Diaries Tell Story of Japan's War at Home Relatively little attention has been paid to the diaries of ordinary Japanese people during World War II. Samuel Hideo Yamashita, a historian of modern Japan at Pomona College, tells Scott Simon about his book, Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies. It translates the diaries of eight people who endured the war.
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Diaries Tell Story of Japan's War at Home

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Diaries Tell Story of Japan's War at Home

Diaries Tell Story of Japan's War at Home

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On August 6th, 1945, an atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, and killed 80,000 people in a flash of heat and fire and injured tens of thousands more with radiation. At the end of that day from the countryside hundreds of miles north of Hiroshima, nine-year-old Nakani Mahoko(ph) wrote this in her diary.

Unidentified Girl: `Today, we swam in the morning. We swam upstream from the Hokamitza Bridge(ph), which was a real neat place to swim. Then we popped rice, which was really delicious. In the afternoon, we took a nap.'

SIMON: Nakani did not yet know about the atomic bomb, nor did a great many ordinary Japanese people. They were living out the final months of World War II in a kind of isolation, in which news came slowly, if at all. The wartime diaries of Nakani and other Japanese citizens tell a story of ordinary daily life at a most extraordinary time. The Japanese home front disappeared into the front line.

For the first time, some of these diaries have been published in English. Historian Samuel Yamashita has collected and translated eight diaries in the book, "Leaves From an Autumn of Emergencies." He joins us from the studios of member station KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. SAMUEL YAMASHITA ("Leaves From an Autumn of Emergencies"): My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us some of the places these diaries are from. Who wrote them?

Dr. YAMASHITA: Well, two of the diaries were written by servicemen. I translated the diaries of two women in Tokyo. One of them was the wife of a Tokyo doctor. Another of the women was a single working woman who continues to try to go to work every morning in the midst of the firebombing. I also translated the diary of a 16-year-old teen-age girl in southern Japan who was mobilized for war work. And then finally two children's diaries, an 11-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, who were evacuated from Tokyo before the bombing intensified.

SIMON: What did you learn from reading these diaries that struck you and affected you, surprised you?

Dr. YAMASHITA: Oh, Scott, I learned many, many things--first of all, that not all Japanese supported the war. Most Japanese were quite supportive of their government and their military at the outset, but beginning in 1943, that morale began to sag and people's views changed as food became scarcer. And then once the bombing of the Japanese home islands began in earnest in the fall of 1944, morale dipped very low as people began to be afraid and, of course, as more people were killed. Another thing that surprised me was the existence of social conflict, that there was quite a lot of class conflict in Japan during the war. People were desperately hungry, and so they stole food. And people in the cities began to resent farmers, who seemed to have more food, and so an interesting sort of tension developed between ordinary urban dwellers and farmers.

SIMON: We want to run an excerpt from Nakani Mahoko's diary again. And I guess she was among Japanese children who were evacuated from the cities...

Dr. YAMASHITA: Yes, that's right.

SIMON: ...during the bombing and sent to the countryside, and so here's another excerpt from her diary, June 17, 1945.

Unidentified Girl: `Today was a spiritual training day for the whole school and we did something different. We did hand-to-hand combat. We used our foreheads to butt off the chest of the person in front of us, thrust our hands into their armpits and to push with our feet firmly planted on the ground. Then when that was done, we went to Yoshikutal Sen-Sei Station(ph) where we practiced spearing, and it was really fun. I was tired but I realized that even one person can kill a lot of the enemy.'

Dr. YAMASHITA: There were many, many Japanese who had prepared themselves to fight to the bitter end, and sadly, children and teen-agers were among the most ardent.

SIMON: For people in Japan, the war really began in 1937 when Japan invaded China. So a nine-year-old would have only known war.

Dr. YAMASHITA: That's correct. And Nakani seemed not fully to understand what war was really like. When I visited Fukumitsu, the town where nine-year-old Mahoko Nakani and her classmates were evacuated, I ran into a woman whose family had taken in four of the children in Nakani's group. And this woman remembered quite vividly that every morning as the children left the house to go to school, they would step outside the house, they would immediately turn and face Tokyo and say, `Good morning, Mother and Father,' and that at night after they climbed into their futon and before they went to bed, they all turned and faced Tokyo and said, `Good night, Mother and Father.'

