I have spent much of the last three days translating material for a retrospective exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Tsuneo Enari, who for nearly 40 years has been obsessed with documenting the human cost of Japan’s wars in Asia and the Pacific, in the twelve-year period from the Mukden Incident on September 18, 1933, which provided Japan’s excuse for the invasion of north China and August 5, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies. He was, he says, drawn to this work by encounters with Japanese orphans, abandoned during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the end of the war and raised by Chinese foster parents in China. This led him to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to his most recent project, “Islands of Wailing Ghosts,” photographing the remains of the war on islands in the Pacific, where some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought. “Wailing ghosts” is a reference to a Tang Dynasty Chinese scholar’s report on imperial battlefields where the restless spirits of the unburied dead were said to wail at night.
Today’s translation was of a piece by historian of modern Japan Daikichi Irokawa, who was a student mobilized during the closing years of the war to command a torpedo boat packed with explosives and intended to make a suicide attack on the American fleet that was soon expected to arrive in Japanese waters. His sailors balked and the war ended before he had to carry out his mission.
In his essay, Irokawa describes an incident during a 1974 trip to Saipan, whose fall marked the beginning of the end for the Japanese empire in the Pacific. He writes,
From Marpi, at the northern tip of the island, I drove to Galapan. In the astonishing glow of a South Pacific sunset, the red flowers on the flame trees seemed soaked in blood. In the passenger seat was a young hitchhiker, humming through his nose, who knew nothing about what had happened here. This, however, was the road along which, just 30 years before, the surviving Japanese soldiers had died during their last banzai attack. I was choked up and my hands, gripping the steering wheel were shaking. Now this place is called Harakiri Gulch.
The gap between his own response and that of the young hitchhiker, for whom the war is only a distant memory, is striking. Near the end of the essay, he summarizes data on the human cost of the war.
Yoshida Yutaka, an historian of modern Japan, has recently proposed that the number of Pacific War dead should be, at a minimum, 3.1 million: 2.3 million Japanese soldiers, 300,000 Japanese civilians killed overseas, and 500,000 Japanese civilians in Japan killed by allied air raids. To these we can add more than 10 million Chinese soldiers and civilians, 200,000 Koreans, 1.11 million Filipinos, 30,000 Taiwanese, 100,000 Malaysians and Singaporians. Combining these with the dead from Vietnam and Indonesia, the total rises to over 19 million. By far the largest number of victims of this war started by Japan were Asian (Yoshida Yutaka 2007, Ajia Taiheiyo Senso (The Asia-Pacific War), Iwananami Shinsho).
From a domestic perspective, the Pacific War is the biggest thing that has ever happened to the Japanese people. One man in four was conscripted; when Japan surrendered there were 7.2 million Japanese soldiers, of whom 2.8 million were killed or wounded. Half of all Japanese households had sent soldiers to war, a proportion on a par with Germany. The than three million Japanese who were killed were members of one in five households, mourned by more than 20 million family members. A million wives lost their husbands; millions of children lost their fathers; millions of parents lost their sons. The war produced countless widows, widowers and orphans.
About 3.5 million Japanese who had emigrated overseas lost their homes and were left with nothing but what they could carry on their backs. Fifteen million people had their homes destroyed. Five million were left unemployed; 3.5 million students were mobilized; three million women worked in factories. Countless people died of sickness and injury following air raids, atomic bombings or war-caused famine.
I think about America’s current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quick Google searches bring up Iraq Body Count figures that indicate a total of 150, 726 reported casualties between the years 2003 and 2010, though as the report cited indicates, many deaths may have gone unreported (some estimates are upward of one million). In contrast, the total number of U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq is 4,770, fewer than were killed in the battle for Saipan alone. Quick calculations indicate that U.S. casualties are about 3.2% of the total in Iraq, while Japanese deaths accounted for 16.3% of those during the Asia-Pacific War. Will historians see our current wars as wars, or only skirmishes? How will they treat the difference between an experience like that of Japan, where everyone was affected directly or indirectly, and that of American civilians for whom domestic issues loom far larger than wars that take place somewhere “over there” in the distance and, unless we have service members in the family, affect us directly not at all?