Pomona College History Professor Samuel Yamashita’s new book Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940-1945, draws from a large collection of diaries and letters written by Japanese citizens during World War II— evacuated children, teenagers, adults, servicemen and kamikaze pilots —offering readers revealing details of lives unknown to most Americans until now.
Yamashita believes that his study of wartime life fills a critical void in American knowledge and understanding of the war. In the 1990s, he realized that what was missing from the English-language scholarship on modern Japan were the voices of ordinary Japanese during World War II. So he searched for diaries kept by servicemen, homefront civilians and children and collected more than 200.
Eight of those diaries that he found were published in Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese in 2005, which is now in its third printing. Over the course of more than two dozen trips to Japan over two decades, Yamashita collected more of these accounts.
Yamashita points to four key findings in these diaries and letters:
First, was his discovery of the various ways that Japan’s wartime government manipulated their citizens to get them to support the war effort even when it meant hardship, suffering, and even their deaths.
“Kamikaze pilots wrote ‘last letters’ to their families, teachers, friends and even children as a way of ensuring that they would be driven by feelings of gratitude and obligation to want to make sacrifices as well. In June 1945 a nine-year-old girl wrote in her diary, after a day of military training, that she discovered ‘how even one person can kill a lot of the enemy,’” he says.
The cultural values of gratitude, indebtedness and repayment, embedded in Japanese society, were used to persuade many people to give their lives for their emperor and their country, says Yamashita.
“It was hard for ordinary Japanese not to support the war,” he says.
But still there were those that resisted. The second discovery Yamashita notes is the array of responses Japanese citizens had to the wartime government’s policies, laws and rituals, which is counter to the notion that people were universally loyal.
“Although most Japanese simply complied with their government’s orders, many tens of thousands of Japanese resisted, and they did so by ignoring the considerable social pressures to conform, breaking well-known rules and regulations, publicly defying the authorities, and even resorting to petty thievery,” says Yamashita.
Sometimes “private resistance” became quite public. This happened when a detachment of military men was sent to remove some of the 84,000 bodies left in the wake of a devastating Allied firebombing raid in Tokyo on the evening of March 10,1945. They were confronted by a woman who shouted, “You there, soldiers, how do you feel about all these people? Can you look at them?” Another woman had a brief exchange with an officer touring a burned-out area of Tokyo: “This all happened because of you military men! What’s the point of your coming here to look at this?”
Americans aren’t well acquainted with these acts of defiance and U.S. wartime propaganda still has a lingering effect, says Yamashita.
The third discovery that struck Yamashita was that women, contrary to the prevailing post-war view, played a huge role on the homefront and were not simply victims.
“In fact, one might even say that Japan would have lost the war on the homefront sooner without women’s generous contributions to their neighborhood associations, savings bond campaigns and local labor brigades as well as their psychological support for local families whose fathers and sons were away at war,” he says.
In the book, Yamashita includes an entry from housewife Sakamoto Tane’s diary that refers to labor service and whether she and other members of her neighborhood association contributed as much as they were expected to:
“…From our community council, approximately thirteen turned out —one male and twelve women. Our task was to dig a culvert in the middle of a rice paddy, and we put a bamboo pipe approximately one meter down to drain water. Today we were able to dig four feeder lines, and we had more than enough female labor; we all were very tired, but we fulfilled our responsibility; there was no greater happiness…”
After hearing the emperor’s announcement of surrender on August 15, 1945, some citizens responded with fear, others with relief, still others with outright disbelief to the news.
Tanaka Jingo, a farmer on the island of Kyushu, wrote of that day:
“The high-pitched, unclear, and faltering words and the somber tone made it clear that he was informing us of defeat. As we listened, our chests got warm, the women suppressed tears and we could hear sobbing voices.
Even the usually cheerful Heitaro had a pained look on his face and muttered, “Jingo-san, Japan finally has been defeated,” and father, who looked stunned, chimed in, “Now that we have been defeated, what will happen?”
The fourth discovery is the sum of the book’s parts. Daily Life in Wartime Japan “gives us a clear sense of what ‘total war’ is and the price it exacts from ordinary people,” says Yamashita.