The 69th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War

2014.08.18

The 69th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War

   August 15, 2014 marks the 69th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. People who served on the front lines 69 years ago are now 89 years old or older. In 1988, when I began treating patients for senile dementia, most of my male patients had served in the military during the war, either in the South Pacific or in the Chinese theater. Today, nearly 20 years later, most of the patients who visit my clinic for the treatment of dementia experienced the war as children. Their experiences include mass evacuations or their parents leading them by hand while trying frantically to escape the incendiary bombings—experiences of war that were clearly quite at odds with those of the previous generation. I myself turn 62 this year—meaning that more and more of the patients who come to see me will have no memories of the hardships of the post-war years, let alone the war itself.
   I was born in 1952, 7 years after the end of the war. For a person of my age, the Pacific War is not a remote historical event one reads about in textbooks. In the year in which I was born, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was concluded, and Japan recovered its independence. Until then, our country was called, “occupied Japan” under the rule of the United Nations. Only 6 years had passed since my father’s homecoming following his capture in the South Pacific, but the whereabouts of one of my uncles was still unknown after he was reportedly interned in a Siberian POW camp. For my generation, the Pacific War was not a history lesson learned from textbooks. As far back as I can remember, I recollect the sight of injured veterans here and there in white uniforms squatting on roadside bamboo mats and playing their harmonica or accordion for alms.
   My father and many of my patients who had similar experiences during the war had one thing in common: they never spoke of battle. While they recounted in great detail being drafted, the camp where they were trained, where they were dispatched, and the year they were taken prisoner and returned home, they seldom alluded to their experiences on the battlefield. My father’s war stories began with the sinking of his transport ship, proceeded to a tale of his rescue by an American warship, and ended with his account of his experiences in the POW camp. Until his ship was sunk, my father had to have fought in several battles, but despite this fact, he never recounted his experiences while in action.
   My father was not musically inclined. Whenever he did hum a tune, it was a war song–filled not with the spirit of courageous defiance but seeped in war-weariness. The tune I remember most clearly was his rendition of a song accompanying the bugle call from the Russo-Japanese war.

“What gleams so brightly on your chest, General, sir? A golden medal of honor? No, the skulls of our dear boys under your command! Rap-a-pap-pap!”
“’Honor, honor!’ Is the rallying cry. Who fed our sons to the hungry rifles? Bring them back to us whole again! Rap-a-pap-pap!”
“Confetti and gilded medals worn smugly on your breast, no better than children’s toys—Look! The good man now stands down! Rap-a-pap-pap!”

   For my mother the war continued for decades after peace was concluded because the whereabouts of her brother remained unknown. Droves of soldiers were returning from their captivity in Siberia at the time, and hearing of my mother’s efforts to locate her brother, unscrupulous persons would not seldom visit our home and spin tales about seeing him here or there; and after inviting themselves to our hospitality for days on end, they would invariably disappear one night with anything of value that we had. Despite this, my mother refused to give up and my father just silently looked on. Among my childhood photos, there is one that shows me standing in the yard next to two starveling girls who had been left with us by a person claiming to be a former internee in a Siberian camp. “I knew it was a lie from the start,” I remember my mother saying, “but I pitied the girls too much to turn them out.” The perseverance of my mother was finally rewarded when two years after the end of the war, she received definitive news that her brother had died while working in a quarry in Mongolia. Even so, the war never truly ended for my mother.
   In January 1991, the Gulf War erupted. The allied forces led by the United States almost immediately overwhelmed the Iraqi military, and soon afterwards the world was treated to images on the news of trains of dazed and captive Iraqi troops led at gunpoint by American soldiers in jeeps. For my mother, these images were nigh-unbearable sights that resurrected raw memories of the Pacific War. Perhaps she saw in the hobbled droves of captive Iraqis a reflection of her own brother being led away by Soviet troops.

“Prisoners of war tread a single line
In desert sands
My brother’s footfalls on the plains of Mongolia”

   It was in March of 1993 that Asahi Newspaper published a series of articles entitle, “Tragedy on Frozen Ground: The Incident of Yoshimura Company” based on information about POWs that had newly become public following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In April, a list of the names of Japanese POWs in katakana script was published in the series, among which my mother found the name, MORIOKA JOHJI. Her brother’s name included a rather difficult kanji character that was almost always misread—the correct pronunciation being MASANA rather than JOHJI—but in light of everything else she had learned of his fate, the clues were sufficient to persuade my mother to step up her inquiries. In March, three years later, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare officially announced to my mother that the name was indeed a misreading and that her brother had perished in a concentration camp near Ulan Bator in the Mongolian Republic. In August of the same year, she traveled to Ulan Bator to visit his grave, 48 years after the end of the Pacific War.

