Every August, NHK airs a lot of new documentaries to commemorate the end of World War II. The range of topics is not typically limited to events that happened in August 1945. This year’s crop covered newspaper propaganda leading up to the war; the infamous attempted coup by idealistic young officers on Feb. 26, 1936; the “phantom” aircraft carrier Shinano, which sank during its first voyage; and a look at surviving Japanese war brides of American soldiers.
The special that received the most attention was about recently discovered documents from 1952 that indicate Emperor Showa wanted to express remorse publicly for the war but was prevented from doing so by then-Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, who was reportedly afraid the monarch would be held responsible for the war. Given the general tenor of the emperor’s subsequent known attitude toward the country’s war legacy — he stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese soldiers who died in service, after Class-A war criminals were enshrined there — NHK’s revelation was not surprising. However, it did highlight the notion that there are still matters related to the war that the public doesn’t know about.
In that regard, the most notable of this year’s remembrance specials was “Hidden War Cooperation: Korean War and Japanese,” which received almost no major media attention despite its tantalizing premise: Japanese nationals were caught up in the fighting and died alongside U.S. troops in the Korean War (1950-53). NHK, with the help of scholar Tessa Morris-Suzuki, discovered 1,033 pages of interviews with Japanese who fought in the war conducted by the U.S. military starting in 1951. The transcripts were labeled “top secret” and the interviewees had pledged never to reveal their involvement since Japan had renounced war and military action forever in its postwar Constitution. At the time, Japan was still under the Allied Occupation and thus compelled by the U.S. military to provide logistical and material support for the war, which was ostensibly being waged between the United Nations and North Korea following the latter’s invasion of South Korea.
That much of Japan’s involvement has always been known but, despite accusations from North Korea and its ally, China, there has never been much documentary evidence that Japanese personnel were being used as soldiers.
The program was divided into two segments. In the first, Morris-Suzuki explains how she came upon the 70 interviews by accident while conducting research into Japanese companies that manufactured U.S. munitions for the Korean War. The interviewees provided support to U.S. troops in the form of working as drivers, cooks, barbers and so forth. Those who were assigned to work on the front lines were given weapons and ammunition, presumably for self-defense purposes but, as a number of interviewees testified, they killed enemy combatants. One said he didn’t know how many people he killed.
Employees of U.S. military bases earned around three times what the average Japanese public official made right after the war. It was coveted work. About 8,000 Japanese people held jobs related to the Korean War, most of them in ports preparing for the dispatch of American troops. Those sent to the peninsula were often called upon to interpret between locals and U.S. military personnel, since many Koreans at the time still spoke Japanese due to Japan’s colonial rule (1910-45). In addition, maps were still written in kanji rather than Hangul.
In one interview, a man named Tamotsu Ueno, who worked at Camp Kokura in Kitakyushu, said he was sent to Taejon, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. An American veteran living in Wisconsin told NHK that he was aware Japanese workers were fighting alongside him at Taejon. NHK tracked down some of the interviewees’ descendants, including Ueno’s. Many held suspicions about their relatives’ work on the Korean Peninsula but never knew the truth. They found an interviewee, alive and residing in a nursing home, who admitted, for the first time to anyone, that he traveled to the Korean Peninsula. Ueno’s younger brother reveals he died in the late 1950s, ironically in a fight at another American base, but the family never knew about his time on the peninsula. All these men kept their oath of confidentiality.
The program’s second segment focused on Japanese nationals who died in battle, in particular a man named Shigeharu Hiratsuka, who miraculously survived his stint as an imperial soldier on New Guinea during World War II. He supported his parents and siblings after the war by working at a U.S. base in Roppongi, initially as a painter. The Americans nicknamed him “Neo.” He disappeared after the Korean War started and, sometime later, his family learned that he had died. Hiratsuka’s family asked the U.S. military to explain the cause of death and received a letter and photo saying that he had died after being smuggled onto the Korean Peninsula. The family didn’t believe Hiratsuka was a criminal, but couldn’t uncover anything more from the Occupation authorities.
Using its considerable resources, NHK discovered other Japanese nationals working for the Americans whose deaths during this period are unclear, the implication being that the U.S. military was covering up their involvement in the conflict, which would have been illegal under the terms of the Occupation.
The fruits of their investigation are both shocking and poignant. Hiratsuka, as it turned out, “volunteered” to follow his “master,” Maj. William McClain, to the Korean Peninsula. He was hit by an artillery shell at the battle of Kasan. This intelligence came out in a letter McClain entrusted to a Japanese-American veteran living in Hawaii. The veteran said McClain carried a heavy sense of guilt over Hiratsuka’s death. The veteran gave Hiratsuka’s brother the lapel pin for McClain’s regiment, saying that Hiratsuka deserves to be mourned as a member. The brother wore it when he traveled to Kasan to try and locate Hiratsuka’s remains, but all he could do was pray in front of a mass grave containing the bones of unknown combatants. Until that moment, Hiratsuka was just another unknown casualty of war. From now on, he’ll be a symbol for something more troubling.