Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies:
Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese

Samuel Hideo Yamashita

translated from the Japanese
University of Hawaii Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 http://dannyreviews.com/
Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies contains excerpts from the diaries of eight ordinary Japanese during the final years of the Second World War. They are a varied group — two of them are from the armed forces, while the six civilians range in age from nine to seventy-five — and their stories are of both human and historical interest.

Naval pilot Itabashi Yasuo was shot down in New Guinea, but eventually returned to Japan where he helped train new pilots and became a special-attack (kamikaze) pilot; he carried out his final mission just before the end of the war. He misses and mourns the companions who started the war with him, and his loyalty is to them rather than to abstractions of Emperor or state.

"It's been exactly one year, a long year, since I left Japan, but then it also feels like a very short year, during which the war situation has changed dramatically.
Now the enemy has come ashore at Iwo Jima, and a great and intense battle is raging. Why? What is this?
Not one of my wingmen is left, and not a single war buddy has survived.
It's like a dream. Isn't this all a dream? No, no, it would be fine if it were a dream, but...
None of us should feel our unfavorable military situation is because we have failed to work hard enough... It has been, to be sure, a painful war, and an unreasonable war.
It would have been good if I had been able to die. I'll be satisfied if I'm able to destroy myself. It's probably survivor's guilt. But then again, I'm still alive and must fight."

Living in Kyoto, Tamura Tsunejiro, the seventy-five year-old manager of a billiards parlour, was spared the worst of the bombing. His diary largely revolves around food, around prices, the black market and his family's attempts to scavenge enough to live on.

"The greengrocer's distribution was two stalks of green onions for ten sen. Facing three days with no distributions, we could hardly expect to feed a family of five with two stalks of green onions.
So this morning, Otsuru turned to a good friend in Yodo, and when she really begged for green onions, she got one kanme for five yen, fifty sen. At that price, it was like a gift, and she returned home with the onions, very pleased. She and Grandma counted the number of onions, and there were sixty five, which meant that one green onion, with train fare included, cost fifty sen."

As a wounded soldier in hiding behind American lines on Okinawa, Nomura Seiki didn't find out about Japan's surrender till nearly a month after it happened. The excerpts from his diary cover the month and a half before he surrendered and highlight the fear and the freedom of stragglers away from command structures.

"Lately I've been thinking about my rank, and it's depressing. Ever since the breakout from Yonabaru, I had forgotten about rank, but if I go to Kunigami, I will be, after all, a soldier, and it makes me sick to think about having to do the bidding of commissioned and noncommissioned officers."

The excerpts from the diary of Takahashi Aiko, a middle-aged woman living in Tokyo, run from February 1942 to the end of the war. She writes about obtaining the day-to-day necessities of life, the bombing, and dealing with the neighbourhood associations and community councils that handled ration distributions and monitored air raid preparedness. She also fits in the occasional reflection on nature, on the poignant beauty of cherry blossoms or the pleasure found in watching nesting swallows. And she is the most politically aware of the diarists, perhaps because she had lived in the United States for fifteen years.

"When I turned on the radio tonight, the announcers were making a big deal about an evening of victory celebrations on Taiwan, but Taiwan had actually been attacked, and there was no celebration. I couldn't help but feel contempt for the authorities who treat us as though we were stupid."

The younger Yoshizawa Hisako, also in Tokyo, writes about similar subjects, though she is perhaps inhibited because she is writing for her mentor and eventual husband. She explores her own and others' psychological responses and is sometimes quite philosophical; she went on to become a writer.

"Living in Tokyo as it is now, I'm full of hope. In last night's air raid, there were no accidents on the line that burned all the way to Makuragi, and the trains were still running. In the smouldering ruins, people built semi-subterranean huts with tin roofing to protect themselves against the elements. The next day, netting was stretched across frames, and laundry flapped in the wind. Immediately after some areas were razed, bright green garden plots appeared and extended as far as the eye could see. Children who had slept until yesterday on tatami were now sleeping on a single straw mat. They were not the least bit unhappy and made their own toys and played contentedly."

Fifteen year-old Maeda Shoko worked in a labor service corps, doing domestic chores for special-attack pilots training for their final missions. Her diary is straightforwardly descriptive, but there is an obvious intensity in her account of teenage girls befriending young men about to die. It also highlights just how poorly trained and woefully equipped the special-attack pilots were.

"Miyazaki's aircraft went "U-U-U-U," and his engine sounded bad and coughed fire. It was too bad, but if it had been me, I would have taken off in that condition. ... Squadron Leader Obitsu's plane was shaking violently from side to side; the bomb on Fukuie's plane fell out of its rack; and Goto's plane broke down and wouldn't move."

Eleven year-old schoolboy Manabe Ichiro and nine year-old schoolgirl Nakane Mihoko were both evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombing of Tokyo. They were required to keep diaries as school exercises — Nakane's even includes editorial comments from the inspections by teachers every ten days — but they must have been somewhat precocious, as they write surprisingly well. Despite their focus on mundane daily events, they're not dull.

"Today was Imperial Rescript Observance Day. When the morning assembly was over, we had an imperial rescript reading ceremony at the shrine. Saito-sensei read the rescript. Then we wrote comfort letters in the classrooms and sent today's letters to soldiers in hospitals. I thought soldiers in hospitals must surely be bored, so I tried to write letters that would make them happy and wrote with all my might."

In addition to the diary excerpts, Yamashita contributes an introduction. This includes a historiographical overview of work on ordinary Japanese during the war, some background on wartime Japan, and a look at themes that run through the diaries. He also provides a glossary and footnotes which relate events in the diaries to the broader military and political chronology and explain internal references within the diaries and background aspects of Japanese culture.

Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies offers a perspective on Japan during the Pacific War that will be new to most Westerners. The individual stories it follows are involving in their own right, but they also convey a feel for changing popular attitudes to the war, the mechanisms of social control and wartime logistics, the effects of bombing on everyday life and social structures, and other aspects of social history. Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies is recommended to anyone curious about Japan.

January 2006

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%T Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies
%S Selections from the Wartime Diaries of Ordinary Japanese
%A Yamashita, Samuel Hideo
%M Japanese
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2005
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0824829778
%P 330pp