NAGANO, Japan (AFP) — Digging with his bare hands to escape the jungle tomb of his plane shot down by US forces in Guadalcanal in 1942, Japanese fighter pilot Kaname Harada understood the full horror of war.
Pinned beneath the wreckage in the Solomon Islands during some of the most intense fighting of World War II, he fought to dig himself free. “All of my fingernails came off and I could see the bones, but I dug and dug to survive,” he said.
“When I got out of the plane I was very thirsty and crawled to a puddle where I drank water full of maggots and insects.”
Now just days from his 99th birthday, he and other men who fought Japan’s hopeless Pacific War worry that a country in the throes of re-invigorating its military has forgotten the true terror of conflict.
Despite his advanced age, Harada regularly gives talks about his experiences as a pilot during WWII, fearful that generations of Japanese who have grown up in a wealthy, safe country know nothing of the vile hopelessness of war.
After decades of trying to forget, his conscience was pricked during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
“Younger people were watching television footage (of US air strikes) and saying it was like fireworks and fun,” he told AFP at his home in Nagano.
Harada says he realized his “obligation” to warn people that war always creates many casualties “and to tell them how important peace is.”
That obligation has taken on a new importance in recent months, thanks to unpopular efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to loosen some of the strictures that have bound Japan’s military for seven decades.
Last month, the lower house of parliament passed controversial bills that, if enacted by the upper house, will allow the so-called Self-Defense Forces to fight on behalf of allies, opening up the possibility of combat abroad for the first time since 1945.
‘Sense of superiority’
For many of the dwindling band of survivors of Imperial Japan’s brutal march through Asia, anything that moves the country even slightly closer to conflict is dangerous — and a direct challenge to Japan’s post-war pacifism.
They recall the triumphalism of the initial successes of a war prosecuted in the name of the emperor; and they remember how that gave way to despair.
Harada’s military service, which began in 1933, traced the ghostly outlines of Japan’s war.
He was there in December 1941 when bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, providing air cover for the Japanese fleet.
“The atmosphere was as if we already won the war… I felt disappointed that I hadn’t been able to join the attack,” Harada said.
The surprise Japanese raid left more than 2,400 Americans dead, damaged or destroyed more than a dozen ships and put scores of US aircraft out of commission. It also provoked Washington to declare war on Japan.
Months later, Harada was part of an Indian Ocean raid that shot down several British fighter planes near their naval base at Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Dogfights required Harada to get exceptionally close to his target, closing the distance to make the best use of weaponry.
“If things get nasty, you nearly crash with him, and when you get as close as two meters (six feet) you see his face… his expression distorted in agony… almost indignant, then he goes down, smothered in flames.
“Instantly, you feel joy… and a sense of superiority because your technique was better than his.”
But despite years of indoctrination, that euphoria too readily gave way to remorse.
“What comes next is bad. You think: ‘He may have had a family. What about his mother? His children?’ Those thoughts remain with me, even today,” he said.
‘Stay until you died’
Shigeru Mizuki, 93, who now lives in Tokyo, recalls how it wasn’t only the enemy’s life that was cheap; infantrymen like him were utterly expendable to Tokyo’s war machine.
“You were never allowed to retreat on the front, you had to stay until you died,” he said. Rank and file soldiers were treated “not as human beings but were thought to be something less than horses.”
Mizuki uses manga — graphic novels — to spread his message of the horror of war.
In his works, including the award-winning “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths,” Mizuki describes the lot of enlisted soldiers sent to New Britain island, now part of Papua New Guinea.
In an essay with a hundred of sketches he drew as “a war chronicle,” Mizuki tells how he was the only survivor when his unit came under attack in 1944.
He spent days on the run through the jungle, assailed by insects and by his own hunger and thirst until he finally made it to a Japanese encampment.
But instead of welcoming him, the senior officer who greeted him snapped at him: “Why did you flee from the enemy and come back? Everyone else died, so you die, too.”
Former pilot Harada opened a kindergarten in post-war Japan — caring for youngsters was his way of laying the ghosts of the terrible things he saw and did.
Despite his advanced age, he still visits the kindergarten every day, although he retired several years ago.
Looking at the faces of his little charges, he knows that he has to keep pressing the case for peace.
“I sincerely hope that such innocent children will never, ever have to endure the kind of suffering and war that afflicted us,” he said.