By David Powers
By the end of World War Two,
When Emperor Hirohito made his first ever broadcast to the Japanese people on 15 August 1945, and enjoined his subjects 'to endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable', he brought to an end a state of war - both declared and undeclared - that had wracked his country for 14 years.
He never spoke explicitly about 'surrender'
or 'defeat', but simply remarked that the war 'did not turn in
To most Japanese - not to mention those who
had suffered at their hands during the war - the end of hostilities came as
blessed relief. Yet not everybody was to lay down their arms. Tens of thousands
of Japanese soldiers remained in
Other, smaller groups continued fighting on
Guadalcanal, Peleliu and in various parts of the
'Lieutenant Onoda... doggedly refused to lay down his arms...'
Two years earlier, another Japanese soldier,
Corporal Shoichi Yokoi, had been found fishing in the
Lieutenant Onoda, by contrast, doggedly refused to lay down his arms until he received formal orders to surrender. He was the sole survivor of a small band that had sporadically attacked the local population. Although one of them surrendered in 1950 after becoming separated from the others, Onoda's two remaining companions died in gun battles with local forces - one in 1954, the other in 1972.
After early attempts to flush them out had failed, humanitarian missions were sent to Lubang to try to persuade Lieutenant Onoda and his companions that the war really was over, but they would have none of it. Even today, Hiroo Onoda insists they believed the missions were enemy tricks designed to lower their guard. As a soldier, he knew it was his duty to obey orders; and without any orders to the contrary, he had to keep on fighting.
To survive in the jungle of Lubang, he had kept virtually constantly on the move, living off the land, and shooting cattle for meat. Onoda's grim determination personifies one of the most enduring images of Japanese soldiers during the war - that Japanese fighting men did not surrender, even in the face of insuperable odds.
'...Japanese fighting men did not surrender, even in the face of insuperable odds.'
Before hostilities with the Allies broke out, most British and American military experts held a completely different view, regarding the Japanese army with deep contempt. In early 1941, General Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Far East, reported that one of his battalion commanders had lamented, 'Don't you think (our men) are worthy of some better enemy than the Japanese?'
This gross underestimation can in part be
explained by the fact that
The speed and ease with which the Japanese
sank the British warships, the Repulse
and the Prince of Wales, off
Although some Japanese were taken prisoner,
most fought until they were killed or committed suicide. In the last, desperate
months of the war, this image was also applied to Japanese civilians. To the
horror of American troops advancing on
Not only were there virtually no survivors of
the 30,000 strong Japanese garrison on
The other enduring image of total sacrifice
is that of the kamikaze pilot, ploughing his plane
packed with high explosives into an enemy warship. Even today, the word
'kamikaze' evokes among
What in some cases inspired - and in others, coerced - Japanese men in the prime of their youth to act in such a way was a complex mixture of the times they lived in, Japan's ancient warrior tradition, societal pressure, economic necessity, and sheer desperation.
'The other enduring image of total sacrifice is that of the kamikaze pilot, ploughing his plane packed with high explosives into an enemy warship.'
By the beginning of the 20th century,
But as shockwaves of the Great Depression
reached Japanese shores at the end of the 1920s, democracy proved to have
extremely shallow roots indeed. The military became increasingly
Nationalists and militarists alike looked to the past for inspiration. Delving into ancient myths about the Japanese and the Emperor in particular being directly descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, they exhorted the people to restore a past racial and spiritual purity lost in recent times.
They were indoctrinated from an early age to revere the Emperor as a living deity, and to see war as an act that could purify the self, the nation, and ultimately the whole world. Within this framework, the supreme sacrifice of life itself was regarded as the purest of accomplishments.
'Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.'
Although this idea certainly appealed to the
ideologues, what probably motivated Japanese soldiers at the more basic level
were more mundane pressures. Returning prisoners from
Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.
Apart from the dangers of battle, life in the Japanese army was brutal. Letters and diaries written by student conscripts before they were killed in action speak of harsh beatings, and of soldiers being kicked senseless for the most trivial of matters - such as serving their superior's rice too slowly, or using a vest as a towel.
But John Dower, one of
He argues that the attack on
Lieutenant Onoda, aged 78
It was a war without mercy, and the US Office of War Information acknowledged as much in 1945. It noted that the unwillingness of Allied troops to take prisoners in the Pacific theatre had made it difficult for Japanese soldiers to surrender. When the present writer interviewed Hiroo Onoda for the BBC 'Timewatch' programme, he too repeatedly came back to the theme 'it was kill or be killed'.
'...the strategy behind the kamikaze was born purely out of desperation.'
The same cannot be said of the Special Attack Forces, more popularly known as kamikaze. Yet, even though nearly 5,000 of them blazed their way into the world's collective memory in such spectacular fashion, it is sobering to realise that the number of British airmen who gave their lives in World War Two was ten times greater.
Although presented in poetic, heroic terms of young men achieving the glory of the short-lived cherry blossom, falling while the flower was still perfect, the strategy behind the kamikaze was born purely out of desperation.
But to anyone who believes the kamikaze were mindless automatons, they have only to read some of the letters they left behind. The 23-year-old Ichizo Hayashi, wrote this to his mother, just a few days before embarking on what he knew would be his final mission, in April 1945:
I am pleased to have the honour of having been chosen as a member of a Special Attack Force that is on its way into battle, but I cannot help crying when I think of you, Mum. When I reflect on the hopes you had for my future ... I feel so sad that I am going to die without doing anything to bring you joy.
Selfless sacrifice, for whatever purpose, was present on all sides in the conflict.