Aaron William Moore: Soldiers’ Diaries in the Asia Pacific War





In the last decade, numerous film and print media treatments of the Second World War have focused on the “soldier’s perspective.” Because the wartime generation is now rapidly disappearing, postwar generations have become especially eager to know the war. In particular, there is a hunger to learn how it was experienced by ordinary servicemen—a focus popularized most effectively by historian John Keegan (and film directors such as Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola). Scholars and war history buffs alike seek “reliable” accounts of the war; presumably, the best histories of the war are those that rest on a firm foundation of the most “reliable” sources. Certainly, the larger historical narrative of the war is incomplete without adequate attention to the personal records that servicemen kept at the time, such as diaries and letters. Nevertheless, like any document, it is essential to pay close attention to the assumptions shared by the authors of these documents and their audiences today, especially regarding the “truth” such texts putatively contain. Invariably, issues of self-discipline, including self-censorship, as well as military discipline and direct external censorship, intrude.

Diary writing in Japan is a practice with a long and formidable history behind it, including notebooks (tebikae) composed by the warrior class, bureaucratic diaries (nisshi), literary diaries, and travel diaries. In the modern military context, Meiji era war reportage and field diaries (jinchu nikki / nisshi) were the most important precedents. Field diaries were potentially subject to peer and superior review, as they were in most, if not all, modern armies, and this practice (beginning in the early Meiji with “work diaries,” or sagyo nisshi) eventually gave way to a form of guided diary writing that permeated nearly every wing of the armed forces. This was, in fact, part of an expansion of formalistic diary writing practices in Meiji Japan that even permeated the classroom: schoolchildren were often required to keep diaries subject to teacher and parent review (nikki kensa). [1] As mentioned above, diary writing has always been a part of Japanese literary and bureaucratic culture, so one can imagine that when Prussian military advisors (who highly valued field diary writing) suggested such a system to the Japanese, it was immediately embraced. A typical field diary was kept by a combat officer and might include basic information about his unit such as troop position, strength, weather, terrain, movement, and supply and logistics. By the turn of the century, Japanese officers were accustomed to keeping these diaries, and knew that it could be reviewed by their superiors; if so requested, relevant selections from an officer’s diary would be copied by a military clerk and submitted for approval. Since the inception of guided or reviewed diaries in the early Meiji period, these texts were tightly bound to concepts such as “truth,” “fact,” and self-discipline....

With the rise of mass politics in Japan in the early twentieth century a subtle transformation occurred in war reporting and literature about war. Previously, such texts focused on the exploits of the officer class. Press reports on the “people” (however construed) were heavily influenced by leftist reportage and socialist realist fiction, but this was also was a sign of the broadening of the literary market. Not coincidentally, the Japanese military, with the rise in diary writing among its (increasingly literate) enlisted men, began to extend its disciplinary gaze down into lower and lower ranks. Texts with titles such as “Record of Self-Reflection” (hanseiroku), “Record of Self-Cultivation” (shuyoroku), “Training Diary” (kunren nikki) began to proliferate in the 1930s; education officers (naimuhan kyokan) typically wrote comments in these diaries in red ink or pencil and fixed their personal seal inside. The military high command viewed the act of recording one’s life as a serious reflection of personal growth and self-discipline. Thus, in 1936, one sergeant wrote in a new recruit’s diary that, “No matter how difficult it may seem, you must take your diary (hanseiroku) seriously! It is your ‘mirror of truth’ (makoto no kagami). It will be your last will and testament (igonsho)!” [4] By the 1930s, mass production of blank diaries and writing utensils (such as cartridge-fed fountain pens) made these instruments of self-discipline accessible to the “common man.” During Japan’s period of “total war” against Chinese, Russian, and, finally, Western armies (as well as its flirtation with fascist models of socio-economic management), the military, private companies, and state encouraged and sought to control diary writing: blank diaries complete with military ballads (gunka), patriotic poems, and nationalistic rhetoric in the margins were produced bearing titles such as “Diary of the Holy War” (seisen nikki) and were distributed widely to troops....

What constitutes “truth,” however, has always been difficult for servicemen in wartime, and it was no less so for some veterans in the postwar era. Japanese captives of the Chinese Nationalists were enrolled in reeducation programs, particularly in “Peace Village”—a holding facility near Chongqing, Sichuan Province—and guided diary writing was part of their daily life there. Later, Japanese servicemen who were forced to “reflect on” and confess their crimes by the Chinese Communists faced what their guards (and instructors) referred to as a “True Acknowledgment of Crimes” (Jp. makoto no ninzai, Ch. zhen de renzui). For many, it was a cathartic moment of self-transformation—much like the one that occurred when they began their “mirrors of truth.” [5] When Japanese veterans returned home, sometimes speaking out against the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army, they were ostracized by a community that remembered the war from a very different point of experience (firebombing, evacuations, and losing male family members, just to name a few). Rumors circulated that “Returnees” had been “brainwashed” (senno / xinao, a postwar neologism) by the Chinese Communist Party. ....



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