By Avi Landau
In his Memories of Silk and Straw, Memories of Wind and Waves and Confessions of a Yakuza, Dr. Junichi Saga (who lives just minutes from Tsukuba Center) has given us some of the most powerfully vivid portraits of life in small town and rural Japan ever written. Using the same distinctive listening and writing method, he created this collection of more than a dozen personal stories of the Second World War (and the fighting in China and Manchuria leading up to and through it) based on interviews with his elderly patients and neighbors.
These remarkably detailed reminiscences will take you from the central Pacific to the Persian Gulf, from the Frosty steppes of Northern Manchuria to the Jungles of Borneo, from the front lines to the home-front, into the air and on and under the sea. Told with a unique Japanese sensibility in which very often the most powerful statements are made by delicate suggestion or by what is left “unsaid”, these fifteen human dramas should provide readers in the English speaking world with a “new” look at the war, one seen from the other side – and even the most jaded reader of World War Two history will surely discover something new in it.
Among others meet:
Mr. Keizo Noguchi, the mechanical wiz who rose up through the ranks of the Imperial Navy to become the chief engineering officer on several I-Class submarines during the war (including the notorious I-26 which ranked third in most tonnage of Allied shipping sunk). Arrested by the GHQ after Japan’s defeat, Noguchi was eventually released from Sugamo Prison, saved from possible long-term imprisonment (or worse) by the arrival of a written testimonial sent from the United States by one of the three survivors of the Richard Hovey, a man who had been taken aboard the I-26 as a prisoner after ship had been sunk.
Sadao Watanabe, ship’s blacksmith turned in-flight engineer, Mr. Watanabe describes life at the Kasumigaura Naval Aviation base, as well as the many air-strikes against Chinese targets.
Mrs. Kikuko Kikuchi, who describes in loving detail the unique Tokyo neighborhood she once lived in – before recounting the horrors of the great fire-bombing of May 25, 1945 in which she lost her mother and sisters as the whole area went up in flames.
Mr. Akira Hirohara, who had been a medical orderly at Base Hospital 74 in the Philippines, describes the hellish conditions inside the old mine-shaft his patients had to be moved into after their beautiful hospital had been destroyed in an air-strike. He then goes on to tell the world for the first time, what really happened to the patients who were too sick or injured to be evacuated from the shaft as American forces approached.
Mr. Tomizo Kakinuma, who describes the old red-light district in Tsuchiura – and the humiliations of life as a prisoner of war in Borneo.
And many more!
Here is Dr. Saga`s forward to the book (Translated by Avi Landau):
When he came to my clinic seventeen years ago, he stepped into the examining-room and said: “I’ve got this on me. It itches a bit.” Mr. Noguchi, who had been born in 1897, opened his shirt to show me—and I immediately remembered having seen something just like it, in one of my textbooks back in medical school: Paget’s disease. A rare type of breast cancer that occurs in men. It appears on the skin as a chronic eczema while its cancerous cells invade the nipple and aureole, slowly spreading, till they eventually move into the lymph-nodes and then metastasizing throughout the body. I immediately took a tissue sample for a biopsy which proved me correct. I then wrote out a letter of introduction so that he could be treated at the National Cancer Institute, where he underwent surgery and a regime of radiation therapy.
After he’d recovered, he started coming to my clinic for regular check-ups. Along his left side, from his nipple to the armpit, was the scar left by the surgeons. You could see his ribs standing out beneath the surface of his nearly transparent skin. Low blood-pressure made him look pale and sickly, and being as long and lean as he was, he looked quite helpless there with his shirt off, while I examined him. But whenever he came walking through the door with his perfectly erect posture, he struck me as being unusually dignified, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was that he had done for a living.
Whenever I tried, in my round-about way, to get him to talk about his working life, he seemed to get all muddled, and didn’t give me a clue. It continued like that for a very long time, till one day near the end of July of 1989. After I’d finished examining him, he muttered something so quietly that I could barely hear: “Doc… well… er… maybe I should tell you my story.”
And the next morning, in the rain, he came to meet me. And let me tell you… I was more than a little surprised to learn that such a gentle, unassuming old man had once been the chief engineering officer on several I-class submarines. What had brought him to the Navy, was not a special sense of patriotism or any other sort of idealism, but his family’s dire financial straits. At least that’s the way it sounded to me. As things turned out for him though, after having excelled as a student at various tuition-free Navy affiliated schools, he ended up as a career navy-man, who spent more than half of his life with submarines.
We had lunch together, and after we’d finished eating, we kept on talking for a few more hours. He finally signalled that he was ready to take his leave with a sudden: “Hah…. we sure have been here a long time!” And I followed him down the stairs and saw him off, as he headed back home in the rain.
About a week later, a large amount of blood came out with his stool, and since his anemia had already been quite bad, he was admitted to a general hospital. Late at night, on September 18th, a nurse making her rounds found him dead. He had taken himself off life-support by removing his intravenous tubes and oxygen mask.
On that rainy afternoon we’d spent talking, he’d told me about the various ships and submarines he’d served on and about all sorts of experiences he’d had. Still, there were some parts of his story that I would have liked him to clarify for me. It was too late, though, and I regretted the fact that I would never be able to speak with him again.
