Over on this 島国 (shimaguni, island nation), the month of August has never really been about vacations and relaxation, at least not since 1945. This month marks 71 years since the 敗戦 (haisen, defeat in World War II), and many on the archipelago go through the end of summer nursing the pain of an old, old wound.
In the media, war themes are revisited time and again: the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the 特攻隊 (tokkōtai, suicide kamikaze platoons), many of whose pilots were of a tender age; the 本土大空襲 (hondodaikūshū, the firebombing of mainland Japan) that killed anywhere between 240,000 to a million civilians (the numbers vary greatly between different sources) and that went on until the very day of the 玉音放送 (gyokuon hōsō, the Emperor’s radio announcement that Japan had surrendered) on Aug. 15. To escape the recounting of the war years and the emotional baggage that comes with it, many people I know take flights out to 海外 (kaigai, overseas). As my friend Kanako, who is now in Thailand, always says, 8月の日本は悲しい (Hachigatsu no Nihon wa kanashii, “August in Japan is sad”).
On the other hand, we’ve gone a formidable number of years without seeing violence and destruction, though historians such as 司馬遼太郎 (Ryotaro Shiba) have repeatedly written that this is a 見せかけの平和 (misekake no heiwa, pretense of peace) that’s not to be trusted. Maybe he was right, but the majority of Japanese would choose pretense over a real war any time, as was demonstrated by the heartfelt protests over the Shinzo Abe administration’s move to change parts of the 第９条 (daikyūjō, Article 9) “peace clause” in the so-called 平和憲法 (heiwa kenpō, peace Constitution).
I spoke with a woman who was but a fetus in her mother’s womb in Nagasaki when the nuclear bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 9, 1945. Fortunately her mother survived that day, but she contracted leukemia and thyroid cancer several years after giving birth. When the woman was 11 years old, her mother died and she herself was diagnosed with 原爆症 (genbakushō, A-bomb-related illnesses). She regularly attends Nagasaki’s 原爆病院 (genbakubyōin, “atom bomb hospital”), where the majority of patients are people like her, affected by default just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and having to pay for it with a lifetime of suffering. 戦争だけは嫌だ (Sensō dake wa iyada, “Anything but war”), she said.
For the first 10 years after the surrender, the nation was pretty much in chaos on every level of existence. 戦争孤児 (sensōkoji, war orphans) crowded the streets and eked out a living by cleaning the shoes of 米軍兵士 (beigun heishi, U.S. soldiers). Prostitutes, popularly known as パンパン (panpan), lined up around 数寄屋橋 (Sukiyabashi) in Ginza, hoping to land some clients before the 終電 (shūden, last train) left Yurakucho Station. Racketeers often teamed up with the U.S. military to sell foodstuffs and surplus army goods on the 闇市 (yami’ichi, black market), and the traces of their businesses are still evident in places like アメ横 (Ame-yoko) in Ueno, certain streets in 蒲田 (Kamata), 川崎 (Kawasaki) and, to a lesser degree now, 秋葉原 (Akihabara).
In homes, there was never enough to eat. During the first year after the surrender, people had to choose between one of two options: starve on meager rations or scramble for food on the black market. The lack of staples like sugar, salt and rice was a desperate problem. My grandmother said that when she had her first sip of コカコーラ (koka-kōra, Coca-Cola) in the early 1950s, the sweetness was such that she thought she’d died and gone to heaven.
Another problem was 衛生 (eisei, sanitation), especially in major urban areas that had been heavily bombed. Homeless and destitute, a good many people lived in バラック小屋 (barraku-goya, barrack shanties) residents had crafted with their bare hands from abandoned or charred 廃材 (haizai, scrap materials). Whole families of six or seven piled up in shed-like structures, measuring roughly 9 square meters per unit. The government banned people from building proper-sized houses — the utter lack of materials, right down to shingles and nails, meant tiny, cramped spaces with no running water, kitchen or even a futon for each person.
The 銭湯 (sentō, public bathhouses) operated only several times a week, and when they did they were packed to the gills. Past 6 p.m., the hot water in the big 浴槽 (yokusō, hot tub) was a dingy gray. Still, お風呂に入る喜び (ofuro-ni-hairu yorokobi, the joy of bathing) was considerable, especially during the months from June until September, when the 高温多湿 (kōontashitsu, high temperature and high humidity) weather kicked in and personal hygiene became crucial.
Seven decades later, the Japanese still love their お風呂 (ofuro , baths) and almost everyone is an 甘党 (ametō, person with a sweet tooth). And August remains a month when most of us, in varying degrees of discomfort and sadness, pay tribute to the 戦死者 (senshisha, war dead).