Main Body

Hiraga’s Tōdai: Flourishing under the Wartime Order

In which the author explains his decision to make August 15, 1945 the end point of his series and explores the other—patriotic—side of Hiraga’s Tōdai: how it flourished during the war. He contrasts the tragic fate of liberal arts students with the far happier future of students in science and engineering and describes Tōdai’s role in the military-industrial complex—budget, courses, military presence on campus. He quotes from the patriotic speeches Hiraga himself gave to the students. The author concludes with consideration of Listen to the Voices from the Sea, the classic collection of writings of student-soldiers, and thoughts on the falsification of history.

My Own End Point: August 15

For some time I’ve planned to make August 15, 1945 the end point of this series. But I’m writing non-sequentially, so in terms of content, I’ve already made it to August 15 a number of times. This is a people-centered history, and when I was writing about Ōuchi or Hiraizumi or the other currents, I extended my remarks into the postwar era. From long ago, from my youth, I’d harbored the greatest doubts about how the war began and how it ended. On August 15, 1945, I was five years old, and I’ve virtually no memory of what it meant, but I do remember clearly a strange scene: many adults gathered in the Japanese quarter in Beijing, sitting in rows of chairs, listening intently, in stony silence, to a voice on the radio.

Of course, there are perfunctory explanations from many quarters about the causes of the war, and I’ve read a good many of them. None of them quite convinced me. But when, in writing this series, I came to think I pretty much understood, the resolution formed in my mind to stop with August 15. If I’ve gone back and forth in time while writing about Tōdai during the war, it wasn’t because the endpoint wasn’t clear; rather, I’ve been like an airplane circling lazily over a prospective landing site, checking out the topography.

Tokyo Imperial University and the Postwar Tōdai

Why do I place such importance on August 15? Because on that day Japan changed fundamentally. Japan took the official stance that it accepted the Potsdam Declaration on condition that the kokutai be maintained (this was the Japanese side’s understanding; the U.S. side’s understanding is another issue), but that is a formalistic argument. Japan’s kokutai changed fundamentally.

In Japan before August 15, only the emperor possessed absolutely free will. For the rest, all Japanese were subjects absolutely obedient to the emperor. Japan was a country that had only emperor and subjects. According to Uesugi Shinkichi,[1] the emperor’s absolute control was Japan’s kokutai:

  • “Japanese subjects have the primary duty of obedience to the emperor. Obedience to the emperor is Japan’s kokutai.”
  • “All things come from the emperor; sovereignty resides solely in him.”
  • “The emperor’s will is supreme; all wills within the country obey it… There can be no will that resists the emperor’s will.”

This was the essence of Japan’s kokutai. The emperor alone possessed free will; the people had absolutely none. They could only obey.

But once Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration, the will of that absolute emperor became “subject to” SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur), so Japan’s kokutai changed fundamentally. After that day, both the emperor and the Japanese government had to obey all the many orders MacArthur issued. At the same time, the structure of Japan after the Occupation ended was to be decided by the will of the entire Japanese people, freely expressed (as was explicit in the Potsdam Declaration). From a land in which the emperor alone was sovereign, Japan became a “democratic” country in which the will of the entire people ruled. This was a fundamental change in the kokutai.

Such fundamental structural change had taken place only a very few times in all of Japanese history—when in ancient times the clan system first gave rise to an emperor system, or when the Kamakura shogunate arose and control by court nobles changed to control by samurai clans. In modern times the only comparable change is the Meiji Restoration. In 1868, the return to imperial government meant that the curtain fell on the seven hundred years of samurai rule since the Kamakura shogunate, and an era began of pseudo-ancient direct imperial rule. With the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889, the quasi-ancient emperor state at one leap became a modern constitutional state, the Great Empire of Japan.

In 1945 the curtain fell on this Great Empire of Japan. When the Great Empire of Japan disappeared, the imperial university disappeared with it. Tōdai changed from the old Tokyo Imperial University to the new Tokyo University and continues to exist to this day, but between the two lies a huge discontinuity in structure and in personnel. Between the old Teidai and the new Tōdai, the very raison d’être of the university is different. In the imperial university, the raison d’être of the university was clearly stated in the Imperial University Act: to conduct research “crucial to the state” and educate human talent crucial to the state. The university existed for the sake of the state (the empire).