And this also happened. It has to do with Maeshima-san, the man whose story is told in Chapter Nine of this book. Until I went to interview him at the end of 1993, I had never had the opportunity of getting together with him. While his wife was not a very hardy person and was always coming to my clinic, Maeshima-san himself was the type of man who’d never so much as caught a cold—and he had no need of a doctor. One of the nurses who worked for me though, a former navy nurse (Fumiko Umehara, whose story is also told in this book), recommended that I speak to him about his experiences—and her house was located no more than fifty meters from his.
During my first visit with him, he came out at some point and said: “Last night I had the weirdest dream. An old army buddy of mine, a guy who lives out in Gunma Prefecture, was standing at my bedside and staring down at me. I asked him: ‘Hey, what’s the matter?’ But then, this real worried look came over his face, and staring at me, he said: ‘I’m fine…. it’s YOU I’m worried about.’ And that was the whole darn thing. But it’s the first time that an old army buddy of mine has come to me in a dream like that—so I can’t help being a bit shaken up by it.”
I started listening to his story at just past noon, and when evening came around I thought that it would be best if I took my leave. But when I stood up to go, he stopped me saying, “You still have some time, don’t you?” And then about an hour later, I said, “Well….. shall we continue next time?” But he grabbed hold of my hand saying, “Now is fine. I don’t mind at all. It’s OK to go on.” Still, I felt that staying so late on my first visit would be too much of an imposition—and I also couldn’t help but notice that he’d started wheezing distinctly as he exhaled.
“Do you often get phlegm stuck in your throat like that?” I asked.
“Yup,” he nodded. “I smoke.”
So I said, “Look, let’s call it a night for now. When we both feel re-energized, I’ll visit you again.” But he continued to keep me from leaving—three times I tried, and I ended up staying at his place till past eight.
Then, on December 27th, as the year was winding down to its end, he suddenly showed up at my clinic with his wife. He told me he’d been suffering from terrible fits of coughing. I took some x-rays, and when I held the images up against the light, I realized right away that it was lung cancer. I had him admitted to a general hospital, where it was decided that he would undergo surgery. The day before he was supposed to go under the knife, I visited him in his hospital room. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, talking to his wife—and he seemed to be in very good spirits. When he noticed me he said, “Doc, when I get outta here, I still got a lot more to tell ya!”—before giving out a wheezy laugh. His recovery, however, did not go well, and in the early spring, while the cold still lingered in the air, he passed away.
* * *
As you have already learned, I am a practicing physician with a clinic of my own. At the same time though, I had long been engaged in an immense and beloved side-project—talking to the people around me and recording the stories of their lives (these stories can be found in the books “Memories of Silk and Straw” and “Memories of Wind and Waves”). For a period of about twenty years (beginning when I was about 30 years old) I walked from house to house and listened to people’s life-stories. In the end, I wrote up about 100 of them, as told by people working in about 60 different occupations. As a whole, the stories paint a picture of what life was like for regular Japanese people in the late Meiji through the Taisho and then into the early Showa Periods (roughly the years 1900-1940). The books I wrote were translated first into English and French, and then into German. They are still being read all over the world, a testament perhaps to the new awareness of how looking at the lives of everyday, ordinary people can help us gain a deeper understanding of history.
To write the present book, I used the same “listening and writing” style, though the subject matter here is limited to experiences of the Second World War. Most of the people whose stories I present are my patients and neighbors, with the most distant of them living only a few kilometers from my clinic. And while we now share the same familiar and very peaceful surroundings, it was a different situation seventy-five years ago. Back then, each of their existences hovered precariously between life and death—on land, in the air, on and under the sea, within an area that extended for thousands of square kilometers, from Sakhalin Island way up north to Borneo and New Guinea down in the south, and from the central Pacific Ocean, all the way to the Persian Gulf. Then, after the war was suddenly declared over, they realized, to their astonishment, that they’d made it through—they were still alive! They then went on to live their lives without hardly ever discussing—or even mentioning to anyone—what they had gone through.
What finally got them to open up about their war-time experiences, I think, was their age. No matter how they had spent their “golden years”, before it was too late, they wanted to pass on to future generations, the memories of that intensely dramatic world they had once inhabited. It seems to me, that what each and every one of them wanted to do, was leave behind a record of the facts as THEY, and not someone else, had seen them.
When I went to visit the above-mentioned Maeshima-san in the hospital, I asked him if it would be OK to use his real name in this book. “Use an alias,” he said. “If I don’t confer with my buddies, I can’t guarantee that I got all the dates or even what happened, exactly right. I don’t want there to be trouble for anyone because of something I told you.” So in the original manuscript I had prepared for this book, Chapter Nine was attributed to “Someone”. Just before he passed away, though, he said to his wife: “Tell Doctor Saga that I want him to use my real name!”
More than half a century has passed since the end of the war—and it has been discussed and researched from just about every angle there is. These personal stories told by a few of my elderly patients and neighbors, provide us with a few more drops in the vast ocean of material that must be taken into consideration when we contemplate the Second World War—and war in general.