Fifteenth in a series

In his childhood, war and militarism surrounded Tota Kaneko, a well-known haiku poet and retiree from the Bank of Japan. When he was a sixth-grader, Japan invaded Manchuria. By the time he was a student at Mito High School, Japan was waging total war against China.

Recalling the mood in his native, mountainous Chichibu region in Saitama Prefecture, Kaneko, now 88, said: "People there were overwhelmingly for the war because they felt that war would lift them out of their dire poverty. It had nothing to do with the ideology of Japan fighting a holy war ("seisen").

"When I was a kid, many young people from Chichibu who went to Manchuria came back and talked about their experience. To a kid like me, Manchuria looked like a place of great hope."

Kaneko, a graduate of the school of economics at the Imperial University of Tokyo, enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Navy. After he was sent to the front, he came to realize "war is just about mass killings." He's now a staunch believer in the war-renouncing postwar Constitution.

These days, when he is not busy spreading the joys of 17-syllable poems, he lectures about his war experience and the Constitution. "Japan must never use military force and engage in military operations abroad," he said.

Recalling his university years, Kaneko said, "We students were in agreement that the war Japan and the United States would wage would be an 'imperialist war' for expanding their economic spheres. We said that given America's vastly greater industrial power, Japan was destined for defeat and we should not support such a war." He described those days as a "strange period."

"About 60 percent of the economics students were attracted by the Marxist views about capitalism and half of the professors were Marxists or sympathizers of Marxism," he explained.

"Marxist books, including 'Das Kapital,' were available in town, although they were not used as textbooks. I made a presentation at a seminar citing 'Analysis of Japanese Capitalism' ('Nihon Shihonshugi Bunseki'), written by Moritaro Yamada, a famous Marxian economics scholar."

But despite his university beliefs, deep down inside, Kaneko had a different view: "I found myself thinking that if the war was inevitable, I would do my best to help my country win."

During Kaneko's first year in college, Imperial navy planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Thinking there was a slim chance that Japan could win the war, he opted to sign up.

"At the same time, I wanted to find a way in which I could avoid being drafted as a lowly recruit who would most likely to be killed at the front. In short, I was an easy-going, irresponsible student."

Because of the war, Kaneko graduated half a year early, in summer 1943. He then enlisted in the Naval Paymasters' School of the Imperial Navy in Shinagawa, Tokyo. Upon graduation in February 1944, he received the commission of sublieutenant 1st class.

In early March 1944, he left Kanagawa Prefecture aboard a Kawanishi H8K2 flying boat, or Nishiki Taitei, and arrived in the Truk Islands just after U.S. air raids devastated the Japanese naval base there in February.

An accounting officer in the Fourth Construction Unit of the Fourth Fleet, Kaneko, then 26, doubled as a disciplinary officer overseeing some 10,000 civilian workers. His job included monitoring civilian workers who used "comfort stations."

Kaneko saw three types of sex workers in the Truks: prostitutes, mainly from Okinawa and not connected with the military; women brought by a man from Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, to provide sex to civilian workers, and women providing sex to the troops and officers. He did not know how the third category of "comfort women" were brought to the Truks.

Recalling two days of U.S. air raids in April 1944, he said: "I saw the bodies of Japanese killed in the bombings. But I did not feel great shock. I thought it was just another scene of war."

It was not until later, after witnessing a homemade hand grenade test go horribly wrong, that his attitude changed.

The U.S. capture of the Mariana Islands in summer 1944 left the Imperial navy unit in the Truks short of arms. They decided to craft their own weapons. Kaneko's men made the hand grenade.

"I was sitting on top of a tank trap bank. Five to 6 meters away, a civilian worker was about to throw the hand grenade onto the beach when it exploded and blew off his right arm. Shrapnel also pierced the heart of a sublieutenant 2nd class, a veteran paratrooper, and he died instantly," Kaneko recalled.

