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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 36-49

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The Canary That Forgot Its Song: A Return to Wartime Manchuria

Ishii Shinpei

There's a popular children's song in Japan called "The Canary That Forgot Its Song." The Japanese, with their love of singing along to nostalgic karaoke melodies, would never forget a song. But they do forget their history.

Old patriotic war songs continue to be sung within Japan, and perhaps this can be excused. But sometimes these songs are sung by expatriate Japanese in pubs in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. What must the local people in these places be thinking when they hear a Japanese belting out war songs from half a century ago? Sometimes the singer is simply a cheerful, well-meaning businessman; nevertheless it is disgraceful that he does not know what his country did in Asia during the war. Often, the reason he doesn't know is that he was not taught the truth about modern Japanese history in school; this is a disgrace to the whole nation and not just to a single citizen.

In 1945, my fourteen-year-old brother, Ishii Kohei, was a student at the First Xinjing Middle School in Manchuria, an area of China that had been occupied by Japan for nearly fifteen years. In order to help with the Japanese war effort--which was going badly by then--my brother and 120 of his classmates were sent to do manual labor on a National Service Farm in Dongning, near the then-Soviet border. There, on 9 August, my brother was caught up in the massive Soviet invasion launched to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria.

My brother was one of three million Japanese to die in the war, and as is the case with many Japanese casualties, no one knows the exact circumstances of his death. Many people still do not even know where the remains of their loved ones lie. And so my brother's death is not only a part of my own family's grieving but also a part of our nation's history. In Japan, when someone dies in vain, he is said to have died "a dog's death." If the circumstances that led to my brother's death are not taught in schools--along with the truth of so many other deaths of the war years--his dying will indeed have been no different from that of a cruelly abandoned stray. [End Page 36]

The year 2001 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For most Americans--especially younger ones--Pearl Harbor represents the beginning of the war that Japan declared on the United States and then lost nearly four years later, after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Japanese, however, sometimes refer to the conflict as the Fifteen- Year War. For us it began on 18 September 1931, when Japan's Kwantung Army blew up a stretch of railroad tracks near Mukden, Manchuria, in order to provoke an international incident. The result of this so-called Manchurian Incident was the seizure of Manchuria by the Japanese military. Many Japanese victories followed, but gradually the war on the Asian continent began to fail, and Japan attempted to find a way out of its problems by bombing Pearl Harbor.

If we compare the Fifteen-Year War to the fifteen days of a sumo tournament, we can say that the attack on Pearl Harbor took place on day twelve. In other words, the United States didn't appear until late in the match. Nevertheless, when Emperor Hirohito formally admitted our country's defeat, he did so at the American embassy; Japan's ceremonial surrender took place on an American battleship; and Americans headed the occupation of Japan and ran the war-crimes trials in Tokyo. A lasting symbol of the end of the war is the famous photograph of General MacArthur towering over the Emperor. That photograph has served to remind the Japanese people that they owed their defeat fundamentally to the power of the United States.

Today, the Japanese...