But for the new university under the new constitution, the education of human talent for the sake of the state is not the primary goal. That is only secondary. The university exists primarily for the sake of individuals who wish to receive an education. The old university was an educational organ the emperor had established for the glory of the empire, to fulfill the needs of the empire; the new university is an educational service organ created to fulfill the desire, based on Article 26 of the Constitution, that the people have the “right to receive an education correspondent to their abilities.” It exists primarily to fulfill the educational desires—for a course of study, for research—of the students who pass the entrance exam and matriculate; it is not an educational organ the state created with the primary object of advancing a state good.

Again, according to Article 23 of the Constitution, “Academic freedom is guaranteed” faculty who teach students; “freedom of study,” “freedom to publish scholarly theory,” “freedom to teach,” “freedom [of students] to be taught” are guaranteed one hundred percent. Hence, the great prewar collisions between state and university that arose again and again over academic freedom—the subject of this book—no longer arise. August 15, 1945 is indeed the end of the Meiji state. It is fitting that this series, too, which began with the making of the Meiji state, end in 1945.

Emperor and University

In retrospect, one of the protagonists in this series was Tōdai, and another was the emperor. When I say the emperor was a protagonist, I’m talking not about individual emperors—Meiji, Taishō—but about emperor as system, emperor as kokutai. In order to underline that relation, the title of this book is Emperor and Tōdai.[2]

The Meiji state was in essence an extreme emperor-centered state. Collisions between Tōdai and the state, too, arose solely about issues of the emperor (kokutai). “Revere the emperor” was the central ideology of the Meiji Restoration. Its basic idea was to return the fundamental structure of the state from samurai politics centered on the shogunate to direct imperial rule, as in ancient times. The 1868 proclamation of the restoration of imperial rule epitomized this court coup d’état. In this sense, the Meiji state was born with emperor as ideological backbone, and with the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution, a country emerged that institutionalized that ideology.

This was the emperor system, modern Japan’s kokutai that held fast until 1945. In Japan before World War II, the contradictions involved in the emperor system erupted time and time again on kokutai issues. Finally, in the guise of the movement to clarify the kokutai, and as if they had carried out a virtually bloodless coup d’etat, emperor-centered people more radical than the emperor (the right-wing ultranationalist extremists) created a structure that controlled politics, the social structure, and national sentiment. After the China War and in conjunction with the military, they created a totally mobilized state. This was Japanese fascism under military leadership.

In the era of Taishō democracy, the modern constitutional aspect of the Meiji state had progressed to the point of cabinets formed by the political parties. But it died in mid-course: the May 15 Incident was the end of party cabinets. The kokutai was changed once again, temporarily. Via the right of supreme command in the express provision of the Meiji Constitution, the emperor should have had absolute control over the military. But the military ran amok time after time—the Manchurian Incident, May 15, February 26, the China War—and was beyond control by the emperor. Running amok bred running amok; in the end, it led to the declaration of war against England and the U.S. In deciding to end the war (by using his right of command over the military), the emperor recouped his ability to control affairs. Until that imperial decision, the fundamental structure of Japanese politics reverted from direct imperial rule to an age of samurai government by a shogunate—the army. If we set the beginning of the army’s running amok at the Manchurian Incident, this period lasted fourteen years. Incidents symbolizing this era of rapid change arose repeatedly with the university as stage. These were academic freedom issues that pitted state against university; in a sense, it was inevitable that this series of events arose in this era. The university is the modern element of the Meiji state, and the state order that tried to turn back the clock rejected the university.

Why did the Meiji state create universities? The goal of the Meiji state in its early period was to advance the creation of “a modern state as quickly as possible that will be able to treat with the advanced countries of Europe on an equal basis.” The university was an educational organ to import all knowledge and technology necessary to that goal and to teach them to the Japanese people; moreover, it was also an organ to nourish the human talent to enable Japan constantly to replicate and to develop that knowledge and technology in Japan.

In the case of Japanese universities, not only was the university system itself an import, but the knowledge and technology taught there were entirely imported (including the fields of arts and letters—law, economics, philosophy, literature, history). The university tended to be an emporium, a general store, for imported “Western knowledge.” “Western knowledge” was half of the early Meiji slogan of civilization and enlightenment—“Japanese spirit, Western knowledge.” The “Japanese spirit” part was not integrated smoothly into the university curriculum, which focused on “Western knowledge;” except for Japanese history and Japanese literature, it was as good as missing. The right-wing ultranationalist folks harbored great dissatisfaction with this state of affairs in the university, and from the early Meiji era on, they sought university reform. As basis for their argument, they invoked repeatedly the unhappiness the Meiji emperor let slip when he made his inspection of Tōdai in 1900: don’t teach only disciplines infected by the West; teach more about Japan and Japanese culture.

