Remembering Pearl Harbor- while on a bus driving along Lake Kasumigaura- near the base where Japanese naval aviators trained for the attack of Dec. 7th 1941
By Avi Landau
December 7th, 1941. Though I was born more than two decades later, it is a date branded into my brain- I guess you could say it is part of the American identity. One of the few dates that all those of my parents` and my own generation remember with certainty besides July the 4th (Independence Day), December 25th (Christmas) and the birthdays and anniversaries of certain loved ones- and of course now: September 11th.
Seeing this date (Dec. 7th) written or hearing it mentioned never fails to bring the words Pearl Harbor to mind. My Japanese friends always find this odd, since for them the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. forces in Hawaii is on the next day, December 8th (because of the time difference).
And of course, living in Japan, I have come to see the different way that people in this country view what happened on that day (as compared with how most Americans do).
In the U.S., what happened at Pearl Harbor is commonly referred to as a SNEAK ATTACK ( I have seen this expression used recently by a respected scholar and Japan specialist, in the New York Review of Books).
The Japanese, however, call it a SURPRISE ATTACK, which has a completely different nuance.
And whereas the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which more than 2,000 Americans died, was held up as a symbol of Japanese perfidy and dastardliness used to justify Japan`s total destruction ( once a very well-educated and accomplished American woman whom I was guiding in Nagasaki went into a rage at the A-Bomb memorial asserting that it was only natural to drop the bomb on civilians- since THEY bombed Pearl Harbor!), the Japanese, always like to point out that that very skillfully carried out military action exclusively targeted MILITARY FACILITIES -unlike the attack on the World Trade Center, or more significantly- the American war plan designed to cause MAXIMUM civilian casualties which was eventually implemented (during the Second WII).
Anyway, today was December 7th and I thought it was appropriate that I was taking the bus, as I have been doing every week for years, from Tsuchiura Station to Ibaraki University`s Ami Campus ( on the Amizaka, 阿見坂 bound bus). As we drove along a road which runs close to Lake Kasumigaura`s southern coast, I thought of how the mastermind behind the Pearl Harbour attack, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku ( then a 40 year-old captain), used to use this very same route everyday to get from his lodgings in central Tsuchiura (next to the Jinryu-Ji Temple) to his office which once stood on what is now within the university campus. Back in those days , however, the trip could be made by train.
Yamamoto was stationed at what was then the huge (and very prestigious) Lake Kasumigaura Naval Air-Force Base. He stayed on there for a year and three months (starting from September 1924) before being sent off to Washington to be the military attache at the Japanese Embassy (Yamamoto had also studied at Harvard and was always very pessimistic about Japan`s chances of winning a war against the United States- especially a drawn-out conflict). After three months at his posting in Tsuchiura he was promoted to vice-commander of the base.
His main task at that time was to reduce the number of training accidents which were occuring. In the nearly ten years since the Naval Air Corp had been established in 1915 (at Yokozuka, in Kanagawa Prefecture) about 60 pilots and crew members had been killed- 25 of them at the Kasumigaura base (which had been established in 1922). Civilian casualties (affected by crashing planes) made the need for real change even more urgent.
Interestingly, Yamamoto went about this job by applying both scientific and non-scientific methods. First, each accident was analyzed in detail and causes were determined. Doctors and psychologists were hired to test potential pilots and crew in order to exclude those who might be more accident prone.
In addition, Yamamoto had all these same men checked by a palm-reader and phrenologist- since the accidents did not seem to be decreasing and the captain suspected that FATE was a possible factor in the continuing series of aerial mishaps.
And then in an idea which has an impact on our lives in Tsukuba today, Yamamoto , who lived next to the Jinryu-Ji Temple in Tsuchiura, help foment the idea of holding a fire-works event. This was conceived of as a prayer for no further accidents and also as an act of consolation to the spirits of those who had already died. This event was held in 1914- and it turns out that it was the first of the famous Tsuchiura National Fireworks Competitions which still draws hundreds of thousands of viewers every October.
One more thing that Yamamoto did before leaving for the U.S. was ask that a Shinto Shrine be erected in which the spirits of those who died in these accidents would be enshrined as KAMI (deities).
The Kasumigaura Shrine (霞ヶ浦神社) was consecrated on February first 1925 on a site in what is now between the Ibaraki University`s Ami Campus Gymnasium and the Ami Town Nakago Day Care Center (阿見町中郷保育所)- right across the street from the Ibaraki University bus-stop at which I always get off.
After its construction solemn ceremonies were held there regularly ( with major rites held each spring and autumn) and by the end of the war 5,573 “BRAVE SPIRITS” who had died in training accidents were enshrined there.
( In a recent movie about Yamamoto Isoroku, starring Yakusho Koji, the script has the future admiral saying- I appreciate all the help we are getting from Kasumigaura- KASUMIGAURA OSEWA NI NATTEIMASU- 霞ヶ浦おせわになっています, as many of those who trained on Lake Kasumigaura participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as all the other great and lesser battles in which naval aviation was involved. Many of the Special Attack Force-KAMIKAZE pilots were also trained by the lake- though these did were never trained in how to get BACK to base).
After the war , however, the spirits enshrined in the Kasumigaura Jinja were transferred to (the controversial) Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Apparently, even those who had died in training (and other) accidents were given recognition as having died heroic deaths in battle.
