Sunday, November 06, 2016


My mother was not quite 18 when World War II ended. As a Japanese citizen she knew the war was lost. The announcers on the radio had insisted there were great victories for the Empire but my mother and her family knew better. Young men had left to do battle and never returned. At the National Schools the relentlessly upbeat morning addresses were just words.

Still, she loved her country, where banners proclaimed they were One Hundred Million With One Spirit. Japan was aggressive; in the previous 10 years it had invaded Manchuria, then China, then a part of the Soviet Union. The Shōwa movement stressed nationalism, a strong military, and getting rid of corrupt politicians.

Anger and a thirst for absolute power drove its actions. Left-wing political dissidents were jailed. The military was seen as incorruptible, ruled by the code of bushido — the way of the warrior. Political parties were dissolved. Schools were retooled to produce Children of the Emperor and make Japan ready for the coming clash of civilizations, the one against the devils in a group that went by an acronym — ABCD, for Americans, British, Chinese, Dutch. They were a threat to all Asians, and they had to be defeated for Japan to remain radiant.

The children were taught to sacrifice themselves for the Empire. Their country's continued existence relied on it. Their destiny as warriors demanded it.

Akiko, my mother, knew what she saw. Well before the atomic bombs that ended the war in 1945, she knew there would be no Hakkō Ichiu, no gathering of all eight corners of the world under one roof. Glorious victory was not Japan’s destiny. There were too many families without brothers, husbands, fathers. In the last year more than a million Japanese military men had died (though the radio broadcasts never mentioned that fact, only the glorious victories over the imperialists).

In July 1945 a U.S. Navy task force bombed my mother’s island, destroying the trains and ships that moved coal from Hokkaido to Honshu. The iron works factories were crippled. It was clear to her family that the war was lost, and that soon the enemy would invade her homeland.

But my mother knew the importance of honor to her leader and her country. She was a patriot. She helped her little brothers and father sharpen bamboo spears. In the Civilian Volunteers Corps she had learned how to use grenades and fire hooks, sickles and  swords. Like all others in her city, Akiko was ready to fight the invaders. It was something she did not have to agonize over; it was her duty. The warlords called it Ketsu-Go, and in the summer of 1945 their slogan echoed across the Empire:

The sooner the Americans come, the better. One hundred million die proudly.

Akiko and the other civilians in her city would fight until they were killed or were driven into the sea. There was no evacuation plan. Japan was the center of the world, a nation superior to all others, and if they were to die it would be with honor. No shameful surrender.

All that ended at noon on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio.

My mother was not familiar with his voice. The emperor did not speak to the common people. What she heard was the soft and uncertain voice of a man who sounded nothing like a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the sun goddess.

He never used the word “surrender,” saying only that Japan would have to resort to “an extraordinary measure” to change the present situation. A “new and most cruel bomb” had been used by the enemy, he said, and it killed many innocents. Hirohito told his people that the years ahead would mean hard work and noble spirit, “your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future.”

Peace would come, Hirohito said, but only “by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.”

The atomic fires had extinguished the fever of nationalism.

Japan stripped itself of its military. By the end of 1945 more than 350,000 U.S. military personnel occupied the four main islands, including Hokkaido, where my mother lived. She had never seen people with blue eyes before.

From a distance I shook my head and wondered how a government and a military had convinced 100 million people to die for their bloodthirsty cause. The Japanese are intelligent people with a rich history. The idea that my mother and her fellow countrymen would follow madness into the abyss seemed impossible.

“You really wouldn’t have picked up a spear,” I said to her one day.

She nodded her head firmly. “Yes.”

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