SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 5: Grave of the Fireflies

Mike Andrews

Bachelors in History and ongoing Masters in Teaching

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

The film touches on the final few months of WWII from a Japanese perspective. Particularly, in Kobe, Japan surrounding its bombing and the starvation of civilians in the late war.

Background & Synopsis

• Grave of the Fireflies is a 1988 Japanese animated film based off the semiautobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka in 1967. The film was animated by Studio Ghibli, among the most famous Japanese animated film companies. It was the second film they had animated since their founding in 1985. The director, Isao Takahata, is likewise well-known among anime film buffs – he would later direct such films as Pom Poko and The Tale of Princess Kayuga. It ranks as one of the greatest war films of all time and a major Japanese animated work.

• Classified as a Japanese animated war tragedy film, it takes place in the city of Kobe. It tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko – following their lives as they attempt to survive in the final months of World War II.

Experiences of Japanese People During WWII

  1. The Role of Propaganda

• During WWII, the American perspective of Japanese people was highly negative and a result of anti-human propaganda – that is to say, dehumanization of the Japanese people. They were all presented as part of the same, identical, fanatical horde. This propaganda had a tough job to do because the Japanese were ‘overtly modern, industrial, and technological’, but they had to be presented as alien, primitive, and highly dangerous. Japanese were presented as suicidally loyal to their emperor and to the Empire itself.

• The reality was more complex, as you might have guessed. Japan, unlike Germany, was not as technologically sophisticated. The government was interested in the Nazi’s ability to mass-manipulate but did not have the same means economically or infrastructurally to implement such tactics. In 1940, over 50% of Japanese people lived in rural environments. Of said 50%, only 4% owned radios. 4-6 years of schooling meant low literacy rates and income so low that newspaper subscriptions were difficult to attain for most families. To spread any kind of message, officials from the government often had to go to the locations themselves and give speeches or provide information.

• The Japanese WWII government faced a dilemma – how to motivate and mobilize your populace to wage aggressive war, especially when said individuals were much more concerned with their own family’s welfare, generally, than they were about honor of the nation and destiny of their country. And how to solve the problem of Japan’s rural, uneducated, barely-scraping-by population.

• July 1937 saw the beginning of the Second World War for Japanese people. The invasion of China. Young boys would be dressed in military costume to visit shrines; fans made using military motifs were used to cool one off, and rallies were held in celebration of military victories, such as the capture of Nanking. In August, the ‘National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign’ was launched by the government and would continue throughout the war. One goal of this move was to unite many separate, fledgling patriot movements all over the country into one unified force and guide them from the center. Some of these organizations included the Patriotic Women’s Association and the National Women’s Defense Association. The formalization of these groups and membership being made compulsory aided in stoking unified militarization across the country. Military care packages were made, preparation and care for soldiers on the front occurred, and Western traditions and values were undermined.

• Some of the celebrations for the military included a ‘Crush America and Britain’ rally on December 10th, 1941, the ‘National Rally on the Propagation of the War Rescript’ on the 13th, the ‘Strengthening Air Defense Spirit’ on the 16th, and the ‘Axis Pact Certain Victory Promotion’ rally on the 22nd, and a celebration for the fall of Singapore in 1942.

• Schools provided an important part of the dissemination of mobilization campaigns. Before the Campaign, schools already promoted a patriotic environment and reverence for the Emperor. Each school possessed a place where the students would bow to a picture of the Emperor when passing by. April of 1941 saw schools renamed to National Schools – seeking to rid them of Western influence and repurposing schools to ‘restore the former spirit of Japanese education, nurture the innate disposition of the Japanese people who are the support of the world and the leaders of the Asian league, return to the imperial way, and wholeheartedly promote the Japanese spirit’. Practically, summer vacation became a laborious volunteer experience rather than an actual vacation.

• All the aforementioned methods worked to some extent and the Japanese were willing to express love for emperor and country – and proud of the early victories they had achieved. But total war requires real change in people’s daily lives.

• Coercion, dire necessity, and… financial incentives were needed to persuade the populace to reduce consumption, introduce marginal social groups into the war effort, and the sacrifice of any able-bodied men into the war machine.

  1. Unification of the Homefront

• The government enacted the Economic Mobilization Law of 1938. A command economy was established that saw military and civilian bureaucrats set production quotas depending on the industry, ‘controlled profits and dividends, and oversaw the day-to-day activities of major industries. The limitation of consumer goods production was severe – after 1941, almost no textiles were produced for domestic use.

• One of the most successful implementations of the government was neighborhood associations. A common institution seen in Asian cultures, and the Japanese had used this method in their own neighborhoods since the 1600s. By the time of WWII, it was integral but informal. To change this, the government made it mandatory to join, and activities were formalized including distribution of rations, volunteer labor, coordination of savings, and ensuring men of able-ness went to recruitment. Neighbors could hold other neighbors accountable to aid the nation as a whole and devote themselves to the Emperor.