Despite the right-wing attack, the university’s focus on Western civilization in actual instruction changed not at all. But the right wing deployed political power to try to change it by force. The first confrontation was the incident of 1881 involving the suppression of New Theory of the Kokutai, by Katō Hiroyuki, first president of Tōdai. The argument at the time over what Japan’s true kokutai was and what it should be developed in grander form in the Emperor-Organ Incident of 1936. In the 1881 incident, Katō bowed to pressure and let the book go out of print, but the structure of the university itself changed virtually not at all. The content of textbooks did change, in virtually token ways; the fundamental structure of university education was left untouched.

But the ultranationalist people, represented by Minoda Muneki, were just as dissatisfied, and the sparks that caused that dissatisfaction to explode were the Takigawa Incident at Kyoto University and the Emperor-Organ Incident at Tōdai. This time their political power threw the university for a loop and furthered their ideas. After the Emperor-Organ Incident, the attacks of the right-wing national-essence people became an across-the-board assault, and all Tōdai professors with left-wing or liberal tendencies came under attack. In the face of this attack, the university retreated and then retreated some more. The tide of the times swung, and Japan fell under the control of the extreme right wing and the military.

The Grim Fate of Liberal Arts Students

Here I’ll say a bit more about the relation between Tōdai and the war. Many people have this image of the wartime university: that the campus fires went out when students were mobilized and left for the front. But at Tōdai, no matter what the fate of the liberal arts students, that was not true of the students of the sciences and, in particular, engineering. In a sense, Tōdai flourished as never before in its history. In fact, no solid research has been done concerning the actual state of mobilization and call-up at Tōdai. Basic information—how many students were mobilized, who died in battle—is not readily available.

The “departure of the students for the front” was in fact merely the end of the student deferment system, so students returned to their hometowns and took their physicals. If they passed, they were called to the colors immediately, to designated units, and sent to the front or to other places of duty. (Their status as students did not lapse; they were treated automatically as being on leave.) In essence, the students whose deferments were ended reverted to the status of individuals of draft age and faced the military as loyal subjects. In bureaucratic terms, there was no provision for the university to intervene for them, so there are no university records to indicate their subsequent fate.

But that situation was not acceptable, so for the first time beginning in 1993, on the 50th anniversary of the call-up of students, a five-year inquiry was conducted, and its results became the huge tome, Tōdai’s Student Call-up and Student-Soldiers.[3] This volume contains all the available data, but since so much time had elapsed, there was nothing to do about missing records; as the editors state time and time again, the study was not necessarily satisfactory.

To  cite a few noteworthy statistics from this volume, the call-up of students tilted overwhelmingly against students of the liberal arts. In August 1944 the student enrolment was 8,798, of whom 3,157 had their deferments rescinded and entered the military. Listed in numerical order by faculty, here is the result (the figures in parentheses give the ratio of those called up to the total number of students in that faculty):

Law: 1,433 (66.8%)
Economics: 846 (70.91%)
Letters: 648 (54.96%)
Agriculture: 162 (25.71%)
Engineering: 32 (2.49%)
Engineering II: 17 (1.34%)
Physical Sciences: 12 (2.6%)
Medicine: 7 (1.7%)

Those sent to the battlefield came overwhelming from the liberal arts; science students had their deferments continued and overwhelmingly remained in Japan proper. (Of course, science students too were forced to cooperate in the war in various ways—as mobilized labor, mobilized scientists, mobilized researchers.) In war deaths, too, the liberal arts students formed the overwhelming majority. Of 1,307 student war-dead, 937 were liberal arts students.

Why this heavy tilt to liberal arts students? As the war progressed, it became clear that there were far too few technicians in Japan to support military production, so to the extent possible, science students were protected for future use. How inadequate were the human resources? Even in 1939 there were 90,000 job openings for 12,000 new graduates; thereafter, free choice for businesses was outlawed, and under the mobilization law, the future of new grads was entirely under state control. Given this situation, young scientists were left virtually untouched despite the war. That the Japanese economy was able to rebound rapidly after passing through the immediate postwar economic confusion owed greatly to the activities of this technical manpower that had been left untouched.

By contrast, the fate that awaited the liberal arts students sent to the front was harsh and tragic. Not only were there many war dead, but most of them died as members of special attack units. Special attack raids began formally in the battle of Leyte in October 1944, one year after the call-up of students; the loss rate was extraordinarily high, so the units had to be replenished constantly. So to a shocking extent the special attack soldiers were made up of those given accelerated training. The called-up students were best suited for accelerated training.

