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Ghosts of '45: Japan's War Legacy and National Purpose

Ghosts of '45: Japan's War Legacy and National Purpose

by Geoffrey E. Hill

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In Ghost's of '45, Geoffrey E. Hill addresses the great questions revolving around Japan's past militarism-how did it get started, why were they so aggressive, why were individuals submissive to authority, what was the reason Japanese felt superior, was American bombing and the atomic bombs really justified, why are the Japanese reluctant to recognize their


In Ghost's of '45, Geoffrey E. Hill addresses the great questions revolving around Japan's past militarism-how did it get started, why were they so aggressive, why were individuals submissive to authority, what was the reason Japanese felt superior, was American bombing and the atomic bombs really justified, why are the Japanese reluctant to recognize their militaristic past, and what can the Japanese do to emerge from this predominantly negative war legacy.

After World War II, the Japanese people rebuilt their country, established a new government, restored their infrastructure and became a pacifist nation. Despite these profound changes, modern Japan has not been able to achieve a desired national purpose and a leadership standing in the international community.

In Ghosts of '45, Hill examines this problem by exploring the roots and evolution of Japan's militaristic period through historical sources and the recollections of people living in wartime Japan. He features in-depth interviews with both well-educated Japanese individuals familiar with Western culture and American POW's subjected to forced labor.

Three narratives are brought together that could help guide Japan toward finding renewed national purpose and international respect: the roots of Japan's militarism, the ongoing war legacy, and key principles concerning the status of the emperor and public education about wartime Japan. In addition, Hill discusses comparisons between the emperor and the pope, the samurai code and the code of the English knights during the Middle Ages, and the beliefs that allowed Japanese wartime brutality and American slavery.

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Abbott Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.59(d)

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Ghosts of '45

Japan's War Legacy and National Purpose

By Geoffrey E. Hill

Abbott Press

Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Emmet Hill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4582-1013-5


Disaster At Sea

Only a few minutes after torpedoes from the USS Grenadier crashed into the Taiyo Maru, Toshio Tabata fell into the choppy waters in the East China Sea. He battled to stay afloat while he attempted to get away from the turbulent waters alongside one of Japan's largest transport ships now crippled and in flames. Of the sixteen lifeboats on board, only five of them made it safely into the water. Under the weight of his wet clothes and kapok lifejacket he could barely move his arms, yet he knew he must get as far away from the ship as possible.

As he got farther away he swallowed more and more water with each passing wave. When his breathing became difficult, it seemed as though his end was near. He watched helplessly as hundreds of men retreated to the stern of the ship while the bow sank below the surface and orange flames shot upward from the midsection.

Tabata gasped and asked aloud, "Why? Why did this have to happen?"

He exclaimed, "I cannot believe so many talented people will die so easily." Above the sound of breaking waves he could hear voices from all around him shouting, "Help! Help!" Tabata asked, "Why haven't our sister ships come to rescue us? Why is this happening?" While he struggled to attract one of the surviving lifeboats, the impending loss of the Taiyo Maru was a great tragedy for him.

For many years, Tabata had traveled on his beloved ship between Yokohama, Kobe, and Shanghai. He began his travels at an early age and soon began to appreciate Western amenities. Two of his uncles had connections with well-to-do families in the shipping business, including Marquis Tokugawa of the former ruling class. During a summer vacation from Keio University, Tabata traveled Shanghai to work at a publishing company reporting on Japanese economic development in Manchuria. Upon reading extensively about the area, he became intensely interested in the ongoing programs and accomplishments.

In 1934, he and three other seniors made a bold proposal to University officials. To help allay international criticism of Japanese presence in Manchuria, the four seniors believed visits by American students would convince them that Japan's actions were beneficial. With university approval and government acquiescence, the four student pioneers became founders of what is now called the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC). Two prominent participants were the future U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the future Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

To implement their proposal, one of the student founders, Namiji Itabashi, boarded the Taiyo Maru bound for San Francisco to recruit American students in that area. Tabata departed on another ship for Seattle as the leader, as he termed it, "of his country's best-educated and finest young people." He felt deep gratitude for his family, especially his uncle and Marquis Tokugawa and his ancestors who gave him so much.

Students signed up for the conference in numbers far beyond the dreams of either Tabata or Itabashi. But their elation ended abruptly when cancellation of the conference appeared likely after visas for the Americans were denied. Tabata and Itabashi asked, "How can we face our university officials and all the students with such failure?" They both thought seriously that hara kiri—ritual suicide—would be the best recourse. But at the last moment, the visas were issued and they departed San Francisco and Seattle with dozens of American students.

Eight years later, in May 1942, Tabata joined a select group of nearly a thousand well-trained administrators and engineers bound for newly occupied territories. These men represented many of Japan's civilian elite from upper-class families. With a crew of five hundred men, his favorite ship sailed from Hiroshima painted entirely an ominous black.