• Women and children were mobilized into the workforce – children through the school system and women were given work for good wages. More than a million rural citizens moved to work in the factories for war production, which the government attempted to control so that food production did not falter.

• Restrictive rationing was implemented on food, clothing, nails, needles, bandages, shoes, cooking oil, and tire tubes. Late in the war, rationing arrived late or not at all due to constrictive Allied control on Japanese shipping. Late Japanese home front life saw civilians forced to live a life of crime as food became a major issue and bare subsistence was not enough.

• Fanaticism was partly used to encourage the Japanese people – but far more effective were old fashion economic incentives, coercion, and social control.

End of the War – Japanese Perspective

In the year 1945, several major occurrences effected Japan in quick succession that would influence how the war was to end for the Japanese. Below is a compilation of said events and decisions made by the Japanese government.

  1. Major Events

• February 4th - 11th, 1945: The Yalta Conference
Japanese defeat and surrender is a major topic at the historic meeting of Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. Conditions are discussed for the Soviet Union to open a second front on the Japanese from China, and surrender terms include Japan giving up their territories they took from Imperial Russia.

• February 19th - March 26th, 1945: The Battle of Iwo Jima
After months of aerial and naval bombardment, the strategic island of Iwo Jima is invaded by amphibious assault and becomes notorious for heavy casualties suffered – 7,000 Marines and more then 20,000 Japanese defenders die in 36 days of fighting. This marks the first battle on Japanese homeland – increasing the desperation for the Japanese and the casualties for the Allies.

• March 10th, 1945: Tokyo Air Raid Begins
More than 2,000 incendiary bombs are dropped on Tokyo over 2 days. Sixteen square miles of Tokyo is destroyed in the process and around 100,000 civilians die in the destruction. Tokyo is one of 64 Japanese cities to be firebombed until the end of the war.

• April 1st - June 22nd: The Battle of Okinawa
With 14,000 US troop skilled and a staggering 70,000 Japanese killed, Okinawa proved to be one of the most violent of the entire war. 150,000 Okinawan civilians are killed in the crossfire. Both Iwo Jima and Okinawa influence the decision of the President to seriously consider the use of an atom bomb to end the war over a direct invasion of Japan.

• June 1st, 1945: Interim Committee Recommends Atomic Bomb
A secret high-level group tasked with advising President Truman on nuclear issues recommends the use of the weapon on Japanese military targets without prior warning.

• June 6th, 1945: Truman Threatens Japan
Truman threatens the Japanese with complete annihilation if they do not surrender. Casualty estimates of a direct invasion of Japan are worrying: 1.2 million casualties with 267,000 deaths to 4 million casualties with 800,000 deaths.

• July 16th, 1945: Atomic Bomb Test
At Los Alamos, the US successfully detonates an atomic bomb. Authorization of use of the weapon after August 3rd, weather permitting, is issued on preselected Japanese targets.

• July 26th, 1945: Potsdam Declaration
The ‘Big Three’ Allied leaders gather in Potsdam, Germany to negotiate surrender of enemy nations. Japan will surrender their armed forces, disarm, and accept Allied occupation. Japan rejects these terms on July 28th.

• August 6th, 1945: Hiroshima
The world’s first atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. 60-80,000 people die instantly, and thousands injured and thousands more dying from burns. 67% of the city is obliterated.
• August 8th, 1945: Soviet Union Enters the War
Soviet troops begin marching on Japanese occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo) and begin the march on Japanese occupied China as a whole. Many Japanese will be used in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union – some not repatriated until 1956.

• August 9th, 1945: Nagasaki
40,000 people die in the explosion of the second atomic bomb over Nagasaki. This particular bomb is estimated to be 40 percent stronger in terms of kilotons compared to the bomb over Hiroshima.

• August 15th, 1945: Surrender
Japan finally agrees to surrender to the Allies. It is Emperor Hirohito who makes this decision, against the will of the military government.

  1. Military and Civil Actions in 1945

• The strategy known as Ketsu-Go was developed ion early 1945. The idea was that despite sheer American military power, their morale was brittle. Massive ground and air forces would meet with the proposed American invasion in southern Kyushu. The second phase of the plan would obtain negotiated surrender.

• Urgent mobilization in 1945 saw Japanese military forces rise from 4.5 million to 6 million in August. Every single male from 15-60 and female from 17-40 were included, meaning a quarter of Japanese population. Many of these did not have proper uniforms or equipment and were to be used in the defense of Kyushu in Ketsu-Go.

