The collapse of an empire is never pretty, and the experience of Japan at the end of World War II was no exception. This list of facts illustrates the grim, meat-hook realities of daily life in Japan during WW2, and the desperate tactics the Japanese military employed as defeat became imminent.
As the tide of the war turned against Japan, the Imperial Navy and Air force lay in ruins, and the American fleet approached, the Japanese were faced with an increasingly grim picture. Japanese civilians faced extreme hardships, and Japanese soldiers were told to die for their emperor in an increasingly futile effort. The home front in Japan during World War 2 was a austere, bleak, and, as the war came to an end, increasingly chaotic and desperate.
The challenge for Allied troops was to elicit an unconditional surrender from a nation that unconditionally refused to surrender. It took not one but two atomic bombs, as well as the entrance of millions of Soviet troops into the Pacific theater, before Japan was willing to accept unconditional surrender. When Americans arrived in Tokyo harbor, they found a country utterly decimated by war. Read on to learn all about bleak realities on the home front for Japanese civilians as the war drew to a close, and the brutal, desperate lengths to which the military went to adhere to outdated behavioral codes.
The Japanese public was told by its government that invading American soldiers would act like pillaging marauders. Given the behavior of Japanese soldiers during the Rape of Nanking and that of Soviet soldiers during the "three days of rape and pillage" in Mukden, such a scenario wasn't far-fetched. Tragically, this belief led many Japanese civilians to commit suicide, rather than face capture by Allied forces.
Events during the Battle of Okinawa demonstrate the extent of this belief. Civilians had been hiding for days in one of the island's caves when American troops arrived. Two young boys charged from the cave wielding bamboo spears and were shot dead. The American troops then attempted to coax the civilians out of the cave, dropping leaflets in Japanese that explained how civilians would be treated well, and with respect. But the people in the cave feared this was misleading propaganda.
An 18-year-old girl named Haru Uechi reportedly shouted, "Mommy, kill me! Don't let them rape me!" The mother obliged, setting off a mass suicide in the cave. Parents killed their children, then themselves. Some of the bones from this incident remain to this day, a grim reminder of horrors that were in no way isolated to that small cave.
The Battle of Saipan bore witness to one of the most atrocious mass suicides of the war. Hundreds of Japanese civilians jumped from the cliffs of Marpi Point, on the north part of the tiny Pacific island, to their death. Others blew themselves up with grenades. In total, 1,000 civilians are estimated to have committed suicide on the island.
Shinsho Kuniyoshi survived the mass suicides. His family joined a group of about 70 who were debating suicide. They attempted to use hand grenades, which were given to civilians for the express purpose of suicide with loved ones, but the blasts weren't strong enough to kill them all. Those who remained, including Kuniyoshi, jumped from the cliffs into the sea. Kuniyoshi survived the fall, along with his father, who, upon seeing Kuniyoshi alive, decided against suicide so as not to leave his son alone.
Speaking to The Japan Times, Kuniyoshi said, “War is a monster that tears up happy lives,”
All told, the Allied strategic bombing campaign caused more death and destruction in Japan than the atomic bombs. During one raid in March 1945, more than 300 B-29 Superfortresses dropped two tons of incendiary bombs each on Tokyo's industrial centers. The resulting firestorm destroyed more than 15 square miles of the city. For comparison's sake, the island of Manhattan is about 23 square miles.
With working-class neighborhoods located adjacent to the factories, the loss of life and property was enormous. In the first six hours of the firestorm created by the bombs, more than 100,000 Japanese civilians died. In that month alone, three more such fire bombing raids took place. In the absence of proper air raid shelters, Japanese civilians hid in glorified holes dug in backyards and parks.
The Imperial Army pushed the narrative that Japan was liberating its Asian neighbors from Western powers. Though the treatment of the native populations by their Japanese colonists painted a different picture, it didn't stop the government from spreading the propaganda. Roughly translated, one pamphlet reads:
Currently, in Manchuria, everyone has begun to combine their power and work. Japan and China formed an alliance. The Philippines and Burma became independent. Thailand grew larger. The people of Java, Malay, and others, too, will, by important duties, come together to work. India, too, has driven out England. From now, we will make the countries of Greater-East-Asia friendly to one another.