SIMON: Another excerpt that struck us--a diary of a Japanese woman writing in 1944, December, taking...

Dr. YAMASHITA: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: ...a look at the US B-29s flying overhead, and she writes, `I was entranced by their glittering, their white beautiful bodies. All we could do was look at the advancing American planes, which seemed to be pulling the moving patterns of flying clouds.' My gosh, what an ineffably lovely image.

Dr. YAMASHITA: That reaction was very common. The bombers at that point were also bombing from over 20,000 feet. So you couldn't hear them, but you could see them, and they were bombing in the middle of the day. And B-29s had silver bodies and they shimmered in the sun...

SIMON: Yeah.

Dr. YAMASHITA: ...and were quite beautiful.

SIMON: Another excerpt, the diary of Aiko Takahashi, learned that the surrender would come ahead of time, but she felt she had to keep it a secret. Let's listen to her entry in her diary dated August 10, 1945.

Unidentified Woman: `The same sort of strange bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima three days ago was dropped on Nagasaki today. This bomb possesses extraordinary power. Up to now, we've been ordered not to wear white garments because they were easy for enemy planes to see. Now we are warned not to wear black garments because they burn easily. So what in the world is safe for us to wear? We have no choice but to die or go crazy. I can't help but hate those responsible for placing human beings in this situation and continuing the war.'

Dr. YAMASHITA: Takahashi was angry for much of the war, as were other ordinary people, and despite their resistance to the war, it was very difficult for them not to do as they were told because food was distributed through what were called neighborhood association. And if you chose not to comply with the orders that came down from the government, then truly you starved to death.

SIMON: Dr. Yamashita, how much did Japanese civilians know about the war?

Dr. YAMASHITA: They knew very little. The censorship of the press was quite extreme. So all people could do was to read carefully what little appeared in the press. They also learned the world `gyvokusai,' which means `shattered jewel,' which was a euphemism for the complete defeat and death of Japanese troops. It was first used to refer to the deaths of Japanese soldiers on the island of Attu in the Aleutian Islands in, I believe, April of 1943 when they were wiped out. That became a signal or an index of the sagging fortunes of the Japanese military.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section of a diary, Private Seke Nomora(ph).

Dr. YAMASHITA: Nomora was part of defending Japanese army in Okinawa and, of course, they were defeated by the Allies, and he managed to survive. So he hid out in caves during the day and would come out at night to forage for food. And Nomora manages to evade, he and his fellows, the pacification teams that come searching for them.

SIMON: You have a section there.

Dr. YAMASHITA: It's an August 10th, 1945, entry.

(Reading) `I heard stories about officers and men who shouted, "Long live the emperor" and then went off to their deaths. And I felt even more than before how futile this was. This, I could never do. The emperor was too distant, a presence that had nothing to do with me. Somehow I just couldn't get used to the idea of shouting `Banzai!' and dying for him. I have fought not for the emperor but for the homeland where my more familiar parents and siblings, relatives and friends lived, and for the ancestral country. Nor was this my view alone except for the officers and men who shout, "Long live the emperor," isn't this how most officers and men think?'

SIMON: Was that how most officers and men thought?

Dr. YAMASHITA: Apparently many, if not most, did, and studies conducted during the war and after the war that polled servicemen and ordinary civilians on their feelings about the emperor discovered that many people were actually indifferent towards the emperor.

SIMON: I wonder, Dr. Yamashita, have these diaries inspired or provoked people in Japan to examine the role of a Japanese civilian in World War II?

Dr. YAMASHITA: Scott, there's been great interest among historians in the war from the moment the war ended, and, of course, much of that scholarly effort is focused on determining who is to blame and ascertaining responsibility for the decision to go to war and for the various decisions that enabled the war to continue in the way that it did. The other thing that's been interesting is that in the '80s and '90s a number of veterans came forward to confess and to admit to the commission of atrocities. And so I suspect there are also those who see those who died in the war as individuals who died in a sacred war.

SIMON: Samuel Yamashita is a historian at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He translated and edited the World War II diaries of ordinary Japanese in a book titled "Leaves From an Autumn of Emergencies." He joined us from Pasadena.

Dr. Yamashita, thank you so much.

Dr. YAMASHITA: Thank you.

SIMON: Our thanks to Sy Kamora(ph) and Rick O'Hari(ph) for their readings.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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