What makes a hero in war? If that war is unjust, do the soldiers involved deserve to be treated as heroes? And what is the civilian role in these heroics?
People in most countries seem to believe that all those who fight for their country, even when pursuing an aggressive and brutal war, are entitled to be honored. Not two weeks ago, President Barack Obama paid tribute to U.S. citizens who gave their life in battle — even in theaters such as Vietnam and Iraq, which many regard as unnecessary wars at best — or killing fields plain and simple.
“The finest fighting force in the history of the world,” perorated the president about his country’s military.
Well, Japanese and German wartime leaders could have similarly boasted. Japan’s military had the added aura of protecting kami no kuni (the divine nation). Of course, the Germans reckoned that God was on their side, and Americans are convinced of it, too. So is Osama bin Laden. God only knows where they all get that idea.
A recently published book gives us food for thought about the questions raised at the beginning of this article. Titled “Private Yokoi’s War and Life on Guam 1944-1972,” it is the autobiography of a Japanese soldier who remained on that Pacific island for 27 years after war’s end, convinced that it was not over and that Japan was certain to win it.
I remember very well the day he returned home. It was Feb. 2, 1972, and the moment Yokoi’s feet stepped back on Japanese soil, the heart of the nation went out to him in a way I have never witnessed before or since.
“I come home to Japan steeped in shame,” he said; and those words have gone down in history. They reflect the education and indoctrination that Yokoi, along with all other males in Japan, were subjected to before the war. To be taken prisoner and survive was cowardly. The only good soldier was a dead one who had made the ultimate sacrifice for his divine Emperor.
Shoichi Yokoi was born in 1915 in a village that is now part of Nagoya City. His father, a tailor, divorced his mother when the boy was aged 3. Shortly after, his mother abandoned him and returned to her hometown.
In May 1938, Yokoi was working as a tailor when he received the red induction paper sent to people being called up for military service. That September, he was despatched to northern China as part of a transport regiment, then to Beijing, Shandong, Guangdong and Hong Kong. He returned to Japan in February 1939 and was demobbed the next month.
But in August 1941, another red paper arrived. This time he was not allowed to dress in uniform, have going-away parties or be conspicuous in any way. He had to report to barracks in secret, “as if I were proceeding casually to the public baths,” he writes. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union six weeks earlier, and Japan was now on world-war footing.
Yokoi fought in Manchuria and Korea before being posted to Guam in March 1944. The Americans were determined to capture Saipan and Guam to use the islands as bases from which to launch bombing raids on the Japanese homeland. Yokoi describes the desperate situation for Japanese soldiers on the ground in Guam. Most of them, in fact, were on the verge of starvation by July 1944.
In the following months, his platoon was destroyed and dispersed, until there were only seven in his group scrounging for food to stay alive. They went into hiding on the island.
Announcements, which they heard, of Japan’s capitulation came on Aug. 15, 1945, but Yokoi and his comrades put these down to enemy propaganda. “We won’t fall into such a sweet trap!” they told each other.
The story of how Yokoi alone among his group managed to make his own clothes, forage for food and survive for more than two decades is presented in detail in the book. Certainly it took heroic effort to accomplish this, and only a person so thoroughly brainwashed as he could have done it.
This is where the heroism of the soldier differs from the heroism of the rest of us: It is the act of sticking to one’s guns itself that is revered; the reasons for doing so are lost in the glare of a blinding patriotism.
Yokoi was found on the island on Jan. 24, 1972. When he looked into a mirror for the first time in decades, he was “traumatized” by the sight of the old man he saw there, according to Omi Hatashin, his nephew, who wrote the book’s epilogue.
A wave of immense guilt washed over the Japanese nation when they set eyes on the bedraggled figure of this private who had only been following Code 2, Article 8 of the Senjinkun (Codes of Conduct in Battle) that the War Ministry had issued on Jan. 8, 1941: “No one shall remain alive to incur the shame of becoming a prisoner of war.”
The Japanese people, despite their collective amnesia regarding their support for the war, realized they were complicit in Yokoi’s sacrifice — and strove to make it up to him.
All 20 members of the Cabinet pledged to give him ¥100,000 each; and every member of both houses of the Diet, 736 in all, promised ¥50,000 each. (In fact, the only politician who paid up was Prime Minister Eisaku Sato — and Yokoi received only ¥100,000 in the end.)
But Yokoi was the people’s hero, and he traveled the country giving public lectures and pep talks, emerging as a critic of Japan’s “wasteful modern lifestyle.” This prewar tailor was appealing to values of thrift and self-reliance, not to mention blind adherence to duty, that were cherished in the Japan he grew up in.
But the Yokoi who was a popular public figure was actually, in private, a sad survivor from a past that Japanese wanted to disassociate themselves from as the years went on. The public cared little about his person, unaware that he was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, complicated by the onset of motor-neurone disease. Yokoi died on Sept. 22, 1997, at the age of 82.
The dilemma that remains for people of any nationality is one that President Obama studiously avoided in his Memorial Day address. That dilemma is: When you send soldiers out to kill in the name of an immoral and unjust war, can you close your eyes to your own guilt later? Can lofty talk of heroism and patriotism obscure the grim reality that each and every soldier must face at war’s end when it’s all over?
In fact, it’s never all over. Goodness cannot be restored, nor virtue claimed, by evildoers who start wars then exploit their soldiers’ heroism in the name of love of country — whether those evildoers be leaders of Japan, Germany, the United States or any other nation.
If the life and struggles of Private Yokoi tells us anything, it should tell us this.