Now just a few old stone memorials and rusty old signs sit on the very lonely spot (though it is right next to a busy day care center and university, it seems no one ever takes notice of it. I have read that the strange statue of a cherub (or angel) on the spot contains the names of the 5,573 who lost their lives while serving at the base.
(Interestingly, another shrine the Tsuchiura Ko-ku-tai Jinja (土浦航空隊神社)- one dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu- which had been located down by the lake, disappeared after the war. It has recently been found, however, in Tsukuba City`s Yatabe ( more on this in a future article). Apparently it was secretly moved there out of fear that American forces would desecrate or destroy it.
The same thing happened to a cement statue of Admiral Yamamoto – who was killed when his plane was shot down over New Guinea in 1943 – which had been erected at the base. Fearing it would fall into the hands of the Americans, the statue was broken up into pieces and sunk into the lake for safe keeping. A few years later, the top part of the statue was discovered and can be seen at a Marine Self-Defense Force base in Hiroshima.
I was surprised when a few years ago, Niigata television produced a program about searching for the statues remaining parts! They did actually find the rest- but in such poor condition that it could not be displayed. The local Niigata and Ibaraki media made a big deal of how they discovered a piece of the statue bearing the Admiral`s name-Isoroku (五十六) exactly 56 years after his death. This is because Isoroku actually means FIFTY-SIX ( Yamamoto`s birth father`s age when Isoroku was born- though he was later, as an adult, adopted into another family: the Yamamotos).
(When I first heard these stories of how this shrine and the statue of the Admiral her broken up into parts and hidden away with the idea of protecting them from desecration, I could not help but see the similarity to how devotees of the old Chuzen-Ji Temple which long stood on the southern slope of Mt. Tsukuba, buried or hid away at various places its main images and and even one large structure (the bell tower- now located at the Izumi Kosodate Kannon)- which were in danger of being desecrated by anti-Buddhist fanatics in the late 1860s and early 1870s).
As I ride on the bus, all these thoughts race through my head. I stare out at the scenery- everything rusting: signs, railing, shops, houses. We pass by the Japan Self-Defense Forces Weapons School – which can be entered after visiting the new YOKAREN (Naval Aviation Preparatory School) Museum which has interesting displays (and amazing photographs by the great Domon Ken) on what life was like for the students preparing to be Special Attack Force Pilots. This facility is one part of the old Naval-Aviation Base which remains connected with the Japanese military (another is an army supply base nearer to the Arakawaoki Station).
Turning up the Amizaka Slope I try to imagine how this area once looked when the base was in its heyday- this road was in fact the first paved road in Ibaraki Prefecture! When the Showa Emperor`s processions went down this road (he visited the base on 4 occasions, and other members of the Imperial Family paid official visits, as well) all the local residents would line the road sides for hours- after major clean-ups had been carried out and all dogs and cats put under restraint. When the God-Emperor passed all would be down on their knees as the band played KIMI GA YO. Naturally, it was forbidden to observe the procession from any upstairs window.
Halfway up the slope are two old cherry trees, the only ones remaining from those glory days. Near the university however, the roadside has been replanted with cherry trees which form a magnificent pink canopy for a few days each April- a reminder of the navy`s strong presence more than half a century ago ( Cherry blossoms are the symbol of the old Imperial Navy).
Now there is a new shopping mall, a hospital, the university campus, and the Kirin-Kyowa Hakko factory and research facility. I guess that hardly any of the people who work or pass through these places today are aware at all of what this area used to be. Even for me it his hard when I walk around the quiet and out of the way campus, to imagine that once, not too long ago, decisions were made there which affected the course of world history.
In contemporary Japan, THESE stories, I mean those about the Imperial Japanese Navy (or Army) do not usually crop up in conversation. This is because they do not now help make up the national identity. Instead of December 7th (or 8th) being a date which every one is taught to remember (which probably would have been the case if Japan had won the war)- it is the dates August 6 and August 9th ( the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively) which the Japanese now emphasize creating a national self image of unique victimhood.
And while for Americans the story of Pearl Harbor and the war that followed is a story of how overwhelming military force could be used to fight and destroy evil ( as the Japanese were made out to represent) and then create a democracy (and a friend) through financial support and political guidance- I think that it is important to bear in mind that formula does not always work out in the same way as we can see in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan.
I truly believe that it was the story of Pearl Harbor and WWII, so instilled in the hearts of Americans as the story of the Good War, that was responsible for former President Bush and his circle`s the mistaken belief that the U.S. could destroy a country`s army and then that nation, with enough financial and political support would suddenly become a great ally, friend, and sharer of a joint culture. The fact is, however, that most countries are not Japan.
To be continued……………….
* I had one amazing day in my life which seemed connected to Admiral Yamamoto. I had the morning and afternoon off but had to be at Ibaraki University in the evening. I got up early and took the bullet train to Nagaoka to see ithe famous Jomon Period pottery they have on display there. After I had finished with the small museum I had to hurry back to the station only to find myself in a snowstorm. I got lost. I came upon an old house with a signboard in front of it . It was Yamamoto Isoroku`s birth house. I went inside for a few minutes. In a few hours I was in Ami, and i realized that I had just gone from his house to his office! At that time the universities offices were still the old navy buildings!