Entries in Pacific War (2)


Yasukuni, it ain't

During a long run in an unfamiliar corner of town this morning, I came upon a broad set of stone steps, flanked on either side by massive stone lanterns.

Thinking it was the entrance to a shrine, I climbed up the steps. To my surprise, I found a number of monuments dedicated to those who had died in modern Japan's wars and foreign engagements from the overthrow of the shogun and restoration of the Emperor to power, known as the Meiji Restoration (1886), to the Russo-Japan War (1904/5), the Manchurian Incident (1931), and on to the Pacific War which ended 72 years ago this summer. This sombre memorial to Japan's militaristic past is not listed on the map, nor were there any signs outside of the premises indicating what awaited visitors at the top of the stairs.




I will return in the summer during the Bon Festival to see if there are any special ceremonies taking place, like those which occur every year at Gokoku Jinja.


For more on "Tani Park", go here.


Summer of Loathing

   I don’t know of any other country where the destruction of war is as intricately woven into the fabric of the season as it is here in Japan. Throughout the estival months, documentaries and specials are broadcast on television and memorial services are held across the nation, reminding us of one needlessly tragic event in Japan's history after another.

Last photo of Buckner (right) just before he was killed.   The Battle of Okinawa began on April first and ended 82 bloody days later on the 21st of June. It was the largest, slowest, and bloodiest sea-land-air battle in American military history, claiming upwards of 250,000 lives (both military and civilian). My great uncle, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commanded the 10th Army, the main component of the expeditionary forces landing on Okinawa. On June 18th, just a few days before the end of hostilities on the island, he was struck down by enemy fire, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed in World War II.[1] General Mitsuru Ushijima, Buckner's Japanese counterpart in the battle, committed ritual suicide on June 22nd by first disemboweling himself with a tantô (short sword) and having a subordinate behead him.

   One of the more remarkable, and for many Westerners incomprehensible, features of the Battle of Okinawa were the kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese pilots against Allied ships. Although they had been used in earlier military campaigns, the peak in kamikaze attacks came on the 6th of April, when nearly 1500 pilots took off from bases in Kyûshû never to return.

USS Bunker Hill after being hit twice.   Many Americans, I think, would be surprised to learn that most of the young men piloting these planes were among Japan's best and brightest, college graduates from the nation's top universities. One of these doomed kamikaze pilots was the older brother of an octogenarian student of mine who would himself go on to become a professor of genetics at Kyûshû University, studying at Yale and Princeton in the 50s and 60s. He can still be brought to tears when recalling the senseless death of his brother who, he says, had showed so much promise.

   The ill-fated kamikaze attack coincides, incidentally, with the start of the swimming season at many beaches in Okinawa.

   Months before the Battle of Okinawa had begun, the U.S. Air Force under the command of Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay had been executing a massive bombing campaign against cities in Japan.[2] The most famous of these is the March 9-10th raid on Tôkyô when over three hundred low-flying B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped cluster bombs armed with napalm on the city. The deadliest air raid of the war, it would destroy 16 square miles or a quarter of the city and kill more than 100,000 people.[3]

   More raids were ordered: Nagoya (March 11/12th and again on the 14th and 16th), Ôsaka (March 13th) Kôbe (March 16/17th). LeMay intended to knock out every major industrial city in Japan in the next ten days, but ran out of bombs. Think about that.

   In Errol Morris’s provocative documentary Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brings the numbing stats of the raids home:

   “Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command.”

   On the 19th of June, the city of Fukuoka, too, was bombed,[4] some 200 tons of incendiary bombs being dropped on the city.[5] The neighboring towns of Tôsu, Kurume, Moji, Shimonoseki, and so on were also attacked. The fact that these relatively minor cities were also bombed to kingdom come makes me wonder if any town was spared LeMay's wrath. If he had had his way, the whole country would have been left in ruins. "We don't pause," LeMay would write later, "to shed any tears for uncounted hordes of Japanese who lie charred in that acrid-smelling rubble. The smell of Pearl Harbor fires is too persistent in our nostrils."

   The bombing of Fukuoka lasted for an hour and 42 minutes, destroying 3.77 square kilometers of the city and 33% of the buildings. 902 people were killed, another 586 seriously wounded, a small number when compared to the wholescale carnage inflicted upon Japan’s larger cities.

Reconnaissance photo of Fukuoka

Bombing of FukuokaDowntown Fukuoka (Tenjin) after the bombing

Damage assessment

   I have found some conflicting accounts online--the numbers don’t quite add up--but apparently on the day after the air raid, eight airmen out of the twelve to twenty Allied POWs being held in Fukuoka at a detention center where the courthouse is located today were taken to the neighboring Fukuoka Municipal Girls' High School[6], where they were hacked with swords and beheaded. They were the lucky ones. Another eight had been trucked a few days earlier to the Kyûshû Imperial University Medical Department (today’s Kyûshû University) where they were used in a total of four vivisection experiments on May 17 (2 men), May 22 (2 men), May 25 (1 man) and June 2 (3 men).[7] There was another incident on Aburayama that involved more torture and beheading of POWs.

