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Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of "Asahi Shimbun"

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This acclaimed work is an extraordinary collection of letters written by a wide cross-section of Japanese citizens to one of Japan's leading newspapers, expressing their personal reminiscences and opinions of the Pacific war. "SENSO" provides the general reader and the specialist with moving, disturbing, startling insights on a subject deliberately swept under the rug, both by Japan's citizenry and its government. It is an invaluable index of Japanese public opinion about the war.

384 pages, Paperback

First published August 1, 1995

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Frank Gibney

27 books

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
5,240 reviews23 followers
January 28, 2016
This is a fascinating book filled with views of how the Japanese saw the war. It's also divided into separate sections.

An interesting quote: 'There is no question that the Japanese people had participated wholeheartedly in the war effort. By the late thirties, all vocal opposition to the war had been systematically crushed. Stimulated by early successes in China and in the Pacific, the Japanese rallied proudly to support their armed forces.”

I think this is important in how it relates to what would have happened near the end of the war if the U.S. had actually invaded Japan proper. Although the people were in bad shape by then, their sense of duty to the Emperor and to Japan in general mixed with the kamikaze-like national attitude would have led regular civilians to try to actively fight the U.S. troops.

It also could have led to the near extermination of Japan. The Kyushu invasion would have been terribly bloody, even worse than Okinawa. If the American public would still support the war effort, and they probably would have, I think the level of viciousness would have increased tremendously, and all Japanese civilians and soldiers alike would have become targets.

The American forces would have been faced with civilian kamikaze, just like the militants today use suicide bombers, except that the number would have been much, much higher. It would have become a war of extermination rather than just defeating the enemy. There also could very well have been some very negative consequences for the persons of Japanese ancestry who were in American internment camps.

The total number dead, by the end, would have far exceeded the number killed by the atomic bombs. In addition, Russia would have very probably taken some of the Northern part of Japan, and there would have been a Berlin-like division of the county.
The Road to War

I'll point out just some highlights from these sections.

The Peace Preservation Law of 1925 'gave wide powers to the police to deal with cases-real or fancied-of sedition or civil disobedience.' It was strongly backed by the Japanese version of the 'moral majority' in the U.S., ultra-conservative people who were fanatic about Japan.

The chapter also examines the economic problems of the time, and military cliques striving for power and domination. Manchuko is discussed, and the fear of politicians who might have opposed it being afraid to speak out due to fear of assassination.

The right-wing of the day also influenced the educational system, trying to imbue the children with ultra-nationalist views of Japan.

Each of these sections has a general introduction, then goes into a series of writings by various people.

The first person has a good list of why the people didn't oppose what was going on.

1. The people believed what the government was saying.

2. The people were not given truthful information by the government.

3. The people would not oppose 'the will of the Emperor' since he was considered a god.

4. The people had developed a sense of superiority.

One of the writers notes the power of the mass media, saying that if they had not become tools of the military, then the Japanese support of the war would have faltered.
Life in the Military

The introduction part goes into how savage the training of the recruits was, with recruits being hit and beaten by officers. (This helps explain a little how the Japanese soldiers could perform atrocities; they were conditioned by the beatings from higher ups and, in true pecking order fashion, would take out their anger on those beneath them, those people being POWs and civilians.)

One recruit writes how his head was beaten with green bamboo poles and his face slapped. Another recruit writes how he still has ringing in his ears forty years later due to the beatings he received.

Another writes: 'When war conditions worsened, appeals to the people by the government and military became more and more hysterical. They inflamed feelings of hatred toward the enemy.' This also helped cause the suicide of many civilians on islands that the U.S. conquered, the civilians thinking the U.S. troops would rape them and do other horrible things to them.

Another person writes that there was actually an official book on 'tactics to stamp out antiwar feelings.'

One writes how he was told by a superior to find men in the group that could pass for women, dress them up, load them down with explosives, and have them surrender as civilian prisoners, then set off the explosives.
The China War

In the introduction part, the author writes: 'Yet it is hard to imagine Japanese soldiery running amok without either the orders or the tacit encouragement of the officers in charge. In relation to the Nanking massacre, he says that at least 100,000 Chinese troops and civilians were killed, and some 20,000 women were raped.

'Given the tight discipline of Japan's military, one must conclude that the Rape of Nanjing was not simply the result of soldiery suddenly gone wild but a deliberately planned program of terror devised by Japanese military commanders.'

During the war, around 10 million Chinese were killed by the Japanese.

