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Japan's People at War

HERE is a painful record of the personal experience of some 60 Japanese - plus a few Koreans and Okinawans - from the outbreak of the China "incident" in 1937 to Japan's surrender at the end of World War II in 1945.

Soldiers in China and the South Seas, wielding their swords or bayonets at the slightest provocation; women at home, fearing family disaster if their menfolk are killed overseas; teenage students, dragooned into useless war work by an all-powerful military; liberal journalists, brutalized by the thought police: All but a few scholars have carefully forgotten this part of Japanese history.

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So we are greatly indebted to Haruko Taya Cook, formerly a television journalist in Japan, and Theodore Cook, an academic whose knowledge of the Japanese military supports the comments to these testimonies. "Japan at War" offers not only fascinating insights into daily lives but also a biting critique of the government that ruled, exploited, and nearly destroyed its people.

The scattered accusations in these testimonies, the hints of coverup and state-sponsored amnesia since 1945, suggest that much history has been erased and that the Japanese suffered more from the ruthlessness of their own rulers than from American bombing and blockading.

These testimonies, culled from some 250 interviews conducted in Japan since 1989, attest to the authoritarianism of wartime Japan: a ferocious insistence on discipline and obedience; total control over news and information; and an obsession with "glorious death," no matter the costs or benefits. Irrational demands were made by the military and bureaucracy on every Japanese - civilian and soldier, man and woman, young and old.

How reliable are interviews conducted 45 or more years after the fact? Attitudes and interpretations are ephemeral and likely to shift as time passes. But the underlying theme of this book is consciousness, how the docile and obedient wartime generation feels now toward its terrible experience.

Instead of those faceless crowds shouting "Banzai!" readers meet Shigenobu Debun, a village military-affairs clerk during the Pacific war who remains proud of having implemented conscription call-ups: "I ask you - which was superior, the German military system ... or the Japanese system? Our system ... was world-class!" He acknowledges that there was a price: "By war's end, I was the only man left in the village."

Shintaro Uno gives even grimmer testimony. This former intelligence officer, one of the military police, the dreaded Kempeitai, shows what unbridled racism, combined with absolute ruthlessness, could mean for a subject population: "On the battlefield, we never really considered the Chinese humans. When you're winning, the losers look really miserable." Torture, decapitation, opium-dealing were his methods, and the eight years in prison he later served in communist China seems an amazingly light punishme nt.

Many Japanese also rank among "the losers" - women, students, the elderly, for whom reality meant unending sacrifices to military "glory." Kikuko Miyagi was among 2,000 teenagers on Okinawa who suffered two months of terrible battle as untrained military auxiliaries; 1,050 died. Shigeko Araki is the widow of a kamikaze pilot; her 45 years of sorrow is linked to suicide operations that barely slowed the American march to victory.

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Haruko and Theodore Cook help humanize "the other," but also reveal the boundless cruelty and irrational ambitions of Imperial Japan. Will a Japanese publisher dare present this book to its natural audience?

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