Here is the explanation from the Tōdai volume: “First was practice in take-off and landing, and for the individual trainee there was a total of about thirty minutes a day in the pilot’s seat; virtually all soloed, the quick ones within one week, the slower ones within two weeks…. Both Army and Navy pinned their hopes on minds flexible enough to hold up under such frighteningly fast training and accustomed to abstract thinking; higher-school grads qualified and were trained as pilots.” In The Call-up of Students Ninagawa Jukei writes: “The one-way pilots of the special unit raids are calculated at 1,316 in the Army, 2,033 in the Navy—a total of 3,349; 40% were officers. Of the 632 Army officers, about 70% (449) were military cadets and pilot cadets; of the 769 Naval officers about 85% (655) were naval cadets or called-up students.”[4] The figures demonstrate how many called-up students served in the special-attack units.

Thus, the university’s liberal arts students were sent to the front and died in large numbers; by contrast, science students increased in number. In particular, in order to address the shortfall of technicians, Engineering II was established at Tōdai specifically to train technicians for the war. That faculty was established from scratch, engineering courses increased in number, and student numbers jumped. The Tōdai volume depicts Tōdai at the end of the war as follows: “In 1944 new-student enrolments were: Law 654, Medicine 199, Engineering I 509, Engineering II 421, Literature 360, Sciences 196, Agriculture 224, Economics 404—a grand total of 2,957 students. Compared with earlier figures, there was no decline. Those actually on campus in 1945 numbered 12,131. Insofar as concerns the structure of the university, its organization, and its numbers, Tokyo Imperial University did not contract during the war; it expanded steadily.”

The Wartime Structure President Hiraga Created

The man who expanded Tōdai so rapidly during the war, focusing on the sciences and engineering, was President Hiraga of the Hiraga Purge. Hatano Isamu’s The Modern Japanese Military-Industrial-University Complex[5] is a major work that makes full use of Tōdai’s vast “Hiraga archive” (donated by Hiraga’s surviving family and others and totaling some twenty large cardboard cartons), and it depicts in detail how great a role Hiraga played in Tōdai’s wartime expansion. Hiraga is most famous as naval architect—“Battleship god”—and as the president of the Hiraga Purge, who dealt with the chronic strife in the Faculty of Economics by taking decisive action, firing at one go Kawai and Hijikata and thirteen faculty members belonging to one side or the other. But read Hatano’s book, and it seems that Hiraga’s true historical role in Japan at that time lay far more in creating a great military-industrial-university complex and making Tōdai the technological center of Japan’s wartime order. Based on the advice of the Scientific Council and the Scientific Research Group, the country handed out vast research monies via Ministry of Education research grants to all the sciences; government financial involvement led the way in setting research priorities. Even today, the framework Hiraga created is still in effect as the basic mechanism of Japan’s governmental policy to encourage science.

Everyone involved in science today knows that virtually all of Japan’s grants for fundamental scientific research are disbursed via this framework (Ministry of Education scientific research grants), and the total sum has grown to 183,000,000,000 yen (the 2004 budget [roughly $2.4 billion]). This framework is an extension of the framework Hiraga created in 1939. The Tōdai Centennial History says this: “In the Shōwa era, along with the advance of total war mobilization, various policies were followed to encourage scientific mobilization; Tokyo Imperial University formed one link in that chain. The establishment of Ministry of Education scientific research grants resulted in the infusion of vast research grants into Tōdai.” It specifies, with detailed figures, the changes in those research grants; the sums are breathtaking.

Earlier, as similar state grants to encourage science, there had been Science Research Encouragement Funds. From 1931 to 1938—the eight-year period—the sum total was a scant 47,000 yen [roughly $25,000]; but in the two years 1939-1940 the Scientific Research Grants set up in 1939 suddenly handed out 500,000 yen [$250,000]—a quantum leap. Moreover, the sum increased yearly: in the one year 1943, 550,000 yen; in 1944 1,850,000 yen [$900,000]. The increases skyrocketed.

How did such vast research sums come about? The mobilization law was enacted in 1938, and mobilization was born; it decreed that in time of war (including the 1937 China War), all human and material resources could be mobilized simply by state order. Not merely resources: all businesses were included. Businesses included the service industries—transportation, communications, finance. Not only that, but the order included the education and training carried out in the university and the tests and research carried out in research facilities. Under this law, all these activities were subject to mobilization in wartime or quasi-wartime. Modern war requires the support of science and technology in every sense, so as the war progressed, the mobilization of science and of research came to be regarded as all the more important. In 1940 the guidelines for scientific mobilization were established by cabinet order, and the Planning Agency (the cabinet office that controlled national mobilization) became the focus, taking charge of the mobilization of science.

