A Japanese Veteran’s Quest to Come Clean with His Service to His Nation

Introductory note from Kindred: This is a guest post by Dave Hackerson, one of my oldest friends and an American emigre to Japan since 2003. Nothing like the commemorations of Aug. 6, Aug. 9, and Aug. 15 exists in the United States. If it did we would also have to grapple with the consequences of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the fire-bombings of Tokyo, Dresden, and other cities. I have written previously in support of the position that the use of atomic weaponry was intended to signal to Moscow rather than Tokyo, which makes these anniversaries even more cruel. Of the World War II belligerents the United States may be most in need of honest reflection, but it is not the only one. I’ll now turn it over to Dave, who may or may not agree with the above.

Summer in Japan divides up nicely into two distinct stages. The first stage from the end of June to late July is the rainy season, with intermittent rainy weather filling the rice paddies with water and producing luscious hues of green that transform the mountains into verdant canvases. The second stage is where we get the “real” summer. That means hot and humid weather akin to my native Midwest in the United States, festivals and fireworks, and the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium in Osaka, one of the truly greatest events in all of baseball.

Yet in the midst of all this fanfare and excitement, each August the nation takes time to reflect on three dates: August 6, August 9, and August 15. The first two dates are the days of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, while August 15 is the day on which the Emperor’s announcement of Japan’s decision to surrender was broadcast on public radio. There is a lot of questioning and soul searching at this time of year, with the nation seeking to make sense of a conflict that forever altered its destiny. Why did Japan continue to escalate the conflict in China? Was war with the United States truly inevitable? What lessons can be learned from Japan’s mistakes in the past? Each year these questions are rehashed and debated on TV and in the media. Scholars and writers pore over documents from the era and conduct interviews with veterans and other individuals who lived through the war, seeking to gain new insight to help make sense of this conflict. As the years pass, there is a growing sense of urgency as the numbers of these living witnesses to history dwindle.

This past week on August 14 the TV station TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) broadcast a powerful interview with a 94 year old veteran named Hajime Kondo. I have watched many of these interviews on TV and in NHK’s (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) online archives in my 11 years in Japan, but this particular interview with Mr. Kondo was especially powerful. Kondo’s story is unique in that he survived the war on two different fronts, spending over 3 and half years in China and then fighting on Okinawa in 1945 in Japan’s last ditch defense to prolong the invasion of the home islands.

Kondo first began to share his wartime experiences in the 1980s when a number of revisions were made to school textbooks. Some of these revisions stressed the negative face of the Japanese army’s defense of the island, such as using Okinawan civilians as human shields or ordering them to commit mass suicides. Kondo did not directly refute these allegations, but rather expressed his utter disgust at portraying all the Japanese soldiers who defended Okinawa in a highly negative light. “I just couldn’t take it,” he said reflecting back. “There were so many us determined to make a stand, for by defending Okinawa, we were defending Japan”. He recalled seeing troops with tears streaming down their eyes as they rushed forward in a final banzai charge towards the American lines. This desire to set the record straight and provide a more balanced account is what motivated him to speak out.

Kondo was one of the few Japanese soldiers who survived the battle. He was wounded and captured when he made a banzai charge against the American lines with two fellow soldiers, both of whom were killed. On Okinawa, Japanese soldiers not only had to battle their American foes, but also had to endure the hardships of a formidable environment and inadequate supplies. These harsh circumstances, combined with the massive loss of both combatant and civilian life, lend tragic overtones to the defense of Okinawa. “When we speak about Okinawa”, Kondo said, “We tend to portray ourselves as the victims (of poor military decisions and the circumstances of war). Yes, we may have been the victims there, but in my case I also spent 3 years and 8 months in Shanxi, China. There the story was the other way around. We were the assailants there, the people in the wrong. We soldiers did some horrific and unthinkable things to the Chinese while we were there.”

Burned out villages and crying orphans on Okinawa. Residential districts of Tokyo burned to the ground during the fire bombings of March 1945. The complete and utter devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bomb. Watching these images broadcast on television, it’s easy to see where the victim mentality Kondo alludes to comes from. But as scholar Kizo Ogura states in his Overcoming Our Perceptions of History (1), these tragic events are the end result of a war that Japan started by invading other territories. It was the instigator, the perpetrator, Japan’s inability to talk about this fact is one of the factors impeding historical dialog with China and Japan.

Kondo does not shy away from this fact, but is very open and direct. “I’m just telling it as is” he says. He states that some veterans have accused him of telling too much, but he insists they have an obligation to tell people about what they did. “We can’t be judge of our own actions. The people who hear our account are the ones who decide. It’s up to them to judge whether or not we acted accordingly”. Kondo admits that for years he did not feel much remorse for the things he did in China. It was only when he held his grandchild for the first time that the guilt swept over him. “Holding that child in my arms, I thought ‘good heavens, I have done some many terrible things, so many wretched things’. I knew then I had to tell people what really happened there.”

