A STORY ABOUT THE JAPANESE ARMY THE WORLD SHOULD KNOW
The Japanese have long coped with charges about their wartime history from their Asian neighbors. At the same time they have been subject to the legacy of a postwar education program imposed by the occupation forces that emphasized the heinous influence of “militarism.” Consequently, today’s Japanese are generally inclined to almost automatically regard as evil everything to do with the military—or the last war.
I have long maintained that “Japan alone was not to blame for the war—that if the circumstances that led to the war were fairly scrutinized, each nation concerned would be accountable for its share of responsibility.” I must admit, however, that even I myself have somehow failed to properly appreciate the human side of the former Imperial Japanese Army.
I have recently come across a remarkable book that taught me much about this matter—Captive at Seven: “War and Peace” for A Chinese Boy by Hikari Toshiaki (Shakaishisou-Sha, Tokyo; 1993).
The author believes he was born to a Chinese family in the mountainous region of the southern part of Shanxi Province, China, in October of 1935. I say “believes” because Toshiaki doesn’t quite remember his birthplace—one of the most impoverished areas in China, almost completely devoid of arable land. Although born to a poor family, Toshiaki initially lived happily with his parents and a sister. But his family life changed drastically when his father was drafted. First, his little sister was put up for adoption, but his family was still financially hard-pressed, forcing his mother to find another spouse. In fact, she got remarried twice. Although she was firmly determined to give her son a decent education, her farmer husband thought education useless.
When Nationalist Chinese soldiers poured into town, his mother—who never changed her mind about his education despite being severely beaten by her husband—entreated a Lieutenant Guo to take her seven-year-old son and see to his education.
Lt. Guo took the boy under his wing in his unit at the Nationalist garrison, naming him Jun-ming and allowing him to go to school from there. Eventually, the boy completely forgot his original name, as well as those of his parents.
At the height of the Sino-Japanese War, Lt. Guo’s unit one day headed for Luoyang across the Yellow River. It rained day and night. Drenched to the bone and loaded down with heavy packs, the Nationalist Chinese soldiers nonetheless constantly cheered up little Jun-ming, taking him by the hand and protecting him along the way. One senses the gentleness to the little Chinese boy on the part of the Nationalist soldiers—so different from the Nationalist soldiers who murdered 32 Japanese guards and 225 civilians in the Tongchow Incident of 1937 at the outset of the war.
“Does It Hurt, Little Boy?”
In June of 1943, Lt. Guo’s unit surrendered to the Japanese army after failing to reach the Yellow River. With all members of the unit taken captive, including himself, Jun-ming thought they might all be killed because he was convinced that “Japanese soldiers were devils.” When the unit reached the Japanese military headquarters at the Wangye Mausoleum in Jiyuan Prefecture, Henan Province, however, he was stunned by the treatment he received. Noticing a wound in his leg, several Japanese soldiers came rushing toward him, saying: “Does it hurt, little boy?”
“The Japanese soldiers took care of me as if I was one of them,” recalls Toshiaki, which is how his Chinese name is pronounced in Japanese. “They applied various medicines to my wound and wrapped a pure while bandage around it.” The episode took place at the headquarters of the 277th Infantry Regiment of the 37th Division of the Japanese Army.
Recalling the incident, Toshiaki states: “I had a hunch that those soldiers would not harm me, but might make me their mascot instead.”
The soldiers treated him with affection, calling him “Toshiaki,” “Toshi-boh,” or “Toshi-chan,” instead of “Jun-ming.” Army Lieutenant Masataka Kaji was especially kind, paying close attention to his health by feeding him properly and keeping him clean. Sergeant Kurauchi, fluent in Chinese, taught Toshiaki Japanese “very vigorously every day” as if he were teaching his own son. A native of Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Japan, he showed Toshiaki postcards from his home and told him about its mountains and the ships that cruised the waters there.
Says “Toshi-bo”: “Having seen only dreary places to that point in my life, I was totally surprised by how big the Japanese radishes were, how beautiful the ladies were, and how breathtaking the scenery was. How was it possible that such a beautiful spot existed on earth?! It was absolutely stunning.”
Four months after being taken captive, Toshiaki was told that all the Nationalist prisoners, including Lt.Guo, had been transferred to Beijing. It was very difficult for Servgeant Kurauchi break the news of Guo’s transfer to Toshiaki.
“I have talked things over with Lt. Guo,” the sergeant explained. “He wants the Japanese army to take good care of you and bring you up to be a fine man—now that he’s not going to be able to.”
The Nationalist Army lieutenant had done his utmost to fend for the little boy entrusted to him by his impoverished mother, while the Japanese army unit, which held him and his men captive, now determined to assume responsibility for the boy’s fate after the lieutenant no longer could.
In point of fact, Toshiaki notes: “After the Nationalist soldiers were transferred to Beijing, the Japanese soldiers did even more to care for me.”
From then on through Japan’s defeat in 1945, little Toshiaki stayed with Lt. Kaji, Sgt. Kurauchi, and their men during an incredibly long march stretching some 7,000 kilometers (approximately 4,400 miles) from North China to Wuhan to Guangdong to Vietnam and Thailand—a truly long march for a boy who was less than ten years old at the time.
Over the course of the grueling march, Lt. Kaji’s unit took care of little Toshiaki as he had promised Lt. Guo he would—clearly no small burden under the circumstances.
Many times along the way, Lt. Kaji warned Toshiaki about having to march through areas where they would confront the 8th Route Army (People’s Liberation Army) forces or the Nationalist Army, suggesting that he stay behind. But the little boy said no and stayed close to Kaji, threatening suicide if he was forced to be left behind.
It is remarkable that Toshiaki began to develop an admiration for Japan while on the battlefield. It is proof that the affection for him of the Japanese soldiers was genuine; not just a couple of officers or soldiers but the entire unit was behind him, committed to his protection. It could only be because that affection was well understood by Toshiaki that he wished to stay with the unit throughout the march.
When the 37th Division finally reached Vietnam, the war had already ended with Japan’s defeat. They were all taken prisoner by the British army, including Toshiaki. China now stood among the victors.
When the Chinese dispatched an emissary to demand Toshiaki’s hand-over, he fiercely refused to be returned to China. When Kaji told him Japan had been defeated and that Toshiaki should return to his native China, Toshiaki dashed out of town in tears and fled into the jungle despite being terrified because he believed it was full of tigers. Seeing his reaction, Kaji decided to “take him to Japan and send him through college.”
In May of 1946, Kaji’s unit was repatriated to Japan. Toshiaki was 10 years old then. His long march of more than three years, starting in the mountains of Shanxi and extending all the way to Vietnam and Thailand, was finally over. He was raised as Kaji’s son in his native Kumamoto Prefecture, graduated from college, and married a Kumamoto woman.
Looking back over Toshiaki’s incredible life, one is touched by the warm humanity that the Chinese and Japanese soldiers shared in common.
It is now time for us to relate these little known facts about the Japanese army to more people around the world.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 731 in the December 1, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)