In 1942, when the battle of Midway took place and the bitter fight for Guadalcanal was continuing, that structure didn’t fill the bill, so the military and the university established direct ties. In the October “Consultation on New Weapons” convened by the Army Ministry, ten professors took part; Tōdai, too, was represented, and the records attest that agreement was reached on new weapons—anti-tank, anti-air, anti-sub weapons, and methods of detecting enemy air attack.

University research commissioned by the army grew steadily. In August 1943, as the war situation grew steadily worse, the cabinet approved “Emergency Urgent Measures for Scientific Research.” It went so far as to state the “clarification that scientific research should have the one absolute aim of prosecuting the war.” (Italics added.) At the conference of presidents of imperial universities convened in response to the emergency act, it was decided that “Scientific research in the universities and other scientific research institutes has as its sole absolute goal the prosecution of the Greater East Asian War, and we pledge to cooperate in furthering it.” Basic research, which the universities had prized before then, was set aside for the time being, and it was resolved to direct resources preferentially to “research that contributes directly to increased military strength.” The crucial act in the centralization of political control in the Meiji Restoration was the “return of the fiefs [to the emperor],” which took place in 1869. Drawing on that parallel, scientists termed this great change of 1943—tying the goal of scientific research directly to the war—the “return of research.”

To encourage research that related directly to the war, even the “instruction of students” that constituted the basic duty of the university was temporarily neglected. In fact, in August 1944, very late in the war, a plan was created—“The mobilization of student knowledge”—whereby 1,000 students, sophomores and up, were mobilized; on the basis of cooperation among Army, Navy, Military Procurement Office, and Health Ministry, they were sent to military-goods factories, research institutes, hospitals, and the like. In short, when it got to this point, all scientific researchers had to set aside everything else and concentrate on military research of immediate value.

What were the results? According to the same book, in the Tōdai earthquake research center, even so famous an earthquake scientist as Hagiwara Takahiro, later director of the center, addressed topics such as “a mechanism to record the vibration of torpedoes and bombs,” “the measurement of the velocity of rocket bombs,” “the construction of stabilizers for airplanes.” The other professors at the earthquake center had similar assignments: “rocket bombs,” “tracer-bullet casings,” “rotary cylinder bullets,” “bullet-proof construction.”

This is the way things were even in the earthquake research center, so in other research facilities of the Faculty of Engineering, it was military research ‘on parade’: in the electrical engineering branch, “electric wave night surveillance systems;” in the practical science branch, “phosphorescent bodies used for night-time heat-ray surveillance;” in the practical science oil engineering branch, “Vitamin B for submarine protection;” and in the practical physical chemistry ordnance branch, “waterborne explosives” and “methods of dampening sound waves aimed at submarines.” Moreover, studies in using a powerful magnetron to produce “lethal rays” were also conducted (it’s said they got as far as killing rabbits).

As this sort of direct military research came to be carried out steadily in the university, research money from the military flowed directly to the various parts of the university. For example, in sectors with deep relation to military technology, such as the airplane research institute, the money sometimes was greater than that from the Ministry of Education’s research grants. The more the war progressed, the more research funds came flowing into Tōdai’s various engineering branches from various channels. As mentioned earlier, both the rapid increase in faculty positions and the increase in special courses in every branch of the Tōdai Faculty of Engineering arose from this increase in research funds. By the late stages of the war, the union of Tōdai and military advanced still further. Several Army and Navy branch research centers were established within the university; in March 1945, there were nine of them. That’s how closely Tōdai and the military merged.

Hiraga was not forced to be the banner-bearer for this sort of military-industrial-university complex. He himself thought that such a structure was absolutely necessary to achieve victory in this war. The Modern Japanese Military-Industrial-University Complex writes as follows: “In the military-industrial-university complex and Hiraga, who embodied it, there were two facets. These were nationalism and internationalism, coexisting and yet in opposition. Hiraga undoubtedly was a military person in essence, even though by training he was a technician; his creed was vehement nationalism and loyalty to the emperor.” The fact that Hiraga was vehemently nationalistic and loyal to the emperor is expressed well in many of the formal addresses he made as president. For example, at graduation in 1940 he said, “The China War has already gone on for two and a half years, and the emperor’s forces are fighting hard on land and sea and in the air, garnering sparkling victories…. Those bright deeds of arms are truly unbearably moving,” and foreseeing the day when students would head for the battlefield, he said this: “However, most of you, I think, will be called up in the not too distant future into the emperor’s forces and will bear the honor of entering the forces and departing for the front. At that time, it goes without saying, you will leap up; as your ancestors sang, ‘Today I go to serve as the humble shield of the emperor; I shall not return.’”