"Several civilian workers and I carried the wounded worker to a hospital about 2 km away. But he was already dead. His blood covered us. His smell of death would not leave me, and I was unable to eat fish or meat for about half a year. I realized war was all about the cruel killing of people."

Kaneko began to question war. "I started to strongly feel that I was engaged in something that must not be done." The fall of the Marianas also caused a food shortage. The resultant deaths from starvation left Kaneko even more demoralized.

Kaneko and about 200 men moved from Natsu (Summer) Island, the headquarters site, to Aki (Autumn) Island around October 1944.

To overcome the food shortage, they planted Okinawa No. 100 sweet potatoes, which settlers from Okinawa brought to the islands. But night crawlers ruined the crop. When severe hunger set in, Kaneko and his men sometimes had to eat bats and lizards. The hospital was full, so he had quarters specially built for weakened workers.

"We were struggling on the fringe of subsistence. There were times when four or five people starved to death each day. I lost interest in my war duties," Kaneko said.

"Those who were dying had nothing to do with the war. They came to the Truks thinking that they could make money or find good women. The Truks had been publicized as a paradise in the Pacific, even written up in a school textbook.

"Although not responsible for the war, they experienced the worst simply because they were at the bottom of the military hierarchy. To see those most discriminated against die was the hardest thing. Because they were not really behind the war, their death was all the more tragic."

One or two days before Aug. 15, 1945, Kaneko heard of Japan's defeat via a radio broadcast from Melbourne.

"On Aug. 15, we gathered around noon and were told Japan had surrendered. By then we no longer had the will to fight. The whole island was in a state of lethargy — a feeling of meaninglessness. We were not moved by Japan's surrender. One navy officer cried, as sweat poured down his neck. But I could only look at him as if he had nothing to do with me," Kaneko said.

"I went back to my hut and thought, 'Everything is over. It's time for a new start.' "

Impulsively, Kaneko burned his diary and notes he had kept while reading the collected works of Chekhov in the Truks — an act he now deeply regrets. But he hid his haiku, which he had written on thin paper, inside a bar of soap and eventually brought them to Japan.

Here are two of them:

Umi ni aoi kumo, Iki-shini iwazu ikin to nomi. (Clouds above the ocean, Determined to live, without asking "To die or to live?")

Yashi no oka, Asayake shiruki hibi nariki. (Hills of palm trees, Those were days with a sky of strong red at dawn.)

In late 1945, Kaneko was moved to Haru (Spring) Island in the Truks as a prisoner of war. He worked on construction of a runway and roads under the supervision of the U.S. military.

"Looking at the young, vigorous U.S. GIs, I could not help remembering those civilian workers who died of hunger. My pity for them deepened. I thought I had to reform myself, having spent my youthful years being shallow, so that I could console the souls of those who died such pitiful deaths," Kaneko said.

After coming back to Japan, Kaneko went to work at the BOJ.

"Looking back, my thoughts may have been short-circuited. But when I saw low-paid BOJ employees working with gloomy faces in old military uniforms, I felt the feudalistic situation as seen in the BOJ was what drove Japan to war and it had to be changed."

He became active in the BOJ workers union and never rose high in the bank, even though he was a graduate of the Imperial University of Tokyo. He retired in 1974.

Looking back at the historical events that led Japan to war, Kaneko said, "Japan's biggest mistake was its invasion of Manchuria. The seed of Japan's mistake was the idea of using force to counter force. I wonder whether Japan could not have sought international reconciliation. After all, war is a tactic used by politicians. We have to think why politicians choose to engage in war. It is because it's the easiest choice."

These days, Kaneko believes an animistic approach to life is the way to abolish war. "When instinct is suppressed in an unnatural way, humans lose activeness and joyfulness. This causes a short circuit in human behavior and leads to war. In this sense, I opposed the attempt to impose moral education on children as was called for by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe," Kaneko said.

"We need to get back the sense that we are living together not only with other humans but also with other lives. Animism and ecological thinking are the way of the future."

In this series, we interview witnesses of Japan's march to war and its crushing defeat who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.