Ghosts of past haunt battle for history of Japan

American bombers had napalmed Tokyo killing 100,000 people in a single night

Katsumoto Saotome was a schoolboy in Tokyo when he heard the reedy voice of Japan’s “living God”. He could understand little of what was said in the crackly, 4½-minute radio broadcast, but the tone of resignation was clear.

The war, Emperor Hirohito famously said in his courtly Japanese, had developed "not necessarily to Japan's advantage". The enemy had deployed a "new, most cruel bomb" that could result not just in the obliteration of the nation, but the "total extinction of human civilisation".

The word “surrender” was never uttered but the war was over. It was noon on August 15th, 1945.

Saotome was astonished. Like many Japanese, he thought the emperor was going to ask him to die. Tens of thousands of people had been flung against the enemy like chaff. A civilian militia armed with little more than bamboo spears was training to fight the Allies to the bitter end.


The Americans had burned most of Japan’s cities to the ground and were set to invade. Now it was over. “What had it all been for?” wondered Saotome, then 12.


Hirohito’s assessment vastly underplayed the carnage from the war. American bombers had napalmed Tokyo four months earlier, killing 100,000 people in a single night and reducing much of the city to ruins. More than 60 other cities met the same fate before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs, taking 200,000 lives in an instant.

About three million Japanese were dead or missing, six million stranded abroad, millions more starving, injured or homeless; at least a quarter of all national wealth had been destroyed.

In the searing late summer heat, rotting bodies were still being cremated across Japan. In Hiroshima, 13-year-old Shoji Sawada listened to the emperor's speech in his grandmother's house. A week earlier, his trapped mother had told him to run away as post-atomic-bomb fires consumed their house – and burnt her alive.

“My heart was too broken to take in what the emperor was saying,” he recalls.

It seems impossible that the lives of two men could straddle this calamity and Japan’s rise from the ashes of the second World War, when it engineered probably the most remarkable feat of economic regeneration in history, climbing to become the world’s second-largest economy in just three decades.

The unlikely broker of this rise was America. Initially intent on vengeance, Washington switched priorities after the communist victory in China in 1949. Instead of a humiliated enemy, it now wanted a loyal Pacific bulwark against Red Beijing and Moscow. The key figure in this rehabilitation was the emperor.

Even before Hirohito’s broadcast, Japan’s elites planned to protect him from trial by portraying him, improbably, as a pacifist manipulated into a disastrous war by his military brass. The Americans, after a brief debate about whether to try and hang him for war crimes, shepherded his transition to constitutional monarch – a unifying force in a country in danger of being pulled apart by class and politics.

The man in whose name millions died was turned into a symbol of peace.

Fourteen of Japan's wartime leaders were executed but many more were rehabilitated, including former minister of munitions Nobusuke Kishi, one of the dozen men who signed the declaration of war against the US in December 1941. Kishi, grandfather of the current prime minister Shinzo Abe, would go on to become prime minister himself and help smooth Japan's remarkable transition to American Cold War ally.

Tellingly, one of Abe’s first actions after winning power in 2012 was to visit his beloved grandfather’s grave, where he pledged to recover Japan’s “true independence”.

Abe belongs to the same political tradition as Kishi, rejecting much of the accepted western narrative on the war. Kishi also believed Japan’s postwar humiliation must end.

On Saturday, as Japan marks the 70th anniversary of Hirohito’s broadcast, the legacy of Washington’s expedient post-war pact will be on display at Yasukuni shrine, when it erupts into a noisy demonstration of bruised national pride, and the ghosts of the past come juddering back to life.

Yasukuni venerates Japan’s wartime leaders as well as the “kami” (divine spirits) of 2,466,000 soldiers lost in the nation’s wars. It has long been one of Asia’s political lightning rods, widely seen as a monument to militarism.

But for Japanese nationalists, it is literally holy ground and a place to vent unrepentant views of the war.


Activists loudly proclaim that Japan must stop apologising for its war crimes. Politicians demand the status of the emperor be restored. An adjacent museum says that far from brutalising much of


, Japan’s imperial army was on a noble mission to liberate it from Western colonialism.

Such views are deeply at odds with those outside Japan, but they hold sway among a remarkably large number of Japan’s politicians. About a third of parliament and over half the cabinet of Abe, the prime minister, support them.

Abe is the “special adviser” to the parliamentary league of Nippon Kaigi, Japan’s most powerful nationalist lobby.

Above all, they dislike the US-written constitution, written in 1946, which neutered the military with a pacifist clause and imported alien, liberal concepts of education and family law. Abe has struggled throughout his term in office to shrug off these pacifist shackles and strengthen the military with sharp rises in defence spending, targeting China.

Under Abe, the government has imposed stricter control over history textbooks. Japanese schoolchildren already know little about the horrors that took place before they were born, says Tomiichi Murayama, a former prime minister who authored a landmark 1995 apology for the war. "Schools didn't teach much history because the government could never decide if it was a good war or a bad war," he says.

Official narratives

Saotome, now 83, and a survivor of the Tokyo fire-bombing, fears this amnesia is accelerating. The older he got, he says, the harder it became for him to banish the thoughts of all those 100,000 people, snuffed out in a single night. “It was as though they had never existed.”

Soon, he fears, official narratives will replace stories like his. “Japan under this leadership wants to forget the past and move on. But that cannot be allowed to happen.”