The Shōwa Emperor Visits Tōdai

In October of 1940 the emperor made an imperial visit to Tōdai, his first such visit in twenty-two years. Hiraga was his host and greeted that day with the profoundest emotion. As he left his house that morning, he “said to his family, ‘If anything untoward happens, I’ll throw myself from the roof of Yasuda Auditorium.’”[6] The emperor was to be protected to the utmost and venerated boundlessly, and Hiraga was ready to die for that belief. When Hiraga spoke of the emperor, he was the very epitome of an emperor-worshipper.

In his convocation address in 1941, he took exactly the tone of the right-wing kokutai people of the day: “When we ponder the matter reverently, our country has been ruled for 10,000 ages by one family of emperors, in succession. The basic meaning of the relation between emperor and subject is eternally clear; that’s why during that time our country has been filled with warm feelings, as between parent and child—‘Righteousness between emperor and subject; love between parent and child.’ … This is why our country is a family-state; it is the essence of our kokutai, without peer in the world.” The essence of the kokutai lay solely in the family-state—on that point he was fully in sympathy, and he emphasized that at Tōdai, too, all faculty and staff and all students must unite and become a university where the whole school was one family.

In a speech on University Commemoration Day in 1942, four months after the opening of hostilities, he began in a tone that matched exactly that of the right-wing emperor-ists: “In its meaning, as also in its conception and its tactics, the Great East Asian War indeed has no parallel in history. Today, under the august virtue of the emperor, brilliant war gains are being realized….the nations are all being set in their proper places; the people are all made to live in peace. The great spirit of Japan’s founding is made manifest to the world.” At the end he told the students, “Etch on your hearts the grace of Imperial favor…always serve the Imperial will, be fully conscious of the crisis, and whenever the time comes when you are called up, head for the battlefield in high spirits, having strengthened your resolve to die for the empire… Thereby, I hope fervently, you prepare yourselves to fulfill with reverence the important duty that is laid upon you.” Thus he urged them to steel themselves for war. It was quite as if he foresaw the day the students would take the field.

Later Hiraga’s chronic tuberculosis worsened, and he died suddenly on February 17, 1943; so the one who actually saw off the students departing for war was his successor, President Uchida Yoshikazu (a Tōdai graduate in architecture). Hiraga was the first president to die in office, so the first university funeral was carried out: over 2,000 students, faculty, and staff lined the route along the gingko arcade from the Main Gate to the auditorium and saw off the urn containing Hiraga’s ashes. An aside: at the request of the Faculty of Medicine, Hiraga’s brain had been removed and preserved, and to this day it sits in the Specimen Room of the Anatomy Theater.

The Truth About Listen to the Voices from the Sea

I haven’t got space to write in detail about the sending of students to the front, but I will say a word about that very famous book, Listen to the Voices from the Sea. As is well-known, Listen to the Voices from the Sea is a collection of the letters and papers of students who died in the war; it was published first in 1949 by the Tōdai Cooperative Association Press, then reprinted by Kōbunsha and by Iwanami Bunko and is a best-seller boasting total sales of several million copies.[7] I too remember being deeply moved when I read it as a child, and, and I saw the film version (1950, directed by Sekikawa Hideo).

Since then it has come to light that the earlier editions were in fact not faithful reproductions of the documents left by the students who died in the war but that the editors had edited them quite deliberately, even making deletions. Iwanami Bunko’s new edition, published in 1995, claims to be the “definitive edition” that restores all the deletions. I went right out and bought it, read it, and compared it with the old editions. I was astonished to discover that starting with the opening sentence of the first student, Uehara Ryōshi, it was quite different. The first sentence of the new edition had been deleted from the earlier editions—“Chosen for the Army Special Attack Unit that can be called the outstanding special attack unit of the glorious fatherland Japan, I feel acutely that no greater honor can come to me.”

