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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
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
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
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
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
“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
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?”