It’s staggering to think that, at the end of the Pacific War, almost 7 million Japanese servicemen and civilians were awaiting repatriation in various parts of Asia.

Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, by Yoshikuni Igarashi.
320 pages

That figure makes sense in light of the considerable size of the Japanese empire, which then stretched from New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, from Burma to Manchuria and Hong Kong.

Reintegration into everyday life proved far easier for those Japanese soldiers who returned immediately from overseas. Prisoners of war who were detained for years in Siberian and Chinese camps, however, or stragglers who held out in the jungles on Pacific islands, would find that many of their remembered landscapes, particularly where bombed-out cities were concerned, had been erased.

Yoshikuni Igarashi divides his scrupulously researched book on this topic into three sections: First is the mass media’s representation of returning soldiers and the efforts of writers from their ranks to refute these characterizations; second is a portrait of those who returned alive from Soviet internment camps and a chronicle of their subsequent lives; and the last chapters examine the belated return of soldiers from the South Pacific in the 1970s.

The author also provides a fascinating analysis of postwar filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and Heinosuke Gosho, whose films, including “Stray Dog” and “Yellow Crow,” examined the fate of returnee soldiers as they grappled with their assigned roles in postwar Japanese society. If the media largely exploited the returnees in the service of stirring stories of national reconstruction, filmmakers, portraying ex-soldiers as either broken men desperately in need of support or a public menace, took the time to show the agonies of adjusting to civilian life in an ungrateful country in more depth.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese military personnel were interned in Siberian labor camps, where the harsh working conditions and climate resulted in the death of over 100,000 of them. Clad in heavy Soviet-made winter gear, some of those who returned, to the alarm of Japanese authorities, were discovered to be Communist sympathizers. The presence of “reds” in the returnee ranks sowed further distrust among the Japanese public, and in a clear case of guilt by association, many companies openly discriminated against former POWs by refusing to employ them.

The author Junpei Gomikawa was among those unable to secure legitimate employment after coming home. As a member of a Marxist study group, Gomikawa had experienced two months in detention before the war, and as a returnee soldier he later revisited the subject of his own complicity in the war with an ambitious six-volume novel, “The Human Condition,” published between 1956 and 1958.

Igarashi holds that, in order to expunge his remorse at failing to stand up against the wartime regime, Gomikawa employed a fictional alter ego to re-experience and deal with the past in accord with the dictates of his suppressed conscience and personal beliefs. For tormented writers, coping with their roles in the war could become quite complex. The poet Yoshiro Ishihara, Igarashi notes, proclaimed that his objective was to “actively claim ownership of his humiliation as a means of intellectually overcoming it.”

Meanwhile, two of the three island stragglers Igarashi examines had strikingly different experiences after returning home. A bedraggled Shoichi Yokoi, captured by hunters in a cave in Guam in January 1972, later turned into a harmless, chain-smoking recluse. Whatever demons he harbored remained largely hidden following his official rehabilitation.

By contrast, the authorities found the story of Hiro Onoda, a marvel of good health considering he had been holed up on the island of Lubang in the Philippines from the end of the war until the spring of 1974, more difficult to deal with. Casting himself as a defiant guerrilla warrior, Onoda had carried on his own war for almost 30 years, with Filipino civilians, many of them peasants, taking the place of U.S. combatants as his enemies.

This was a tale the Japanese government was less inclined to tell. Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, eager to promote stronger economic ties with a resurgent Japan, had pardoned Onoda of his many crimes against the populace, an aspect of the story that was scantly covered by Japanese media outlets quick to acquiesce to government pressure.

Igarashi highlights the problems of dealing accurately with history when he writes that postwar Japanese society was “eager to sentimentalize, but not to sympathize with, the plight of the returned captives.” The author deftly examines the conflict between the need for returnees to verbalize their experiences and the government’s attempt to smother the past, burying the legacies of war and colonialism under a newer, brighter postwar narrative.

For many of these returnees, unable to consign their memories to oblivion, the nightmares that haunted their final years were only partly assuaged by the comforts of life in postwar Japan.

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