The earlier editions have a preface written by Watanabe Kazuo that states, “At first, I argued that it was ‘fair and proper’ to include everything, even some short pieces that were quite intemperately Japanist and at times came close to glorifying war; but the people at the press didn’t agree with me. Their rationale: it wouldn’t do to exert even the slightest bad influence on the current state of society…. It’s natural to take such influence into account, and we too thought we couldn’t bear to publish these extremely painful records; so we acquiesced in what the publishers wanted.” Reading between these lines, you could see that the original records contained passages that were “intemperately Japanist” or “came close to glorifying war” and that they had been deleted; but when I read that statement in the earlier edition, I had absolutely no idea what, in fact, it meant.

However, comparing the new and old editions, I saw the specific deletions and knew, “Aha! Here’s what they deleted.” To use the case of Uehara, a passage sharing the ambitions of militarist Japan—“My ambition that the beloved fatherland Japan would become a great empire like the former British Empire was in vain”—was missing, as was this passage: “Indeed, a friend said that special attack pilots in the sky are merely pieces of machinery, instruments. Instruments to do the steering, without personality or emotion, of course without rationality—merely metal pieces in magnets locked onto enemy aircraft carriers. If you think rationally, it’s unthinkable….it’s something that can be found only in Japan, land of spirit.” Such passages were cut apparently because they were judged “Japanist” or “bellicose.”

But in my own opinion, it’s precisely when such passages are included that we can call the documents true, materials that allow us a peek into the true feelings of the people of the time. Cutting here, cutting there on the arbitrary scruples of editors of a later generation makes us see the age through the rose-colored glasses of the editors. Odagiri Hideo was one of the editors of Listen to the Voices from the Sea, and in the afterword to the Kōbunsha Kappa Books edition (1959-63) he wrote: “This book contains many documents that record doubts and distrust and criticism and despair about the war, rather different from the average Japanese students of the day, who were wholly mobilized and wholly indoctrinated—by elementary school and university, family and newspapers, magazines, radio, neighborhood associations—educated and shaped militaristically and believed literally in the ‘holy war.’”

Explaining how the difference came to be, he discusses the situation about which Watanabe wrote. At the time Odagiri agreed with Watanabe in following the judgment of the publishers, but as time passed, he came to feel it had been a mistake. He gives these reasons: “There were in fact a great many such passages glorifying [war], and in order to examine the war experience across the board it was necessary to include those passages, too. If you publish them all, the relation between war and human beings, the relation between militaristic education and the younger generation, and so on—these relations become apparent, their appalling inhumanity and misery all the more clear.” Indeed so. To write this book, I’ve had to read many raw materials, documents from that era, and virtually all that I think represent truly the feelings of the young men of that day are militaristic in tone. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the age.

So why such rewriting? Hosaka Masayasu’s The Postwar History of “Listen to the Voices from the Sea” (1999) offers a detailed investigation. To put it simply, the work of editing Listen to the Voices from the Sea and the organization and work of the association to commemorate the student-dead that centered on this book were under very strong Communist Party control and were one facet of the peace movement directed by the Communist Party. Elements thought not conducive to the promotion of the peace movement (such facts as that most of the student-dead were patriots, that they went to their deaths gladly for country and for emperor) were deleted quickly. It amounted to the falsification of history.

Who Falsifies History?

As I accustomed myself to documents of the time, I came gradually to understand that that age was more right-wing, more ultranationalist than our later generations think. It’s not that there was a minority of right-wing ultranationalists. It’s that to an extent unimaginable today the ways of thinking and feeling of everyday people were right-wing. They were emperor-worshippers. The theory that the common people of the time were all duped, that they were forced to say what wasn’t in their hearts, has been spread widely after the war; there was a time when it was considered the standard historical view. But that’s not how it was. Virtually all the common people of the time seem truly to have believed what today one can only think of as extreme right-wing views. When I understood that, I knew truly, at a gut level, what caused the war.

In this book I’ve written about the emperor and the right wing in more detail than is usual in history books because I thought they were the key to unlocking the history of that time. I was born in 1940. I was five when the war ended, so I have virtually no real memories from that time. I’m of the generation that received a purely postwar democratic education from elementary school on, so I received no militarist elementary education at all. Hence when I try to understand that age, there are many aspects utterly absent from my mother wit. They are all things that—had I been of the same generation as those who were adults at the time—I would have known instinctively.

What things? This passage from Tsurumi Shunsuke’s Intellectual History of Wartime Japan[8] is most helpful: “For Japanese—I’m not saying all Japanese, but Japanese over forty today [Tsurumi was speaking to a Canadian audience in 1980]—memories of wartime are bad memories. They—I include myself, so let me say we—have a strong latent desire to bury these memories in the deepest, darkest part of our hearts. We hate confronting memories of that time, once again and head-on. On this point, there are generational differences among Japanese. Some younger Japanese educated after the war want to quiz their fathers to learn exactly what they did during the war. When questioned, a great many of the parents—at least, the fathers—find they hate to reply. Investigating how they remember the events of the war, how those memories have been transmuted in their hearts into something else, how they interpret them, how they express them offers one clue to understanding Japanese culture.”

