- Japanese Reflections on World War II and the American Occupation by Edgar A. Porter and Ran Ying Porter
Teaching the Asia Pacific War remains a particular challenge to historians of Japan. As John Dower's work has powerfully shown, nationalist narratives [End Page 499] on all sides that claim this war as central to their respective contemporary identities limit the historical imagination in ways that run the risk of replicating wartime patterns of dehumanizing the enemy. One approach to widening the epistemological horizon is to let students discover the everyday wartime experiences of people with whom they may not readily identify, whether by way of individual memories gathered through oral histories, or by recovering the personal reflections ordinary people recorded in their diaries as they lived through the war. Haruko and Ted Cook's Japan At War: An Oral History (New Press, 1992) has been the go-to text for the former; Samuel Yamashita's Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940–1945 (University Press of Kansas, 2015) is an exemplary study of the latter. The Cooks present interviews with people engaged in Japan's far-flung wartime empire, to which the authors add critical contextualization. Yamashita weaves excerpts from diaries chronicling the home front across Japan proper into an interpretive narrative in the German tradition of Alltagsgeschichte.
The book under review here does some of both but from a decidedly spatial vantage point: it reveals a considerable breadth and depth of the Japanese war experience in a single rather remote prefecture, Oita on the northeast coast of Kyushu, far away from the national center, Tokyo. By looking—and listening—around their own environs, authors and Oita residents Edgar and Ran Ying Porter discovered just how centrally involved in the war this rural backwater of Japan in fact was. The coastal towns Saiki and Usa were transformed into important air and naval bases in the 1930s and it was from these bases that "most of the navy planes that attacked China" took off, according to an interviewee (p. 17). In 1941 they became the training grounds for the attack on Pearl Harbor and later for kamikaze flyers on missions to Okinawa. When the war came home, these towns bore the full brunt of U.S. bombings, only to serve as the site for a U.S. military base after the war. Oita not only hosted the chiefs of staff such as Admirals Yamamoto Isoroku and Ugaki Matome at important junctures but also supplied some of the country's elite military and bureaucratic leadership: four of the emperor's advisors were Oita men (Generals Umezu Yoshijirō and Anami Korechika, Admiral Toyoda Soemu, and Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru) of whom the first three voted against surrender in the summer of 1945, thus prolonging the war. Whereas these men were obviously not alive to share their memories in the 2010s, another national leader was able to offer his childhood memories to the authors: Murayama Tomiichi, prime minister 50 years after the end of the war, had been a schoolboy in Oita City during the war. There was plenty of history to go around in Oita.
If such elites place the northwest coastline of Kyushu on a recognizable political and military map, the majority of the stories the Porters gathered through their interviews and supporting archival research draw a social map that was probably replicated all over Japan. "Students, midwives, nurses, teachers, journalists, soldiers, sailors, Kamikaze pilots, munitions factory [End Page 500] workers, and housewives"—40 men and women in all, including two Chinese, populate this social map of the war experience in Oita. American voices enter in via E. B. Sledge's memoir, With the Old Breed (Presidio, 1981) and, importantly, local archival sources from the occupation. In 19 short narrative chapters woven around extensive interview quotes, we catch glimpses of Oita expats in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, follow the 47th Regiment into Nanjing on December 17, 1937, witness the return of family members' empty urns...