Summer of loathing

By Aonghas Crowe

I don’t know of any other country where the destruction of war is as intricately woven into the fabric of the summer season as it is here in Japan. Throughout the summer months, documentaries and specials are broadcast on television, and somber memorial services are held across the nation, summoning back one needlessly tragic event in Japan's history after another. With all the gloomy milestones, I am tempted to return to the United States this summer and enjoy a summer of love, rather than be reminded of a "Summer of Loathing."

The Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, which happens to coincide with the start of the swimming season in the southern prefecture. The battle, which ended 82 bloody days later on the 21st of June, was the largest, slowest, and bloodiest sea-land-air military campaign in American military history, claiming upwards of 250,000 lives (both military and civilian). My great uncle, Simon B Buckner, Jr, commanded the 10th Army, the main component of the expeditionary forces landing on Okinawa. On June 18, just a few days before the end of hostilities on the island, he was struck down by enemy fire, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed in World War II. General Mitsuru Ushijima, Buckner's Japanese counterpart in the battle, would commit ritual suicide on June 22 by first disemboweling himself with a tanto (short sword) and then having a subordinate behead him. Both generals would miss the end of the rainy season in Okinawa.

One of the more remarkable — and for many Westerners incomprehensible —features of the Battle of Okinawa were the kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese pilots against Allied ships. Although they had been used in earlier military campaigns, kamikaze attacks peaked on the 6th of April, when nearly 1,500 pilots took off from bases in Kyushu, never to return.

Many foreigners may be surprised to learn that most of the young men piloting these planes were among Japan's best and brightest, college graduates from the nation's top universities. One of these doomed kamikaze pilots was the older brother of an octogenarian acquaintance of mine who would himself go on to become a professor of genetics. He can still be brought to tears when recalling the senseless death of his brother who, he says, had showed so much more promise than him.

Months before the Battle of Okinawa had begun, the U.S. Air Force under the command of Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay had been executing a massive bombing campaign against cities in Japan. The most famous of these is the March 9-10 raid on Tokyo when over 300 low-flying B-29 Super Fortress bombers dropped cluster bombs armed with napalm on the city. The deadliest air raid of the war, it would destroy 16 square miles or a quarter of the city and kill more than 100,000 people.

More raids were ordered: Nagoya (March 11/12 and again on the 14th and 16th), Osaka (March 13), and Kōbe (March 16/17). LeMay intended to knock out every major industrial city in Japan in the next 10 days, but ran out of bombs. Think about that.

On June 19, my adopted home of Fukuoka, too, was attacked, some 200 tons of incendiary bombs being dropped on the city. The neighboring towns of Tosu, Kurume, Moji, Shimonoseki, and so on were also bombarded. The fact that relatively minor cities were also pounded to kingdom come makes me wonder if any town in Japan was spared.

The bombing of Fukuoka lasted for an hour and 42 minutes, and destroyed 3.77 square kilometers of the city and 33% of the buildings; 902 people were killed, another 586 seriously wounded, a small number when compared to the wholesale carnage inflicted upon Japan’s larger cities.

I have found some conflicting accounts — the numbers don’t quite add up — but apparently on the day after the air raid, eight airmen out of the 12-20 Allied POWs being held in Fukuoka at a detention center where the courthouse is located today were taken to the neighboring Fukuoka Municipal Girls' High School, where they were hacked with swords and beheaded. They were the lucky ones. Another eight had been trucked a few days earlier to the Kyushu Imperial University Medical Department where they were used in vivisection experiments.

On July 16, just as the rainy season was coming to an end in many parts of Japan, the first nuclear explosion was tested in America, proving that a nuclear bomb would work. Ten days later on July 26, the U.S., Britain and China issued the Potsdam Declaration which concluded with a “call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces . . . The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” Turn on the TV at this time of summer and you’ll surely be offered a historical documentary or two about "The Bomb."

The prompt and utter destruction promised in the Potsdam Declaration materialized at the height of summer on August 6 when Hiroshima became the first city to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. Three days later, Nagasaki was also nuked. Both days are solemn ones of remembrance for the victims of the bombings, which claimed between 150,000 and 246,000 lives.

At noon on Aug 15,  the Japanese listened to the Gyokuon-hoso, “Jewel Voice Broadcast”, in which Emperor Hirohito announced that the Japanese government had accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding an unconditional surrender. The emperor reading of the Imperial Rescript on the termination of the war effectively brought hostilities to an end. The date of Japan’s surrender happens to coincide with the final day of the Bon Festival of the Dead as it is observed throughout most of the country. This sober festival tends to signal the psychological end of summer in Japan.

So there you go: the Japanese summer begins in Okinawa at pretty much the same time that the battle for the island commenced and comes to and end with the surrender of Japan.

Sources: Air Objectives File (Fukuoka); War Journal of the 9th Bombardment Group; Omei: Kyūdai Seitai Kaibō Jiken no Shinso. Tono, Toshio, "Disgrace: The Truth of the Kyushu University Vivisection Incident," Tokyo: Bungei Shunshu, 1979; Dower, John W., "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II," New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999; “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, Morris, Errol, Dir., Universal Pictures (Nordic), 2005; Ota Masahide, Kore-ga Okinawasen da, 2nd. Ed., Naha: Naha Shuppansha,1996.

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There were many US spies in JIA, who led Japan into the war and destruction.

-10 ( +1 / -11 )

Ummm. No.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

There were many US spies in JIA, who led Japan into the war and destruction.

If the US had so many spies in the JIA as to be a major factor in the course of the JIA, the US wouldn't had been losing so much at the early years of the Pacific War

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I get tired of the ignorance. Most Japanese don't even know about the utter and shameless destruction their own nation caused before the tide was turned on them. Forever playing the victim's card.