Though he is 94 years, Kondo remains active and committed to ensuring the historical account is complete. He has traveled back to Shanxi with a NPO that seeks out Chinese survivors of sexual abuse and other acts committed by Japanese soldiers, personally speaking with survivors he meets. He also continues to travel around Japan, holding lectures for young people and others willing to listen about his experiences in the war. He talks about being ordered to bayonet a captured Chinese prisoner in training after he first arrived in China, describing how that experience showed him how easily human life could be taken. He delivers a chilling account about how soldiers had their way with a young mother, and then threw her infant off a cliff only to see the mother run after the child and jump. Speaking with an interviewer from his home, he talks about how he and his fellow soldiers would line up prisoners, stand 30 meters back, and then see how many they could take down with a single shot from their standard issue rifle. Hearing him relate these accounts, it’s easy to imagine why other veterans condemned him for speaking out. They seemingly fear being viewed as monsters.

However, Kondo does not necessarily feel the responsibility for these horrific acts lies completely with the soldiers. Rather, he indicated that people should level blame at the military-dominated government of the time for plunging the nation into conflict and placing men in such desperate circumstances. His thoughts echo the sentiments of Jiro Horikoshi, the main engineer behind the Mitsubishi Zero Fighter. On August 15, 1945, Horikoshi penned the following entry into his diary:

“I can’t help but feel that the cause of that whole war was the fact that the military and politicians connected to them threw a fit, to the point that they tried to get their way by force rather than pursue a peaceful diplomatic solution”.

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and yet there are some who feel Japan may be heading down the same path again. The Japanese government’s recent decision to pursue the right of collective self-defense saddens Kondo. Standing before the memorial to the dead in Okinawa, he said “The struggle and sacrifice of these people is what the peace of our nation today is built upon. Now some 60, 70 years have passed, and here again we find our country being pulled along on the path to war. Looking at the names here, I feel so saddened and powerless.” We can only hope Kondo’s efforts to pass his account on to posterity will not have been in vain.

1) Kizo Ogura: Overcoming Historical Understanding: Determining the Obstacles that Inhibit Dialog between Japan, China, and Korea (the English is my own translation of the original Japanese title).

Defend Principles, Not People

Steve Salaita resigned from a permanent position at Virginia Tech to accept an appointment at the University of Illinois. Then, this week, his offer from Illinois was rescinded. Neither the university nor Salaita has divulged the reason for this reversal, but Inside Higher Ed has speculated:

The sources familiar with the university’s decision say that concern grew over the tone of his comments on Twitter about Israel’s policies in Gaza. While many academics at Illinois and elsewhere are deeply critical of Israel, Salaita’s tweets have struck some as crossing a line into uncivil behavior.

For instance, there is this tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” Or this one: “Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already.”

Salaita’s appointment to Illinois was thus apparently canceled because of the opinions he expressed concerning a current event. There are questions about whether this constitutes a violation of academic freedom — in the article linked above a professor at U of I suggests that protection is limited to academic work — but I am on record defending academics in similar cases from institutional reprisals. In other words, I think Salaita’s appointment should have gone through. The fact that I disagree vehemently with some of his expressed views, particularly the allegations of genocide and statements that Israel has earned any anti-Semitism it experiences, is immaterial. If the university was concerned with Salaita’s opinions, which were not a secret before this week, then they should not have given him the offer in the first place. Given that they did, and he gave up his previous (tenured) employment to accept this offer in good faith, it absolutely should be honored.

But I wonder on what principle folks like Corey Robin can object. Robin strongly protested the appointment of General David Petraeus to a temporary teaching position at his own university. While the content of Robin’s protests were primarily about the fiscal cost of hiring Petraeus, given Robin’s advocacy efforts (and the fact that he uttered not one word of disappointment when Paul Krugman was later given a permanent position at a higher salary for less work than Petraeus) it is difficult to believe that ideology wasn’t a part of it. Robin is also a visible proponent of the BDS movement and supported the American Studies Association’s proposed boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. It appears, in other words, that Robin believes in politicizing academic hiring and promotion decisions except when he does not, and that there is a perfect correlation between his political attitudes and his attitudes on such decisions.

This is the abrogation of principle. If the university is to be politicized, and Salaita seems to believe it should not be, then it is disingenuous to express outrage with a political outcome. The fact that university administrations appear to be reflexively pro-Israel is why actions such as those taken by the ASA are counter-productive and a defense of principles is so important.