There are specific examples of the killings in the writings by the individuals, one talking about using Chinese for bayonet practice, and setting Chinese on fire. Unit 731 is discussed by another contributor. One writes about how he overhead Japanese soldiers laughing about the Chinese women he had raped, and one even saying they had 'fun' in Nanjing. Another contributor writes about comfort women.
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

The introduction talks about this concept, along with how Japanese came to China and settled as colonists. He also talks bout the 'blind patriotic self-confidence of the population' being 'duplicated at Japanese headquarters.'
The War in the Pacific

The section of contributors covers a variety of topics including serving on the Yamato, the fight on Guadalcanal, and the battle of Midway.
The Home Front

'From the middle of the 1930's to World War II's disastrous end in 1945, the Japanese people lived like the citizens of an enclosed hemisphere. Effectively sealed off from the outside world, they were ruled by a despotic police and army organization that existed only to root out any dissent....There was no intellectual dissent to speak of in Japan. '

This is important to consider in figuring out just how much blame for the war the Japanese people themselves should bear. They actively supported the government and were elated at the early victories. They were willing to die using bamboo spears if the Americans invaded Japan itself. Yet their views were based on limited and distorted information provided to them by the schools, the mass media, and the government.

One contributor writes about a group of women who spotted some Americans in a boat and who yelled for them to come ashore and that they would kill them. Bamboo spears and rocks were supposed to prevail against armed soldiers.

Another writes about how some farmers thought that some evacuees from the cities were weaklings until they said they were prepared to fight to the last person.

Another writes about how people were informed on by their neighbors and this, too, helped keep any dissent down.

A teacher writes how about how her students were used for picking plants, had reduced school hours, and how the quotas increased how much the students were supposed to be picking.
The Bombing of Japan

This section discusses the Dolittle attack, the firebombing of Tokyo, the atomic bomb and various other related topics.
We Are All Prisoners

The author says around 1,500,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in action, and around 500,000 Navy sailors. Around 600,000 civilians died. One of the most frightening things is this from one contributor:

'...an order had been issued by the Japanese military that resident Japanese children under the age of thirteen would be an incumbrance and should be killed. The order was not carried out.

Others talk of the desperate search for food, how some planned to kill themselves, and so on.

The last two sections deal with Japan under the occupation, and Rethinking the War Experience.
Profile Image for Raymond Pang.
10 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2022
Compared to Oral History, definitely more diversity of opinions & experiences. Felt less compelling though. Also, not all were from wartime experiences or eyewitnesses. Primary value not in sheer number of stories, but as a whole comprising as many voices as possible military & civilian, officials & ordinary citizens.
Profile Image for Glen.
29 reviews2 followers
November 25, 2013
All too often the Western history books have painted the Japanese as a maniacal enemy, of single mind and single emotion, without accounting for the many who were cowards (not wanting to die in battle for the Emperor), conscientious objectors or just plain folk trying to exist during the times that were thrust upon them - people who had no desire for war but were obligated to do their part. This book brings some balance to our understanding of wartime Japan by reveling their thoughts and experiences.

I rate this 5 stars, not due to its literary content but due to its value as a true account of what the Japanese witnessed at home and abroad and how it helped shape their thoughts on the war both before if erupted across the Pacific and post-defeat.

It is nicely divided into thematic chapters, focusing on such topics as the war with China, life in the military and as a Manchurian colonist (to name a few).

This book makes no bones about the horrible crimes committed during the war by Japan(it does not side-step the matter), and many of the Japanese who witnessed or committed these crimes openly reflect on them, and more importantly, what they think lead them as a people down such a dark path. And one quickly concludes that it was not something "wrong with the Japanese," but man as a species - we are all capable of acting horribly under the right conditions (there are plenty of cases in recent years and during WWII of Allied forces acting brutally, both against the enemy and civilians - things that are quietly swept under the victory rug. But not all of us do succumb to the madness of war, some of us are stronger, and such people were very much present within the Japanese population, but as with all nations in times of war, they are often the few.

It is, in so many ways, a lesson for humanity on the dangers of hubris. Man has all too often been blinded to reality through his own sense of superiority and patriotic duty; getting swept up in the emotions of the time without being critical of those who rule over him - this was the error that the Japanese people subconsciously made. Many of those interviewed come to this conclusion. And as such, we all have much to learn from it.
32 reviews
October 30, 2013
This is a must read for anyone interested in the Pacific theater in World War II. The letters give a feel for what Japanese civilians and Japanese solders thought about their experiences and what they saw during the war. This is not a book about strategy or tactics but about the thoughts and feelings of people involved in the war.
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