Grave of the Fireflies 1

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka) was released in 1988, in hindsight, a surprisingly sober film from Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought the world such wondrous animated films as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.

I watched it for the first time this week.

Destruction in war time, no matter which side of a conflict you’re on, is hard to comprehend in times of peace, or in the security of your living room, in front of a large flatscreen TV. And yet, in Grave of the Fireflies, the director, Isao Takahata, transports us to Kobe, Japan, in the waning days of World War II – a time of routine air raids, frantic dashes to air raid shelters, and fruitless attempts to extinguish the fires of napalm bombs dropped from American B-29s.

Over 60 cities in Japan were bombed in the months leading to the war’s end on August 15, 1945, including Kobe, a port city that was a major industrial center, particularly for shipbuilding.

Takahata, based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, tells the semi-autobiographical story of a brother, Seita, and his younger sister, Setsuko, who are orphaned when their mother dies from full-body burns in a air raid, and their father in the Imperial Navy perishes in the Pacific. They stay at an aunt’s home, but as the days pass, the siblings feel they are an unwelcome burden, and leave to survive on their own in an abandoned cave. Their resources dwindling, the two make do, but eventually, Setsuko, and finally, Seita, succumb to the slow death of malnutrition and starvation.

orphan children post war japan 2.jpg

John Dower, who wrote the book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, wrote of the stigma and the challenges that returning soldiers, war widows, and war orphans faced, driven in part by the culture of the country.

Despite a mild Buddhist tradition of care for the weak and infirm, despite Confucian homilies about reciprocal obligations between social superiors and inferiors, and despite imperial platitudes about all Japanese being “one family” under the emperor, Japan was a harsh inhospitable place for anyone who did not fall into a “proper” social category.

In the early stages of the post-war period in mid-1946, the Ministry of Health and Welfare estimated there about 4,000 war orphans in Japan, but that number climbed to over 120,000 eighteen months later.

According to Dower, the war orphans lived by their wits doing anything they could to survive, “shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging,” with teenage girls ending up prostituting themselves to get by.

orphan children post war japan
Grave of the Fireflies powerfully brings the war orphan experience alive – a desperate experience – and one in the thoughts of the late, great film critic, Roger Ebert that speaks to the unfairness of war in its lack of precision, by showing the innocent nature of these two children, and the agonizing specifics of their circumstances.

I’ve seen a lot of war films. Many of them are exciting, or moving, or dramatic or artistically effective. And a few of them reach you at an emotional level and not just at an action level. I was amazed the first time I watched Grave of the Fireflies that I was actually moved just about to tears by this film. This film has an emotional breadth involving war, and the results of war, and two victims of war that is astonishing.

I think this movie is saying that firebombing is not a very precise way of going after the enemy. It’s a way to destroy morale, a way to break down a nation’s will to resist, but at the same time, are we really thinking about people like this little brother and his even smaller sister, when we drop these bombs. Or are we managing to objectify the Japanese as an evil race who deserve to have this happen to them.

So many decades later, in the 21st century, many around the world have little visceral understanding of the immediate post-war period, their understanding based on text books and dry historical explanations. But Grave of the Fireflies, considered one of the best animated films ever produced, brought that difficult time in history to life, a powerful reminder of what the stakes are when we go to war, and what depths Japan emerged from to get to where it is today – a nation where some of the most beautiful and touching animated works of art have been created.

homeless in postwar japan
Hundreds of Japanese jam the Ueno railway station in Northeast Tokyo, on Oct. 26, 1945, these windy autumn nights seeking shelter. Homeless, the old and the young huddle together on thin matting and old newspapers, and try to sleep. Many are starving. Police estimate there are two of three deaths nightly from starvation. (AP Photo)

At the end of World War II, in 1945, there were 9 million Japanese left homeless, primarily due to the devastation wrought by B-29s and their bombing raids for nearly a year.

With 80% of all ships destroyed, 33% of all industrial machine tools destroyed, 25% of all trains and cars destroyed, and with the allied-ruled governing body, led by General Douglas MacArthur, imposing a rule of law that prioritized dispersing of Japanese assets to allied victors, the economy was in ruins.

Hunger and malnutrition were the norm, as Japanese managed to live off of 550 to 1,100 calories per day, about 25 to 50% the minimum required to maintain health.

