Koya Azumi leans over the living-room table at his home outside Tokyo on a warm afternoon, stirring coffee. Birds twitter outside, but otherwise there is only silence. It is a tableau of serenity, of peace.
But then, speaking softly, Azumi, a retired professor of sociology at the International Christian University in Tokyo, begins to recount his youthful memories of Japan at war, and his reflections on the prospects for peace in our time. His father was a career bureaucrat in the Home Ministry of the central government, and when the war ended in 1945 he was just 14.
‘When Pearl Harbor happened on Dec. 8, 1941 [Dec. 7, local time Hawaii], I was scared, afraid that Japan might not win the war, and that my family and I might be killed. At the same time, we all had a sense of excitement, and, at first, all the news was good news.
Then, when I was attending an elementary school in Ikebukuro, my train was delayed at Tokyo Station one Saturday afternoon. I think that was the first bombing by American airplanes. In mid-1943, we moved into the governor’s mansion in Utsunomiyamy father was appointed governor of Tochigi Prefecture, and stayed there when he was called back to Tokyo in late 1944.
The war was making itself felt at my school in Utsunomiya, too. A military man was assigned to each middle school to train students. I remember our school’s military officer telling us what he had done in China. The accepted idea was that the Chinese were not really people — they were less than human, so we could justify doing atrocious acts to them. He had himself tortured a Chinese man.
Why? Why did he do such a thing? It’s interesting to realize that he felt free enough to tell us what he himself had done in China — a war crime! And I was just appalled.
Still, the atmosphere was such that he was beyond criticism. It was all brainwashing.
Social institutions are man-made, including the institution of the Emperor. I can say that now that I have become a social scientist and witnessed how Japan has changed in the last 60 years. When I’m watching TV and see students in North Korea loudly expressing their loyalty to their leader, Kim Jong Il, I am reminded of Japan during the war.
Later my middle school became a factory, and we had fewer and fewer classes. A nearby aircraft factory they sent workers to supervise us as we made parts for their aircraft. We also had to dig air-raid shelters outside.
Then, one night, Utsunomiya was bombed. It was stormy, so we couldn’t even hear the warning sirens. All I remember are colorful things, fluttering in the sky. They looked like pieces of cloth floating down, burning.
It was raining like mad, and I got in a shelter in the yard with my mother, older sister and two younger brothers. We could hear B-29s. I could hear things falling. Hissing sounds, then bombs hitting the ground — bam, bam, bam!
Perhaps 100 meters away from us was a house surrounded by rice paddies. The rice paddies were ablaze from incendiary bombs.
The next morning I walked around to see what had happened, and in the schoolyard I saw bodies piled up. It was horrible. Overnight, the town was completely flattened, except for a few stone warehouses.
Amazingly, though, none of my relatives died during the war, and we didn’t lose a thing. Of course, not everybody was so lucky. A classmate was killed by a low flying American plane. He was on a train coming to school and was hit by the plane’s gunfire: batt-batt-batt-batt-batt! American planes were simply attacking the enemy, just as Japanese soldiers would attack enemy trains or people, I suppose.
We all welcomed the end of the war. We were so relieved! What can I say? Too bad Japan lost.
We moved back to Tokyo, where, in early 1946, my father was purged from public office by the Occupation forces, as were all wartime governors.
Although they say Japanese nationalism is coming back, I think if you ask any young Japanese man, ‘Would you be willing to give up your life for your country?’ — I bet 98 percent would say ‘no.’
Or if you ask, ‘Would you be willing to give up your life for the Emperor?’ I think you would get a unanimous response of ‘no.’
Sixty years ago, 70 years ago, you’d have got a unanimous ‘yes.’
The Japan Times: Aug. 14, 2005
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