I’m already in my mid-sixties and belong, in Tsurumi’s phrase, to “the younger generation educated after the war.” I am among those “who quiz their fathers to learn exactly what they did during the war.” But my generation has come to feel frustration that no matter how we quiz our fathers, we never get satisfactory answers. What I’ve finally come to understand is that, as Tsurumi says, those of my father’s generation don’t like to recall memories of that time, so they either bury them deep in their hearts and don’t want to remember, or they transmute those memories in their hearts into something different; that’s how they have conducted themselves in society at large. So the image of that time that’s been handed down to our generation has been skewed.

All along, consciously or unconsciously, the people of that generation have practiced historical falsification. Historical falsification is carried out by the left and by the right. Falsification from the right has given rise to the current issues of historical consciousness and of textbooks; falsification from the left—this is merely one example—is the rewriting of the Listen to the Voices from the Sea. (There are many other examples of falsification from the left.)

Real history probably lies between the two falsifications. To put it a different way, in a sense history and falsification are doomed to be inseparable. History is essentially the narrative of later generations. A narrative is inseparable from the subjectivity of the narrator. Subjective narration is inseparable from value judgment. For this reason, A.’s sincere (or supposedly sincere) narration is B.’s falsification of history. “Insincere narration,” “wholly fictitious narration,” “narration with political coloring,” and the like intermix, so when historical consciousness and politics intertwine, they become exceedingly difficult to unravel.

In “The Declaration of War and the Dispatch of Students to the Front,” Nambara Shigeru pointed out that like individuals, whole peoples can commit crimes, and he invoked the following episode.[9] The historian Ranke was asked by the king: in such a case, what should we do? Ranke responded, “The whole people will have to suffer on that account.” Back then, clearly, Japan committed the national crime of starting the war. My generation was not directly involved, but for some time to come, we will have to take responsibility for the nation and go on suffering.

  1. Kokutai seika no hatsuyō (Tokyo: Rakuyōdō, 1919).
  2. RHM: The title of Tachibana’s Bungei shunjū series that became the book The Emperor and Tōdai was “My Tōdai” (“Watakushi no Tōdai”).
  3. Tōkyō daigaku no gakuto dōin, gakuto shutsujin (Tokyo: Tōdai shuppanbu, 1998).
  4. Gakuto shutsujin: sensō to seishun (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1998).
  5. Kindai Nihon no gun-san-gaku fukugōtai (Tokyo: Sōbunsha, 2005).
  6. Naitō Hatsuho, Gunkan sōchō: Hiraga Yuzuru (Tokyo: Bungei shunjū, 1987).
  7. RHM: There are translations of this book into English: tr. Tanaka Seitarō, Voices from the Sea: Letters and Diaries of Japanese Students Killed in the War, Tokyo: Eihōsha, 1964; and Midori Yamanouchi and Joseph L. Quinn, trs., Listen to the Voices from the Sea: Writings of the Fallen Japanese Students, Tonawanda, New York: University of Scranton Press, 2000. There is also a translation into French: trs. Suzanne Audrey and Jean Lartéguy, Ces voix qui nous viennent de la mer: le Japon et ses morts, Paris: Gallimard, 1954. There is even an English translation of Ces voix: The Sun Goes Down: Last Letters from Japanese Suicide-Pilots and Soldiers, tr. Nora Wydenbruck, London: W. Kimber, 1956. “From the sea” is only an approximation of the Japanese wadatsumi; that term goes back to the 8th century and refers to the gods of the sea (of the water, the rain, and so on). So its use in the title lends an animistic/religious patina to the subject. Alternative translations might be Listen to the Voices of the Gods of the Sea, and Hark! Voices from the Beyond.
  8. Senjiki Nihon no seishinshi (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1982; tr. [no translator credited], An intellectual history of wartime Japan, 1931-1945, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
  9. RHM: In the mid-18th century, Leopold von Ranke gave lectures on world history to the future King Max of Bavaria. The king’s question: “What should we expect of Nemesis in history if not only the leading personalities but the people as a whole commit national crimes and act unjustly.”


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Tokyo University and the War by Tachibana Takashi & Richard H. Minear is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book