• The United States assessed that there were ‘no civilians in Japan’ partly because of this mass civilian mobilization. From 1942 on, the United States had come to face the fact that, for Japanese military units, surrender was unthinkable. Almost every unit fought to complete annihilation. Japanese did not take prisoners. Japanese killed 2-3 million Chinese soldiers between 1937-1945. 56 Chinese prisoners were handed over at the end of the war. 8,000 of 17,000 Australian battle deaths came as a result of the Japanese. 35% of American prisoners died to Japanese compared to the 0.5% of American prisoners of the Germans.

• In Saipan, for example, many civilians killed themselves and their families. Japanese military propaganda depicted Americans as horrible monsters that would kill or rape them. 13,000 of 20,000 died on Saipan. Families jumped off cliffs and blew themselves up or drowned. American invasion plans of Japan homeland were prepared for a ‘fanatically hostile population’.

  1. Japanese Surrender and the Atomic Bombs

• Two things needed to happen to ensure Japanese surrender – someone with authority had to make the call and the military would have to comply with the government’s decision. Historically, 15 years prior to 1945, compliance from the armed forces was difficult to guarantee.

• Through May of 1945, Emperor Hirohito believed that a major Japanese military victory must proceed any peace movements. He wanted to avoid unconditional surrender. He urged a new military offensive in China – something the military leaders pushed for and spurned.

• Marquis Kido, Hirohito’s main advisor, suggested peace through the Soviet Union and a Treaty of Versailles style peace agreement – give up territorial conquests and disarm but retain control of homelands and avoid occupation. But, given the way Germany resurged after the Treaty of Versailles, there was zero chance that the Allied powers would find this okay.

• Based on Kido’s ideas, Hirohito met with the ‘Big Six’, the inner cabinet of the Japanese government. They agreed to approach the Soviets for possible peace. But this ultimately went nowhere.

• Before the bombing of Hiroshima, Hirohito failed to pursue the Soviet agreement. Reasons as to why he was inactive can be explained by his refusal to lead Japan directly since 1936 and the trust in the plan of Ketsu-Go (the planned major defense of Kyushu, the Japanese mainland).

• The Japanese government, including Hirohito, experienced terrifying anxiety that the Japanese people were ready to revolt. Mainly due to firebombing attacks on cities (as seen in Kobe in the film) and the dire situation of food in the Empire, ‘the domestic situation’ would become far more serious in the Fall, when rice crop was due.

• On August 6th, Tokyo received information that something happened to Hiroshima. Only after Truman announced the use of an atom bomb did they finally understand what had happened. The reaction of the Japanese military was key here. They would concede that it was an atom bomb only after an investigation, and the Japanese Navy was confident that the US did not have many of these atom bombs, or none were left, and refused to give in.

• Educated top officials in the Japanese atom bomb program found the creation of an atom bomb impossibly difficult. These officials refused to recognize that the scientists in the US could possibly have more of these incredibly difficult weapons. Hiroshima forced a meeting of the Big Six, but the military forced postponement of this August 9th.

• August 8th saw Hirohito meet with Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo. Togo affirmed that the war must end with this meeting. Hirohito, discussing the atomic bomb with Togo, eventually got the emperor to move for peace. But, again, the Japanese military was the real obstacle.

• The Big Six met on August 9th, after the Soviet Union had just entered the war. Nagasaki was also bombed by another atomic bomb. Movement towards peace looked more likely. The Potsdam Declaration sat before them; three members agreed to it if the emperor could keep his throne. These three were Togo, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, and Navy Minister Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai.

• Army Minister General Korechika Anami, Chief of Staff of the Army General Yoshijiro Umezu, and Chief of Staff of the Navy Admiral Soemu Toyoda held out on three points they disagreed with: disarmament, war crime trials held in Japan, and occupation of Japan. Unfortunately, the Big Six had to agree unanimously on decision making. Deadlocked at a three-to-three split, and with most members disagreeing on the conditions of surrender one way or another, an Imperial Conference lead by the emperor was called and the rare occurrence of the Emperor breaking the deadlock would occur.\

• August 9th-10th saw this meeting take place. Joining the Big Six was Baron Kiichiro Hiranuma. Army Chief of Staff Umezu declared the Soviet entry ‘unfortunate’ but not invalidating the all-in Ketsu-Go strategy. Hiranuma spoke up about the increasingly difficult domestic situation problem, particularly about food.

• The Emperor finally spoke. He supported the ‘one condition’ surrender plan – that Japan would accept the surrender terms but keep the emperor intact. The Big Six and the full cabinet made this official government policy. American and Allied response accepted these terms but made it clear that the emperor would be subordinate to whomever occupied Japan.

• There was worry that commanders abroad would not comply to Japan’s surrender – particularly those in China. But the Soviet entry into the war dispelled these notions and was the real benefit of the Soviet entry. It discouraged commanders from seceding from the Japanese Empire and continuing the war.

Works cited:

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