And why shouldn't they? That's all they were ever taught about all taught through their educations. They weren't taught about Unit 731, they were taught that they were 'liberating' Manchuria and Korea. The shocking abuse of POW's etc etc.

Hirohito had plenty of opportunities to stop the destruction of civilian populations once it was obvious they were going to lose. A lot of the carpet-bombing and other destruction is on him and the stubborn, ego-maniacal generals that were living in their bubbles, as fair as I am concerned.

I used to buy into the 'Japanese victim' mentality (like the author of this article) and staunchly condemned the Allies' actions against Japan until I learned of the Japanese cultural ugliness that forced the allies into doing what they did.

That cultural ugliness and ignorance is still alive and well today and we can see a repeat of those same mistakes happening already.

What price will Japan make other nations pay, and their own civilians, in the future when they do it again.

Honestly, I'm glad Japan and the axis powers lost the war. Because if they didn't, we would all be slaves today and the free world would be riddled with 'karoshi'.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Agent X. I do deny detect a "Japanese Victim" mentality in this author. Also, isn't it funny how the Japanese were thought the wrong history and you were thought the right history.

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At school in England we weren't taught the ugly things the British forces did in the war, mostly just the 'glorious' victories which i'll bet that's the same in the USA too, so why should Japan be the only nation that is expected to teach it's children the bad things? I ended up learning a lot of the negative things about my country myself, because I enjoy researching history and i'm sure that is the same for many people the world over.

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Excellent article, thanks Aonghas for that.

I ended up learning a lot of the negative things about my country myself, because I enjoy researching history and i'm sure that is the same for many people the world over.

That's inspiring, Knik. unfortunately, not everyone bothers to look closer at their country's past. Which is why, I think, it's an idea for pupils to be educated about the good and the bad.

But totally agree, it's a fascinating thing to find out positive/negative aspects to the historical fabric of one's country.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Yes things should be taught in a balanced way I agree. The danger of only teaching children the glorious side of war is that they can grow up not knowing what a complete tragedy it is for all involved. I'm sure we can all figure out what that mindset can lead to.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

The danger of only teaching children the glorious side of war is that they can grow up not knowing what a complete tragedy it is for all involved.

Indeed. I take (very) mild issue with Aonghas' referring to it as a "summer of loathing" but I realise he's exaggerating. There's certainly no self flagellation in seeing that there's more than one side to conflict and it's never just black and white.

I don't know about you but I was intrigued by that 100 greatest Britons poll some years back in the UK. Some very questionable inclusions, in my view on that list. Then again, I suppose it depends on what one defines as "greatest"!

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I don't see any slant to this article. Pretty much, it's a bunch of historical facts put down in order, and very little actual personal analysis from the author.

War is hell. Ain't it so.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Some more stats:

About 2.7 million Japanese (servicemen and civilians) were dead by the end of the war, 3-4% of the country’s population of 74 million. One quarter of the country’s wealth had been destroyed, including four fifths of its ships, one-third of all industrial machine tools, and a quarter of its rolling stock and motor vehicles. Living standards fell to 65% of prewar levels. Sixty-six major cities had been heavily bombed, and 30% of the population of those cities were now homeless.

Dower, John W., Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp. 37 – 46.

P.S. There was no intention on my behalf to paint the Japanese as victims. War is hell, as "Sourpuss" commented.

Speaking of which, the other day I watched a terrible movie, starring Nicholas Cage, called "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage". It tells the story of the USS Indianapolis, the destroyer which was sent on a top-secret mission to deliver nuclear material to Tinian island. The material would be used in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. After delivering its cargo, the Indianapolis made its way towards Okinawa, but got sunk by a Japanese submarine in the morning of July 30. Of the 1,196 men on board, 879 died: 300 in the initial attack; and the remaining five hundred due to dehydration, exhaustion, and shark attacks.

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The full transcript of the Imperial broadcast announcing the end of the war (玉音放送, gyokuon hōsō)


  After pondering deeply the general trends of the world and the actual conditions obtaining in Our Empire today, We have decided to effect a settlement of the present situation by resorting to an extraordinary measure.

  We have ordered Our Government to communicate to the Governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that Our Empire accepts the provisions of their Joint Declaration.

  To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as the security and well-being of Our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by Our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to Our heart.

  Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan's self- preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.

  But now the war has lasted for nearly four years. Despite the best that has been done by everyone – the gallant fighting of the military and naval forces, the diligence and assiduity of Our servants of the State, and the devoted service of Our one hundred million people – the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.

(AC: Understatement of the century.)

  Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

  Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.

  We cannot but express the deepest sense of regret to Our Allied nations of East Asia, who have consistently cooperated with the Empire towards the emancipation of East Asia.

  The thought of those officers and men as well as others who have fallen in the fields of battle, those who died at their posts of duty, or those who met with untimely death and all their bereaved families, pains Our heart night and day.

  The welfare of the wounded and the war-sufferers, and of those who have lost their homes and livelihood, are the objects of Our profound solicitude.

  The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all of you, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictates of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.

  Having been able to safeguard and maintain the structure of the Imperial State, We are always with you, Our good and loyal subjects, relying upon your sincerity and integrity.

  Beware most strictly of any outbursts of emotion which may engender needless complications, or any fraternal contention and strike which may create confusion, lead you astray and cause you to lose the confidence of the world.

  Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation, ever firm in its faith in the imperishability of its sacred land, and mindful of its heavy burden of responsibility, and of the long road before it.

  Unite your total strength, to be devoted to construction for the future. Cultivate the ways of rectitude, foster nobility of spirit, and work with resolution – so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep pace with the progress of the world.

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