Aging WWII veterans fret about shift away from pacifist principles



Tokuro Inokuma, a former Imperial Japanese Army soldier, got his first taste of the horrors of war in 1945 when he scrambled to gather up the scattered limbs of his fellow servicemen, blown apart by a U.S. air raid in Japan. He was 16.

One of a dwindling number of World War II veterans, Inokuma now finds troubling echoes in the Abe administration’s policy shift away from the pacifist ideals adhered to after 1945.

“I find it quite dangerous. . . . This is the path we once took,” said Inokuma, who fought in China soon after the deadly air strike, and survived two years in concentration camps in the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month took a historic step by ending the ban that had kept the military from fighting abroad since 1945. The move has riled China, whose ties with Japan have been frayed by the territorial row over the Senkaku Islands.

“We have neither killed nor been killed (in battle) for almost 70 years. That’s unprecedented. It’s important we think hard about that,” Inokuma, 85, said in an interview.

Proponents say Japan needs to be able to exercise its right to collective self-defense, or to help a friendly country under attack, in order to respond to a tougher security environment.

Critics say the change makes Japan more likely to get sucked into overseas wars.

Teru Hisato, a 91-year-old veteran who lost his right leg to a U.S. incendiary bomb in 1945 when he was guarding military supplies at a railway station in northern Japan, shares those concerns and doubts whether the policy shift makes Japan safer.

“If you raise your fist in response to your opponent’s fist-lifting, that only leads to a fight,” he said.

Hisato also wants Abe to refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Abe visited the shrine last December. He said it was to pay respect to those who died for Japan, not to glorify the war.

Japanese leaders’ visits to the shrine anger China and South Korea, where memories of Japan’s past militarism run deep.

“I believe he does not need to pay a visit to Yasukuni at the price of ties with China and South Korea, if he hopes for safety and peace of mind of the Japanese people,” Hisato said.

Ichimatsu Shimura, 93, who fought the Allies and suffered from malnutrition and leeches on a long retreat through Myanmar’s jungles, agrees that Abe should not visit Yasukuni again.

“From my unit, 70 or 80 of us came back alive. For years, we got together at Yasukuni because that’s where all our friends are enshrined,” said Shimura, who still suffers occasional pain from mortar bomb splinters lodged in his head.

“But with the current diplomatic situation as it is, I’m afraid it would be better if he did not go. Going there would only harm Japan’s diplomacy,” he said.

Abe sent an offering to Yasukuni on Friday’s anniversary of the war’s end but refrained from visiting in person.

Some veterans, though, believe he should go.

“I would like him to go for those who died,” said Heizo Nagano, 92, who fought U.S. forces in the Philippines. Amid food shortages, he ate tadpoles to become one of 68 survivors from his unit, which started out with more than 1,500 soldiers.

Takehiko Ena, 91, a survivor of two aborted kamikaze missions, agrees. On his way to rejoin his unit, he passed through Hiroshima a day after the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, finding himself wading through a sea of bodies.

“We should keep explaining to countries concerned that Japan has vowed not to resort to war again, and that mourning for war dead (at the shrine) should be approved,” Ena said.

“‘Let’s meet at Yasukuni’ was what soldiers told each other when they left for battlefields, knowing they wouldn’t come back alive. That’s where their souls are.”

  • Pat

    Japan, like all sovereign states, has committed grave errors. It begins with the suppression of ideas and opinions and allows those to seize power who do not truly comprehend their own interests and do not believe in their people’s abilities to overcome trials by their own effort. As an American, I am deeply troubled by the numerous war crimes carried out by my government’s troops, from the virtual holocaust of native peoples to using Philippine Moro prisoners for bayonet practice in their invasion of that country, and many others, not the least of which was the area bombing of hundreds of thousands of the innocent in WW2. Ignorance and ethnic hatred is responsible; let’s all pray to our respective Gods it will not reoccur. Civilized societies make mistakes just as barbarians do but a free electorate and a civic conscience will always do their utmost to try and prevent them from reoccurring. An open discussion of historical facts can do much good here. Acknowledging mistakes fully would push the Chinese party dictatorship to fully democratize and to stop using ethnocentric propaganda methods as a political weapon in order to enhance their own hubris. Japan should be proud of its courage to refuse to use the same tactics. It was a hard lesson, well cited by those who actually suffered its worst moments.

    • haneyr

      So how about commenting on the Japanese not truly atoning for the actions of their country prior to and during WWII? As for your other comments I can only shake my head and wonder how you made it in life this far. Yes every society or group of people through out history have had their instances of intolerance and cruelty by members of their society or group. But the US has not done this as a nation similar to Japan, Germany, Russia, and others. You have zero evidence to the comment on US troops using the Moro’s as bayonet practice. To disregard the horrors the Moro’s did and still do commit against their own people is telling in your comments. And with your “holocaust of native peoples” you once again forget to mention that more “native peoples” have been killed by other “native peoples” than all of the ones killed by the evil white man. As for China, well live on in your dream world. Japan not suppressing the truth? Well just read their own history books to see the falsity in that statement. If you want to quote your own version of facts then at least have the courage to admit it.

  • lonesomeCowboy

    Good job Sino, good job to resurrect Japanese monster.

  • Pat

    Two Books; “Resolve” by Bob Welch & “The Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley well recount America’s troubled Asian experience. The former is an account of a man who fought the Japanese from the jungles for nearly four years; the latter cites historical documents from the Roosevelt library. I refer to Pg. 23 in the former. Mr. Bradley wrote “Flags of Our Fathers.” No intent in my remark to justify barbarism by anyone, yet isn’t the lesson taught by learning all nations have written history to suit their ambitions one that can serve an attempt to know what has actually happened?