Tenth in a series

Shuichi Maeda worries about what will happen to society when elderly people who know firsthand the fear of war are gone.

That is why Maeda — who shipped out to central China in 1940 and fought for five long and bloody years — has written two memoirs, published privately in 1997 and 2002, to convey his experiences to younger generations.

During his seven years in the Imperial Japanese Army, Maeda witnessed a multitude of horrors, from brutal training to the gore of battle to his troops' atrocities.

"It's war. It's plain madness. No one was in a normal state of mind at that time," Maeda said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

"Every soldier endured the miseries of war and just hoped they'd return to Japan someday," the 88-year-old Maeda said in a resounding voice.

Born to a family running a green tea wholesale business in Shizuoka Prefecture, Maeda was drafted in 1939 when he was 20 years old.

He was sent to Nagoya to join a field artillery unit as one of 500 recruits and began training.

Before leaving for the front, Maeda received military education for 18 months. The first three were spent on basic army discipline and drills. Veterans used violence to punish new soldiers for the slightest disobedience.

At one point, the recruits were ordered to hold up their footwear at eye level and put their tongues out as they lined up for boot-polishing inspection. An upperclassman pushed the boots against their faces one by one, forcing them to lick the soles — which were still covered with horse manure.

"The military education was designed to teach young men (with different abilities and backgrounds) who knew nothing about war to become full-fledged soldiers in only three months," Maeda said.

Cleaning the soles of their boots was important to prevent them from getting damaged, which could lead to blisters and tetanus — possibly fatal at the battlefront.

"Once you lick it, you'll never forget, and that is how we were taught things," he said.

Maeda said he had no strong emotions about joining the army, but eventually he felt proud and responsible when he saw people's high expectations and respect for soldiers.

The day he and the others departed for China in July 1940, thousands of people came to see them off, waving Hinomaru flags amid rousing cheers and hurrahs.

"I was excited," Maeda said. He felt he was departing Japan in triumph.

What he found in China, however, was anything but glamorous.

Maeda joined about 2,000 soldiers stationed in Zhehe, Hubei Province, where he would spend the next four years. Their base, stretching 1,200 meters east to west and more than 500 meters north to south, was surrounded by walls. Chinese who lived in the area had been evicted.

Maeda, who later commanded a 200-strong unit, took part in 14 combat operations.

As part of an artillery unit, it was his job to fire in support of the infantry.

"No one wanted to fight in a war, and neither did I," Maeda said. "But I pretended to be aggressive because it was my job as a commissioned officer to motivate the troops."

Maeda saw many inexperienced soldiers become unhinged under fire. Some began laughing crazily and others froze with fear. There was even a soldier who just bolted naked toward the enemy.

He slapped some to shake them up and dragged them to cover. "I didn't have time to think about anything but dodging bullets. I thought I'd send them back home alive no matter how badly wounded they were."

Besides seeing his comrades die, he and his men also killed the enemy.

During the interview, Maeda found describing the situation too hideous for words. But he said he gave it a try in his books.

When the soldiers headed out on a mission, which sometimes lasted months, they marched for long hours day and night, regardless of rain, cold or heat. Exhausted, many fell ill before ever reaching their objective.

"After staying alert for a week without sleep, the soldiers were suddenly thrown onto a battlefield," he writes.

"Amid gunshots and shell bursts, you feel horrified. With no hope for the future, how can you keep calm?

"You see your fellow soldiers falling dead. When you see blood splattering and smell it, the animal nature in humans comes out and the life-or-death battle devolves into total chaos."

After defeating their enemy, Japanese soldiers were ordered to torch entire towns. After 1941, they also looted houses for food because supplies coming from Japan were running short.

Most of the people in the towns had already fled, although old women were sometimes left behind. They cried and begged that their homes be spared, but the soldiers kicked them and set the houses on fire. As a commissioned officer, Maeda could not disobey his commander's orders and had to watch his men loot and burn.

"It was a scene from hell," Maeda recalls in his memoirs. "Murder, arson and looting . . . war represents all the evil deeds you can think of."

Maeda said that when he heard about Japan's surrender on Aug. 16, 1945, he was speechless, but soon felt relieved that he would no longer have to see people killing each other and worry about getting shot.

Maeda and his comrades were interned that September but were released and allowed to return home four months later. They received no ill-treatment at the hands of the Chinese, and Maeda was grateful for their tolerance.

Looking at today's Japan, he wonders why after more than 60 years the country still can't settle war-related arguments over such issues as the "comfort women" and Yasukuni Shrine.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging Japan to formally apologize for the systematic coercion of young females across Asia into sexual slavery for wartime personnel.

An estimated 50,000 to 200,000 women were forced to work in frontline brothels during the war. Experts say women were kidnapped and forcibly taken to the brothels, where they were beaten and raped by Japanese soldiers.

But some hold the view that there were no sex slaves and that the military was not involved in forcibly taking the women to frontline brothels.

Maeda said there were about 100 Korean women working in brothels at the base in Zhehe. If he remembers correctly, the price was 1 yuan per hour and 5 yuan per night, paid in military currency. Only commissioned officers were allowed to stay the night.

Although Maeda is certain the military was at least indirectly involved, he said it was the Korean agents who brought the women to the brothels. But he has no idea how the agents brought them there.

"It was a business in the same manner as prostitutes at (legal) whorehouses in Japan back then," he said.

Maeda felt sorry for the women because they had to endure a harsh environment and were often beaten by the agents. But he believes some of them were sympathetic to the Japanese soldiers who had to live under harsh discipline and put their lives on the line in battle. He saw some cooking Korean food for soldiers who were soon to leave on a mission.

On the debate over politicians' visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead as well as 14 Class-A war criminals, he said the 14 should be removed from the shrine so that politicians and prime ministers can openly pay their respects to the war dead there.

"I think it's time for us to come to terms with the feelings toward these (war-related) problems."

Read more articles in the series Witness to War.