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Collection of WWII Japanese Diaries Offers Powerful Accounts of the Impacts of War

Historian Samuel Yamashita has spent more than a decade collecting, reading and translating the diaries of Japanese citizens during World War II. His book Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese (University of Hawaii Press, September 2005) is the first English compilation of Japanese personal diaries.

For most Americans, especially those who remember the war, excerpts from the WWII diaries present a more nuanced and unfamiliar view of the "Japanese enemy.” This, Yamashita notes, “says a lot about the wartime need to dehumanize the enemy and to portray even enemy civilians as barbaric, inhumane, foreign, etc. It also echoes what has been going on over the past two years with our Middle Eastern enemies. It’s pretty clear that most Americans, except those in Pearl Harbor, don’t know what it’s like to be bombed.”

The book’s eight selected diaries contain a range of WWII experience. The authors include: a special attack (kamikaze) pilot; a 75-year-old Kyoto businessman; the wife of a Tokyo physician; an 11-year-old boy trained to kill the enemy; a straggling private who hid for a month after the war because he didn’t believe rumors of the war’s end; and a 9-year-old girl evacuated from Tokyo before the bombings.

Hisako Yoshizawa, a 27-year-old working woman in western Tokyo:
February 26, 1945 - Two days after 172 B-29s attacked Tokyo:
I was deeply moved as I gazed at the expanse of burned out buildings. It was an area that bore the imprint of the many years that countless numbers of people had spent there. I was sad, too, because the coffee shop we used to go to burned down. Living each day amidst this destruction has become unbearable. Is this natural selection?

Takamashi Aiko, a 51-year-old Tokyo housewife:
April 15, 1945, Sunday
It appeared the area being bombed was growing. The sky was enveloped in black smoke, and the fires on the ground were reflected in the sky, painting it red and black, an indescribable color. Although we couldn’t see the enemy planes, we could hear them, and their tremendous roar intensified our fear. Was it safer to go right or to dodge to the left? We couldn’t decide even that. I slid down into a hollow clutching Emii to me, and we made ourselves as small as possible and prayed to God. Where had all the people come from? The top of Kume’s mountain was crowded with people fleeing the fires….We weren’t able to hear anything but the thunderous roar behind us.

Pvt. Seiki Nomura, 23-years-old:
August 10, 1945 (Fri) Rain, then clear and windy
I heard stories about officers and men who shouted, "Long live the emperor!" and then went off to their deaths, and I felt even more than before how futile this was.... This I could never imitate.

If people say that we as citizens of Japan never cease to benefit from the emperor's generosity, had the emperor's power and virtue really been that sort of thing up to that point? I wasn’t persuaded.... The emperor was too distant, a presence that had nothing to do with me. Somehow I just couldn’t get used to the idea of shouting "banzai!" and dying for this emperor. I have fought, not for the emperor, but for the homeland where more familiar parents and siblings, relatives, and friends live and for the ancestral country. And even now my thoughts on the emperor haven't changed. Nor was this view mine alone. Except for the officers and men who shout "Long live the emperor!"--isn't this how most officers and men think?

Takamashi Aiko, a 51-year-old Tokyo housewife:
August 9, 1945, Thursday

“The same sort of strange bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima three days ago was dropped on Nagasaki today, and it was wiped out. This bomb possesses extraordinary power. Photographs showed that Chinese ideographs written in black on signs at train stations had burned, and it was explained that white things wouldn’t burn. Up to now, we’ve been ordered not to wear white garments, not even when t was hot, because they were easy for the enemy planes to see. Now we’re warned not to wear black garments because they burn easily. So what in the world is safe for us to wear? We don’t know anymore. The thought of a single aircraft destroying a large city in an instant is driving us to nervous breakdowns, and I feel as though as we have no choice but to die or go crazy.”

Yamashita is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History at Pomona College. During his research on the war’s impact on ordinary Japanese citizens, he read more than 50 WWII Japanese diaries and more than 100 “last letters” of kamikaze pilots.

“What’s particularly striking about the diaries,” says Yamashita, “is how clearly you can feel the authors’ desperation as the bombing progresses. [American’s] systematic bombing of Japan completely undermined home-front morale, bringing Japan close to surrender even before the atomic bombs were dropped! The diaries I’ve read reveal very clearly that the war had been lost before the atomic bombing of Japan, and that this was obvious to everyone--the military top-brass, civilian leaders, intellectuals, and the general population.”

Pomona College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.