Tabata's roommate Mr. Kanai, a section chief of the Ministry of Greater East Asia, said, "I thought we were safe with so many other vessels and escort warships, but since we left Moji and sight of land, I feel uneasy." The composition of the convoy was top secret and nothing was said about the destination, although Tabata had already accepted a senior post in the Philippines. He could have either accepted that post or be drafted into military service; it was an easy decision for him.

As the final moments of the Taiyo Maru loomed, bright flames illuminated the black sky and fire rapidly intensified when volatile supplies of carbide ignited. Hundreds of men stranded on the stern must have realized their end was near when they sang the national anthem over and over. With the last cry of banzai, the ship raised its stern high above the water and then disappeared as if being sucked down to the bottom of the ocean. It was just an hour previously that Tabata's compatriots celebrated the fall of Corregidor with extra servings of sake.

The sea quickly became quiet except for the thunderous sounds of cargo and remains of the ship furiously bobbing up on the surface every once in a while and the faint voices of survivors asking for help. Those sounds and voices gradually disappeared and only the noise of gusty winds and breaking waves remained. It would have been well within Tabata's thinking to ask, "All this loss for the emperor?"

While Tabata awaited his end, crewmembers aboard the submarine USS Grenadier a half-mile away celebrated one of the first significant blows to Japan. On board the submarine, Seaman "Johnny" Johnson heard the call from the control room, "We got 'er." Other crewmen knew what happened as soon as they heard the sound of explosions. But their jubilation ended abruptly when Japanese air cover and two warships in the convoy retaliated.

"Why, why?" Tabata asked again as he desperately tried to attract one of the lifeboats.

Every American knew the answer to his question. Men of all walks of life rushed to join the Armed Forces in response to what quickly became known as a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese knew why as well, but their reasons were very different: America had interfered with Japan's rightful destiny to create a sphere of dominance in East Asia, had obstructed their thrust into Southeast Asia and had supported China, at war with Japan for almost four years.

Widely different views between the United States and Japan on the cause of the war were clearly evident in 1942. But ever since the atomic bombing there has been a steady historical drift in perspectives, especially among Japanese whose sense of victimhood has become entrenched and a lack of openness about the war has become the accepted norm. It is argued herein that victimhood and lack of openness prevent Japan from acceptance as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.


National purpose

While the Japanese are generally disinclined to pay much attention to the war years, at least outwardly, there remains a kind of national confinement which restrains Japan's ability to meet its own desires. On one side of this confinement are nations affected by the war along with misgivings within Japan about its role in the war. On the other side are vocal groups in Japan who justify its wartime activities and a belief that Japan was a victim of the war. With few exceptions, Japan's politicians are thoroughly restrained by internal factions from expressing dissenting opinions. Examples of views held by such factions are on display in the Yushukan Museum adjacent to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Prime Ministers generate unabated international criticism for their visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that memorializes over two million war dead, but also includes men convicted of war crimes.

The displays presented at Yushukan boldly assert that Japan was a victim and her conquests were justified. To an outsider, some of the claims appear highly inaccurate or misleading. For example, one of their displays declares that after the fighting in Nanking ended in 1937,

"The Chinese were soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace."

In contrast, John Rabe—a German businessman and member of the Nazi Party—witnessed an entirely different picture. This wide divergence in perceptions between the people of Japan and those of other countries about what happened in Nanking remains largely unchanged.

Another display at Yushukan states that on Nov. 7, 1941, just a month before the Pearl Harbor attack:

"The U.S. plan to force Japan into war is then set in motion."

Besides the many issues brought forward in the history of the militaristic period as presented at Yushukan, it is evident that at various times since the end of the war Japan's relations with other nations have become strained, especially in East Asia. Japan's limitations on her intrinsic standing in the world are made evident by the answer to the question: To what countries could the Japanese emperor travel and be welcome? While the queen of England is welcome in most countries, how welcome would Emperor Hirohito (Showa) have been in Australia, or Indonesia, or Vietnam, or the Philippines, or Korea? How welcome is Emperor Akihito even now? When I recently posed the idea of the emperor visiting Beijing to a Japanese woman, she laughed heartily. I believe a Chinese woman would do the same.

Only when Japan's emperor is widely welcomed in places like Korea, the Philippines, China and many other countries, will it be believed that Japan is fully restored to complete trust among nations, at least in the eyes of its neighbors. With only a few minor exceptions, Japan has been a leading example of moral behavior since 1945. Yet, there is something missing. There appears to exist among non-Japanese a deep uneasiness, perhaps unexpressed now, but suppressed only until an incident occurs. For example, each time a Japanese Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine, or when other countries claim ownership of tiny islands controlled by Japan, the uneasiness and hostility re-emerge.

