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Book Review/ By Hugo Martin '87
An Autumn of Emergencies

Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese
By Professor Samuel Yamashita
University of Hawaii Press
332 Pages
$26

IT WAS AUG. 9, 1945—THE DAY THE UNITED STATES dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and six days before Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces. Aiko Takahashi, the wife of a Japanese physician living in a fashionable district of Tokyo, wrote from the heart when she made an entry in her diary that day.

“The thought of a single aircraft destroying a large city in an instant is driving us to nervous breakdowns, and I feel as though 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.”
It was the kind of insight that Pomona College History Professor Samuel Yamashita was looking for when he began translating the wartime diaries of ordinary Japanese citizens in the last year of World War II.

A professor of Japanese history, Yamashita knew that libraries across the country were well stocked with books on Japan’s wartime culture and the nation’s successful transformation from a feudal kingdom to a modern state. What was missing were books that explored the wartime lives of ordinary Japanese citizens, spoken in their own voices and translated into English for the western world to read.

Translating eight diaries for Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies: Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese, Yamashita shed light on the day-to-day hardship of the Japanese people and the conflict and tension that existed during the war.

From a historical perspective, scholars say Yamashita’s book raises significant questions: Did Japan’s wartime leaders have the unwavering support of the people, as many Westerners have long assumed? Given the conflicting views among the population, how much responsibility did the Japanese people have for the war and the way it was conducted?
The diaries in Yamashita’s book “show that Japan during the war was a less monolithic country than is often assumed and there were different views concerning the war and the government,” said Ben-Ami Shillony, a professor of Japanese history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Yamashita’s interest in Japanese history was piqued during his junior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., when he studied abroad at the International Christian University in Tokyo. He later won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he received a Ph.D. in Japanese history.

For his own interest and as a potential teaching tool for his Japanese history classes, Yamashita began collecting and translating letters from “special attack” pilots, also known as kamikaze pilots. The kamikazes—suicide pilots who ended their attacks on allied warships by dive-bombing onto the deck—were the most intriguing characters in the war for Yamashita.

But he knew that the kamikaze letters were vetted by the pilots’ superiors and often followed a very rigid format, and thus he could not expect the letters to reflect the pilots’ true feelings. Sometime around 1995, Yamashita began collecting wartime diaries, which he felt more closely reflected the heartfelt sentiments of the Japanese people.

“As I worked on this, I realized this might be of interest to a publisher,” he said. And it was. University of Hawaii Press published Yamashita’s book in November 2005.

For the book, he chose a range of voices to represent ordinary Japanese citizens: a “special-attack” pilot; a 75-year-old man from Kyoto; a soldier, separated from his unit and hiding out in Okinawa; Takahashi, the doctor’s wife; a stenographer living in Tokyo; a 15-year-old girl recruited to serve the “special-attack” soldiers in Kyushu; an 11-year-old evacuated schoolboy; and a 9-year-old evacuated school girl. The diaries had already been published in Japan but never translated into English.

The engines of our planes were in great shape, and we were in good spirits. Preparations for the attack. This time—I’m definitely not expecting to return alive. No, it’s not that I don’t expect to return alive. I simply intend to body-crash and thus my dying can’t be avoided, can it? I’ll get myself ready, write my last letters, and make arrangements for the things I’ll leave behind. In the end, my life will have been twenty-two years long. I’ll smear the decks of enemy warships with this teenager’s blood. It’ll be wonderful.

That was the final diary entry of Yasuo Itabashi, a kamikaze pilot who carried out his final mission a week before Japan surrendered to the allied forces. And while he seemed to hold
no reservations about dying for his cause, Itabashi wrote earlier diary entries that suggested he feared the war was not winnable.

In acquiring the right to republish the diaries in English, Yamashita hired a historian from Japan to act as his agent. He knew that, despite his many years of study in Japan and his fluency in the language, he might be viewed with suspicion in Japan and that could hinder his ability to acquire the rights. As a Japanese American, he was considered an outsider.
When Yamashita’s agent approached Itabashi’s sister about republishing the diaries, she gave a response that he found eerie: “He’ll be pleased to hear this,” the sister said of her long dead brother. It represented the strong belief among many in Japan that the kamikaze pilots lived on, in glory, in the next world.

If the “special-attack” pilot represented the most stalwart war supporter in Yamashita’s book, the most critical diarist was Takahashi. On Aug. 9, 1945, she wrote: “At the very start of the war, Japanese declared in unison, “Today we take pride in our good fortune to be born Japanese.”

I myself could only lament “my misfortune at being born a Japanese today.” If the Japanese had not been cursed by this sort of feudalistic thinking, I believe we could have expected
our country to have ended the war sooner than Germany or Italy did.”

Indeed, Yamashita believes Takahashi was not alone in wanting to give in. He says the diaries exposed the Japanese people’s weakening resolve as allied bombing runs torched residential areas in Japan’s big cities.

“If it had been left to the general population, they would have surrendered” by the spring of 1945, the author said.

The diary excerpts of Tsunejiro Tamura, the 75-year-old Kyoto resident, exemplified the hardships that regular citizens faced during the war, particularly with their daily struggle to feed themselves amid strict food rationing. Many turned to the black market to supplement the regular food rations.

On March 5, 1945, Tamura wrote:

The rice ration is three-quarters of a pint for people over sixty, but I’m a big guy and that’s not enough. I can’t bear to have an empty stomach day after day, and it’s only because of others’ thoughtfulness—my children, for example, kindly make concessions—that I escape starvation.

Yamashita approached the task of transcribing the diaries with scholarly detachment. But later, after the book was published and he was asked to speak to audiences about the diaries, he couldn’t help but choke back tears over the plight of his diarists. Who could blame him? Ichiro Manabe, an 11-year-old boy evacuated to the village of Yumoto in Fukushima Prefecture, was a heartbreaking character. Manabe’s sixth-grade class returned to Tokyo for their graduation on Feb. 25, 1945. That evening 172 B-29 bombers attacked central Tokyo. The boy was not heard from again.

On Dec. 15, 1944, he submitted the following diary entry:

Because our feet were frozen and cold, we played push-and-shove during recess at school and got really warm. In the third period, they measured our height at the infirmary. They measured us in our socks, and most of us had shrunk. I was 136.6 centimeters and had shrunk four centimeters.

But how much did the Japanese people share in the culpability of the war? Yamashita’s diarists show a range of attitudes toward the war—from ardent support from the kamikaze pilots to simmering resentment from Takahashi.

“One would need to look at many more diaries to reach any conclusions about the culpability of the ordinary Japanese,” Yamashita said.

Most surprising in his findings, Yamashita said, was the extent of the class conflict and social tension among the Japanese people during the war. It seemed clear from some diarists that the sacrifices were not evenly shared among the Japanese people. Those in the military, in particular, seemed to get access of rationed goods that others could not.
Hisako Yoshizawa, the stenographer living in Tokyo, entered the following passage in her diary on Feb. 28, 1945:

At the company today I heard the following rumors: the first one went like this. When someone mentioned that no one in the neighborhood association had eaten tofu for some time, the wife of a lieutenant who had just joined the group heard this and asked, “Hasn’t anyone had any tofu? In my house we eat it every day. Shall I order some?”
 
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