Historian Tadatoshi Fujii has one main worry about today’s Japanese: their ignorance of the basic facts about the Imperial armed forces and the nature of the wars they waged.
He fears this prevents a full understanding of how Japan’s military affected the lives of both the people where it fought and the Japanese.
“Some younger generation researchers have emerged, taking up the study of the Imperial Japanese armed forces. But they do not understand the most basic thing about Japan’s modern armed forces (after the Meiji Restoration) — conscription. This is really annoying, ” Fujii, 70, said in an interview.
He described conscription as a system that deprives people of their basic freedom and rights, turning them into soldiers.
And those who refused to obey orders could and did face execution.
“Younger researchers do not even understand the difference between officers and enlisted men,” Fujii said.
“Officers voluntarily chose their careers. Enlisted men in most cases had jobs and wives and children and were separated from their communities by legal force and had a different view or prospect of life from officers.”
Fujii believes that seeing the Imperial forces from the perspective of enlisted men will counter the tendency to view Japan’s wars as a detached observer and will help develop a sense of empathy with people actually affected by Japan’s military and wars.
His latest book, “Hei-tachi no Senso” (“Soldiers’ War”), published by Asahi Shimbun at the beginning of this year, describes how conscripts felt, what they thought and how they behaved during the 1937-1945 conflicts in China and the Pacific. Fujii analyzed soldiers’ letters, wills, diaries, memos and memoirs on their wartime experiences to encourage readers to see them as real people instead of as part of the military machine.
Part of his book deals with wills left by soldiers, especially those conscripted for the Sino-Japanese War. Fujii found that many soldiers, particularly from agricultural villages, specified measures to protect the livelihood of their wives in the semifeudal and semipatriarchal communities they were from in case of their deaths in action.
Fujii earlier studied how an elaborate social apparatus developed over several decades to stifle criticism from families and communities when young men were sent off to war.
He found that this system contained elaborate social devices.
Enlisted men, for example, were given sendoff parties and rallies, prayer meetings and processions with banners and small Hinomaru flags to instill a national spirit. Soldiers killed in action were listed in newspapers, in many cases their remains were returned, memorial services and funerals were held and telegrams of praise and condolence from the army minister were sent to families.
The military also awarded the Kinshi Kunsho, or Order of the Golden Kite, to soldiers killed in action and enshrined them at Yasukuni Shrine.
“These practices, including those to console the souls of the war dead, worked to suppress sorrow and dissatisfaction,” Fujii said. “They also served to make possible another round of (conscription) and to receive support for the state’s war effort.”
Fujii said that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other politicians seem ignorant of the role Yasukuni Shrine played in this nationwide mobilization.
“One should also know the discriminatory nature of Yasukuni Shrine,” Fujii added. “First of all, people of other Asian countries killed by the Japanese armed forces are excluded. Even many Japanese are excluded.”
Fujii opposes looking at war under the trappings of heroism. He said his research made him reflect on soldiers who died miserable deaths through hunger or disease, those who straggled, disappeared or died, those sentenced to death by Japanese military tribunals on grounds of desertion, and ordinary citizens killed in air raids by the U.S.
Yasukuni Shrine, whose original purpose was to honor those who fought and died for emperors since the civil war that led to the Meiji Restoration, does not seem an appropriate place to console the souls of all victims of Japan’s wars, Fujii said.
Japan should not forget the nature of the war it waged in China, which he considers the pivotal war for modern Japan in that it set precedents for the behavior of the military in later fighting and triggered the war with the Allied forces.
“Initially, Japan tried to turn northern China into a buffer zone to protect its interests in Manchuria, which Japan had colonized, triggering resistance from the Chinese,” Fujii said.
“As the war dragged on, Japan could not clearly spell out its purpose. Therefore it could not issue a declaration of war. The concept of the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was a latter attempt to justify Japan’s behavior.
“Under these circumstances, Japan developed an ideological trick. First, it postulated that its armed forces were ‘kogun’ or the emperor’s armed forces. Those who resisted this were then regarded as refusing to abide by the emperor’s will. Such elements must be corrected and punished at any cost. Thus the military aggression was called a ‘seisen’ (holy war).
“The military and mass media injected this ideology into the people. Many of the soldiers sent to China must have asked themselves why they were fighting in China. But the consciousness that they were members of kogun helped convince them they were doing the right thing.”
Fujii also pointed out that the army fought in China without due consideration to international law, which led to seizure of Chinese people’s property, especially food, and the almost wholesale killing of Chinese prisoners-of-war, most notably in the Nanjing Massacre.
The fact that Japan attributed its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 to the “kogeki seishin” (aggressive spirit) of its soldiers eventually created armed forces with unusual characteristics, according to Fujii.
These included the demand for total dedication, even to the point of fighting hand to hand, the refusal to surrender and the reluctance to take prisoners and consequent lack of training on how to treat POWs under international law.
These factors formed the background to the suicide attacks in the Pacific against an overwhelming enemy presence, Fujii said.
He also said the killing of Chinese POWs inhibited Japanese soldiers from surrendering in the Pacific. They believed they would suffer a similar fate should they surrender to the Allies.
Touching on the relationship between Japanese people and war, Fujii said, “The people thought the armed forces were propping up Japan’s modernization process. So they accepted war.
“But this was a myth. The myth worked only as long as Japan was winning.
“The people did not notice that the situation changed during the 1937-1945 war in China.”
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