August 15, 2014 was the 69th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. People who served on the front lines as soldiers are now 89 years old or older. In 1988, when I began my career as a geriatric psychiatrist, most of my male patients had served in the military during the war. Today, nearly 20 years later, most patients who come to my geriatric clinic experienced the war as children. Their experiences include school evacuations, fires from bombings and the loss of family members meaning that they were just victims of the war. In the near future, even in my geriatric clinic, most patients will have been born after the war, and will not have any memories of it.
I was born in 1952, 7 years after the end of the war. As a result of the San Francisco Peace Treaty that came into force that same year, Japan recovered its independence. For my generation, the Pacific War was not a history lesson learned from textbooks. My father had participated in battles as a soldier in the Japanese army; my mother had lost her brother in Siberia after he was captured as a prisoner of war. The war was almost yesterday for many Japanese people.
My father, and also many of my patients who had similar experiences during the war, often told me about their memories. They spoke about when they were drafted, where and how they had been trained as soldiers, where their military unit was dispatched and when and how they had come back home. However, they seldom spoke about their experiences on the battlefield. My father’s story started with his carrier being attacked and sunk. I know how he spent his days in a prisoner camp in Sumatra, and what my grandfather said to him when he came back home 1 year after the war. What I do not know is what happened to him before he was captured by the United States Armed Forces. In my childhood, he sometimes hummed war songs, which were cynical or about being weary of the war. Until he died in 1988, he never ever spoke about what he had done or seen on the battlefield.
The war for my mother did not end for nearly 50 years, or perhaps even until she passed away in 2011. When the war ended, her elder brother was in Northern Manchuria as a first lieutenant in the army. He was taken to Siberia as a prisoner of war by the Soviet Union. She did not receive news of him after that. Even after I grew up, in early 1960s, my mother was still trying to find out exactly what had happened to her brother.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and information about the prisoners of war in Siberia finally became known. In March 1993, the Japanese government officially announced that her brother had died in a concentration camp near Ulan Bator in the Mongolian Republic. In August 1993, my mother flew to Ulan Bator to visit his grave. 48 years had passed since the end of the Pacific War.
The war severely affected the life of the patients in Matsuzawa Hospital too. In 1937, the second Sino-Japanese war had begun and the number of inpatients who died in Matsuzawa Hospital grew rapidly with twice as many dying in 1938 as in 1937. In 1940, 352 patients died of malnutrition. This increased to 418 in 1944 and to 478 in 1945. The number of inpatients at the end of 1944 was about 1000, but there were only 500 remaining in 1945. This meant that nearly half of the inpatients died of malnutrition. On June 18, 1944, a psychiatrist at Matsuzawa Hospital wrote the following in the hospital dairy:
“These days, hospital meals are becoming poorer and poorer, and not a small number of hospital workers often grumble about the situation, but most of the starving patients never complain about that.”
This year, as in previous years, numerous memorial events were held throughout Japan on August 15. Civil movements for the older generation to pass their war experiences on to younger generations for peace in the future are prosperous. Newspapers and TV programs report, and sometimes support, these movements. In most cases, these war experiences are told from a war victim’s point of view, such as those who were in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo and sometimes Manchuria. I agree that the messages from war victims are very important and impressive for younger generations. However, my father’s and other soldier’s silence about their life on the battlefield and the silence of the starving patients in Matsuzawa Hospital might teach us more about the tragedies of war than the tears of victims and the eloquence of newspaper articles.
I cannot imagine how Japanese society will be in 20 years. I just pray it will not be one that forces our youth to be silent.