As for the Japanese people themselves there is another factor that causes persistent uneasiness. One must conform, especially politicians, within firm boundaries. Free expression of diverse opinions about the war is not without penalty. Such widespread fear and limitation of self-expression is exemplified by reaction to a 1988 speech delivered by Hitoshi Motoshima, Mayor of Nagasaki. He declared, "I do believe that the emperor bore responsibility for the war." The Liberal Democratic Party Prefectural Committee immediately demanded a retraction. In Nagasaki more than eighty loudspeaker trucks with blaring horns called for divine retribution against the mayor. A little more than a year later, he was shot in the back. Miraculously, he survived. This incident is one among many that demonstrates the risks taken by any politician who accepts responsibility or is apologetic for Japan's actions during the war.

In another similar incident in 2007, Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma said, "My understanding is that it [the atomic bombings] ended the war, and I think that it couldn't be helped." He quickly resigned after being severely criticized. The phrase "it couldn't be helped" has special meaning to Japanese; it means an acceptance of the inevitable. To those opposed to Japan's responsibility for the war, such words are abhorrent. Yukio Hatoyama, Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Japan (later, the Prime Minister), called the resignation "quite natural," and no one of any political stature came to Kyuma's defense. His replacement was Yuriko Koike, well known for her politically conservative views.

When a government official forces the resignation of someone whose statements affect the national image, there is a powerful unwritten curtailment of open discussion. When a career is at stake, it is best to suppress controversial ideas unless one is prepared to embark on a burdensome cause.

Lawmaker Koichi Kato took just such a step for the cause of freedom of expression. In response to his speech on August 15, 2006 criticizing the Prime Minister for his visits to the Yasukuni War Shrine, a member of the right-wing extremist group—the Great Japanese Brotherhood—immediately razed Kato's house. According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun, "the rash of right-wing intimidation has not caused any deaths, but fear of violence and intimidation has silenced many liberal-leaning journalists, lawmakers and academics. It took Prime Minister Koizumi two weeks to condemn the attack and only after the report was published." The actions of extremists, believed to number ten thousand or so, are one of several reasons for a lack open discussion about the war. The result is constrained progress toward full acceptance of Japan by its neighbors and an apparent lack of national purpose in present-day Japanese society.

Before arriving in Tokyo for a series of interviews, I had a conversation with Junko (June-ko), a Ph.D. student. We were standing on the cliffs of northern Saipan where hundreds of Japanese had jumped to their deaths to avoid the advancing "American Devils." After we exchanged expressions of remorse for those who perished, she quickly revealed her yearning for national purpose. I asked her why.

She said, "We lost the war."

"I don't understand your point."

"We had purpose then."

"Do you want to return to those days, especially after visiting this place?" I asked.

"No. But we don't have a national purpose."

I said, "I hope you will consider resources and documents from other countries besides Japan."

She said, "We have sufficient resources."

As I prepared for my interviews, I thought about her comments. Just what is Japan's national purpose? What is the United States' national purpose for that matter? Americans might well claim, "to live in freedom and as equals." As for Japanese purpose, Junko may have a point.

According to Kenneth Pyle, a noted historian on Japanese affairs, a "recurrent characteristic of Japan's response to the international system is a persistent obsession with status and prestige—or, to put it terms the Japanese would more readily recognize, rank and honor." Pyle emphasized the point with a conclusion that, "Any [national] power will dread an injury to its prestige, but for Japan, whose standing in the world was an essential aspect of its national identity and purpose, the importance of prestige was critical." The roots of these strongly felt needs and their legacy are explored in depth throughout this book with the help of special voices from Japan blended with the history surrounding them.


Special Voices

Japanese people in prewar Japan had a strong national identity and purpose with the emperor as their supreme leader. In theory, if not always in practice, all else followed from him in accordance with their long-standing hierarchical social structure. The emperor's status was put forth in the constitution of 1889, primarily in four separate Articles:

Article 1: The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of emperors unbroken for ages eternal.

Article 3: The emperor is sacred and inviolable.

Article 11: The emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.

Article 13: The emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.

According to this constitution, the emperor's status was sacred and all-powerful in matters of peace and war. Japanese people believed in the divinity of their emperor and consequently they believed in a worldview in which Japan was entitled to her "proper place." Her proper place among nations was expressed in many documents, but particularly in the Tripartite Agreement signed in Berlin by the three axis powers on September 27, 1940 when Germany had been at war with England for over a year and Japan at war in China for nearly three years. The first two articles contained not only the essence of the agreement, but the national aims of each country as well:

Article 1: Japan recognizes and respects the leadership of Germany and Italy in establishment of a new order in Europe.

Article 2: Germany and Italy recognize the leadership of Japan in the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia.

The "new order" in Asia had been underway long before the attack on Pearl Harbor with Japan's occupation of the entire Korean peninsula, Formosa, and a renamed Manchuria, "Manchukuo," although the latter was supposedly independent. That early expansion of Japanese control in Asia turned out to be just the beginning of where their belief in national hierarchies would take them. Of course, after the war those goals of dominance collapsed along


Excerpted from Ghosts of '45 by Geoffrey E. Hill. Copyright © 2013 Geoffrey Emmet Hill. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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