, headed by a Korean prince at Army headquarters in Hiroshima, left no doubt that nearly the entire city had been obliterated. (It was only after the surrender that all the horrific details about the effects of the bomb were published.)

Hiroshima may have had an effect on Japan's leaders hastening their decision to seek an honorable surrender. But most ordinary Japanese, by then, were so benumbed by months of firebombing and by the misery of having to move from one destroyed dwelling to another that the news about one more attack even with a new type of bomb had little impact. Nevertheless, when Taro saw the headlines, he thought of a conversation he had had with an old family friend just before being drafted.

''I think the day is coming,'' the friend had said, ''when we shall have to ask the Emperor himself to make a decision.''

He did not use the word ''surrender,'' and Taro was uncertain what the friend , a retired company president with close ties to the imperial court, had really meant. Yet somehow, he felt the faint stirrings of hope. There was no human way he could see the Japanese accepting surrender. Perhaps that was because he could see things only in the context of his own limited experience. As one college chum had said to him the winter before, ''Taro, wouldn't it be wonderful if suddenly, tomorrow, we were to be told the war is over? I can taste that feeling in my stomach now!''

And then, finally, that blessed imperial broadcast. Suddenly, life had meaning again. In the days before Pearl Harbor, Taro had thought of America as a way of escape from militarism and a stifling national ideology. It was the promised land. But now the angle of vision was different. Yes, Taro was eager to drink in that new world ''beautiful for spacious skies, and amber waves of grain ,'' crowned ''with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.'' But he also felt a love of and hope for his own land such as he had never sensed before. In a devastated, defeated land, a people bereft of age-old moorings were ready to abandon their self-asserted special status and, in a way, to rejoin the human race. A nation was about to be reborn, and America was to play a large role in that rebirth. With that process, Taro felt he could wholeheartedly and enthusiastically identify himself.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...