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.© Japan Today