“Faded army postcard
My brother’s words yet living and youthful
They dwell still in Northern Manchu”

   This August, my mother’s waka poem which had been published in a journal of like-minded war-sufferers came to the attention of certain persons who graciously arranged her travel from Nagoya airport to Mongolia in a frightfully rickety airplane under the auspices of the Japan-Mongolia Friendship Association. Thanks to this assistance, she was able to pick out the grave marker bearing her brother’s name from among the 800 or so graves lining the POW cemetery amid the cold drizzle and wind that already presaged the coming Autumn. In this way, after the long lapse of 49 years, my mother was finally able to visit the last resting place of her brother.

“Summer flowers
Let at least one bloom
On the plains of Ulan Bator
Where my brother lies”

   The war also left deep claw marks on the life of patients in Matsuzawa Hospital. Especially noteworthy are the deaths and discharges during the war. In 1937, with the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War, the number of fatalities among inpatients in Matsuzawa Hospital climbed dramatically, with twice as many dying in 1938 as in 1937. The cause of the fatalities was malnutrition, to which 352 succumbed in 1940. This figure rose to 418 in 1944 and to 478 in 1945. There were about 1000 inpatients at the end of 1944, but only 500 remained in 1945. Nearly half of the inpatients died of malnutrition. The number of patient deaths and discharges began to decline only in August following the end of the war. What saved the inpatients from death by starvation was the relief supplies provided by the occupation forces. At the end of 1944, about 1000 patients were hospitalized at Matsuzawa Hospital. By 1946, this figure declined to about 500 (Seijun Tatetsu). By comparing the number of inpatients with that of patient deaths and discharges, it isn’t hard to imagine the circumstances within the hospital. Among the hospital logs left by Dr. Tsuguo Kaneko, the 14th Chief Administrator of Matsuzawa Hospital, are entries such as the following:

January 10, 1942. Today, our patients were given but three servings of miso paste. Meanwhile, rosy-cheeked youth, the flower of our nation, plunge their aircraft onto the decks of enemy ships to exultant cries (of ‘Mother!’)—the solemn realities of this age bring tears to our eyes. At least we here may try our best to live each day to the fullest of our human abilities.
July 18, 1944. Lunch has been gruel every day since one month ago (ill-tasting fare). The workers are none too happy with this fare but ignore the rightful complaints of the patients.
July 21, 1944. To add to our hardships, our rice supplies have dwindled while edema and death have increased.
July 12, 1945. Of late, the number of escapees has been increasing. Escapees seeking to return to their home for lack of food here are caught and brought back.
   In 1983, when I began my assignment at Matsuzawa Hospital, I noticed a patient standing at attention by the entrance to one of the wards as I was making my daily rounds. Whenever a physician or nurse entered, the man would exclaim, “Ward 00, 00 patients present, everything normal!” Dr. Kaneko explained to me that this man’s behavior was the vestige of the war, when patients with relatively light symptoms were made to fill in for the male staff, who were being recruited in increasing numbers to the front lines.
   Today, as our memories of the Pacific War continue to dim with the passing of time, citizens in Okinawa, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo have launched a movement to relate, and so preserve, their memories of war’s devastations. Newspapers and television stations have also joined this effort around each anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Preserving the stories of those who lost their families to conflict and witnessed their towns burning is doubtless invaluable for preserving peace in future generations. Yet it is not my mother’s lifelong efforts to keep alive the memories of her brother, but my father’s silence about his war-time experiences that weigh most ponderously, like some heavy sediment of sorrow, in the deepest recesses of my heart. That, and the patients at Matsuzawa Hospital, who perished one after another from malnutrition with hardly a complaint, unlike the staff who fled to their homes because they found the bland diet of gruel hard to bear.
   Even after the government and military had already accepted the ineluctability of defeat, a train carried by uncle and this comrades northwards from the Korean peninsula to Manchuria on a one-way trip; its southbound journey carried high-ranking officers and their families and those who had made their fortunes in China. The farmers who were to pioneer the Japanese development of Manchuria, ignorant of the latest developments, were abandoned to their fate. The war brought misery to many on both sides, but it was the poor and the weakest who suffered the greatest though they raised no cries of anguish.
   Wars always start with some proclamation about the urgent need to assure the survival of the nation. But waging war “in defense of one’s homeland” is nothing more than the ready excuse of the ruling class to resort to conflict as a political expedient. Yet it is the rank and file of the citizenry that abet the rampage of the ruling class. Where is our society headed now? And what will Japan be like 20 years from now? I pray earnestly that it will be a society which doesn’t subject the youth of our nation to experiences they can never talk about.