   On July 16th, the first nuclear explosion was tested in America, proving that a nuclear bomb would work. Ten days later on July 26th, the US, Britain, and China issued the Potsdam Declaration which concluded with a “call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”

   That prompt and utter destruction came on August 6th when Hiroshima became the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. Three days later, Nagasaki was also nuked. Both days are solemn ones of remembrance for the victims of the bombings, which claimed 150,000 to 246,000 lives.

   Putting aside questions of the morality of dropping one, let alone two, atomic bombs on Japan after having already laid waste to most of the country with incendiaries, I have a problem with the bombings in that they allowed the Japanese to shift the focus of the discussion from one of remorse (look at the suffering we caused) to one of self-pity (look at how we suffered).

At noon on August 15th Emperor Hirohito read the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War effectively bringing the war to end. (What took you so long, Hiro?)[8] The date of Japan’s "surrender" happens to coincide with the final day of the Bon Festival of the Dead as it is observed in most of the country. This somber festival tends to signal the psychological end of summer in Japan, as I have written elsewhere

   I've always thought that making the 15th a national holiday--let's call it Heiwa no Hi (Peace Day)--would be an appropriate way to commemorate the end of the war. Most Japanese already have the day off anyways to attend to family business during the Bon holiday.

   So there you have it: the Japanese summer begins in Okinawa at pretty much the same time that the battle for the island commenced and comes to and end with the surrender of Japan.

   With all these gloomy milestones, it almost make me want to head back to the States this summer.


[1] A monument to General Buckner can be found at the place where he died atop a craggy knoll in Itoman City.

[2] American Experience produced an excellent documentary called “Victory in the Pacific” that can be viewed online at

[3] Many dispute the number of casualties, arguing that the population density of the city at the time would have ensured even higher casualty figures.

[4] You can read the Air Objective folder here. Regarding targets in Fukuoka, it says, “The most important industries lie south of Kyushu University—a landmark on the Bay. The most southerly target is Nippon Rubber Co. TARGET 1265 producing footwear and a few tires. Large buildings in thie area which are not considered targets include the Tofu Flour Co., Dai Nippon Beer Co., and Kanegafuchi Spinning Mill. Fukuoka Harbor TARGET 1255 has been enlarged by a filled extension which is capable of taking on ocean-going ships. This made land is now covered with warehouses and has railroad connections with the Kyushu RR network. The new extension is the only known wharf on the Fukuoka side of the bay capable of taking deep-draft vessels . . .Southeast of the wharf is the old town of Hakata containing many small industries. The only large plant is Watanabe Iron Works, Plant No.1 TARGET 1238 which produces ordnance and heavy machinery for the Navy . . . North of the Najima River are the Najima Steam Power Plant TARGET 664 and the Najima Seaplane Base TARGET 1237. The power plant is connected with the same grid as the large Omuta steam plants and must be considered as a potential source of power for both the Omuta Region and the Nagasaki-Sasebo Region, as well as the Fukuoka industries. The seaplane base has declined in importance with the development of the Fukuoka Air Station TARGET 663 across the bay.”

[5] A detailed “War Journal” of the 9th Bombardment Group can be found here.

[6] Today, it is the location of Akasaka Elementary School, just three blocks from my home.

[7] Toshio Tôno, the founder of the OB/GYN where my first son happened to be born, was present during these vivisection experiments and wrote an eyewitness account of it called Ômei: Kyûdai Seitai Kaibô Jiken no Shinsô. Tôno, Toshio, Disgrace: The Truth of the Kyûshû University Vivisection Incident, Tôkyô: Bungei Shunshû, 1979.

   One day when I went with my wife to Dr. Tôno's hospital, I found the book in the waiting room, there among the Japanese equivalent of Good Housekeeping and Parenting. What's this about, I wondered and started to read it. I couldn't put the book down. Dr. Tôno has devoted much of his life helping the families of the victims understand what happened and, hopefully, find closure. He was a good man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

   Other books on this and related topics can be found here. A list of atrocities committed and punishments meted out by the occupying forces can be found here.

[8] About 2.7 million Japanese (servicemen and civilians) were dead by the end of the war, 3-4% of the country’s population of 74 million. One quarter of the country’s wealth had been destroyed, including four fifths of its ships, one-third of all industrial machine tools, and a quarter of its rolling stock and motor vehicles. Living standards fell to 65% of prewar levels. Sixty-six major cities had been heavily bombed, and 30% of the population of those cities were now homeless. Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 37 – 46. 


The full transcript of the gyokuon hôsô (Imperial broadcast announcing the end of the war):
   After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.
   We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.
   To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.
   Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan's self- preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.
   But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest. (Understatement of the century.)
   Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
   Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.
   We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.
   The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains Our heart night and day.
   The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of Our profound solicitude.
   The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.
   Having been able to safeguard and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, We are always with you, Our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.
   Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strike which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.
   Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.
   Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.