Murakami on Japan’s ‘Years of Trial’

Like most ‘Western’ students of the world wars, my reading has largely been confined to American and English sources; this is revelatory of both provincialism and laziness on my part. In the case of the Second World War, I’ve read a few German sources but very few Russian or Japanese ones. Thus it was with great interest that I read Hyõe Murakami’s Japan: The Years of Trial 1919-1952, a little book that provides a highly compressed history of that turbulent period. (Murakami served in the Japanese Army in WWII before going on to become a novelist and critic.)

As might be expected, there are interesting shifts in perspective on: the Paris Peace Conference, the Sino-Japanese conflict in Manchuria, Japan’s motivation for the declaration of war, the conduct of wartime operations, and the US occupation of post-war Japan.

Some of these shifts are startling. For instance, the invasion and sack of Nanking is described thus:

Nanking fell to the Japanese army in December of that year (1937).

That’s it.

Others, however, are far more interesting. Consider, for instance, Murakami’s debunking of several aspects of the ‘Japanese soldiers never surrender but would rather commit suicide’ legend:

The fact that Japanese soldiers surrendered to the enemy is often attributed to the traditions of the samurai era, but this is not correct. Most military men throughout the world feel the same: surrendering is dishonorable. Yet in fact the Japanese samurai of old surrendered quite frequently, nor was there any traditional feeling of shame involved. Even during the Russo-Japanese war, Japanese soldiers became POWs–there were not many, it is true–expected quite naturally to be treated according to international conventions . It was only in the Shõwa era (1926- ), when the spirit of nationalism began to be fostered, that the belief that it was shameful to be taken alive really sank into the nation’s mind. During the Shanghai incident in 1932, Major Kuga Noboru was seriously injured and, while unconscious, was taken prisoner by the Chinese army. Treated well in the hospital, he was subsequently repatriated, but was so ashamed of having been a captive that he went back to the former battlefield and committed suicide there. The event received overwhelming news coverage and created a new standard of the ‘model soldier’. As the war with China dragged on, this spirit was encouraged still more until it permeated the entire population.

Once taken prisoner, a Japanese could no longer return to his old home; no one but his father and mother would be happy that he had returned alive, and sometimes even the parents and family, swayed by the other villager’s scorn, would start wondering why he had not died a ‘glorious death’. It was not necessarily ‘for the Emperor’ that the Japanese soldier fought to the last, but, rather, because of such rules of the community. What he wished most of all was to avoid shame for the family; the Emperor’s name was no more than a convenient symbol used for that purpose.

Murakami’s book is far too slight for the serious historian of that period, but it still works as a very good introduction for anyone else.

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