The years after the end of the war was a desperate time for Japanese. Historian John Dower referred to this post-war malaise in his book, Embracing Defeat, as kyodatsu, a Japanese word for the collective depression that fell on the country. After all, when the Emperor got on the radio on August 15, 1945 to announce that the war had ended, they had not only heard the voice of a divine being for the first time, after years of being told of the need to fight to the end, they were suddenly told to stop their resistance, and to continue to live and work towards Japan’s recovery.

The immediate meaning of ‘liberation’ for most Japanese was not political but psychological. Surrender – and, by association, the Allied victory, the American army of occupation itself – liberated them from death. Month after month, they had prepared for the worst; then, abruptly, the tension was broken. In an almost literal sense, they were given back their lives. Shock bordering on stupefaction was a normal response to the emperor’s announcement, usually followed quickly by an overwhelming sense of relief. But that sense of relief all too often proved ephemeral.

Malnutrition poster 1946_Dower

From John Dower’s Embracing Defeat.

On top of all that, the post-war period saw the return of countrymen and women who served in other parts of Asia in the military or as civilians working in Japanese organizations. From October 1, 1945 to December 31, 1946, about 5.1 million repatriated back to Japan, adding to the misery of Japan that already had too few jobs and too little food for those already in the country.

An early first-hand account was written by AP journalist, Russell Brines, in his book, MacArthur’s Japan, who described a Japan unrecognizable today. Here’s how he described the repatriation of Japanese soldiers and civilians from abroad.

Men, women and children – tired and dirty – plodded off the ship, wound past the American sentry and pushed up a hill toward a weather beaten building. They stood like cattle while doctors deloused them, then walked to the railroad station. As they waited for trains, gloomy and apprehensive, commuters eyed them stiffly before hurrying away. Only relatives gave them a smile or a soft word. They soon learned the rest of Japan was too busy – or just unconcerned – to give them much thought to the cycle of fate that had deposited them like rubbish on their nation’s doorstep.

Jammed, filthy trains took them to all parts of the homeland. Some had been away as long as eight years. They returned to blowsy cities, tiny villages or drab farms; to the narrow, contained life they had left for conquest. Many found stony neighbors, silently condemning them for sharing in defeat or for failing to die, as custom decreed. Others encountered resentment from people miserly over food and patched clothing. Some located only ashes where their homes had been and only vagueness when they searched for missing relatives.

The sifting of lives continues, day by day, behind paper-curtained little homes. Men returned to find their “widows” remarried. Some wives had become streetwalkers, through necessity or restlessness. Women had lost some of their obedience and most of their patience. The fabric of prearranged, loveless marriages was too weak in many cases to survive long separation and irritable reconciliation. For the first time, women became complainants in divorce suits; including one whose husband brought back a native wife and two children from Borneo.

Jobs were scarce, money useless and the new life confusing. Those who returned swaggering, found no one willing to cringe before them, as had subject peoples. Those who came back ashamed and penitent found no pity. Only the opportunists profited, the men who had kept their eyes open to all the sharp practices they saw abroad.

 

Tokyo firebombed 1945
Aerial view of Tokyo September 10, 1945

 

On October 10, 1964, Japan welcomed the world to Tokyo, a bustling, clean and modern city.

But only 19 years before, when the Pacific War ended on August 15, 1945, Tokyo was a flattened devastated city. The war had taken its toll on the Japanese.

An estimated 3 million Japanese died during the war in both Japan and he war zones of Asia, including upwards of 800,000 civilians. And while the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific moments at war’s end, much of the devastation in Japan was due to continuous air raids by American bombers. After the American Navy’s victories over Japan’s Imperial Navy in the Mariana and Palau Islands, the American military built airfields on Saipan and Tinian. These islands were some 2,400 kilometers away from Japan, close enough for B-29 bombers to make routine sorties over Japan and return without refueling.

And from November, 1944, the bombing raids over Japan was relentless. And the destruction immense.

  • 66: major cities heavily bombed
  • 40: percentage of all urban areas in Japan destroyed by bombing
  • 100,000: civilian deaths in Tokyo alone

In the powerful documentary, The Fog of War, director Errol Morris interviews Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense for American presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. During World War II, he was also a captain in the US Army Air Force whose job was to analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of American bombers. Intimately familiar with the incendiary bombing raids on Japan during World War II, commanded by General Curtis LeMay, McNamara describes the results of American bombers in Japan with hard cold facts.

50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. Tokyo was a wooden city so when we dropped these firebombs they just burned it.

In order to win a war should you kill a hundred thousand people in one night, by firebombing or any other way? LeMay’s answer would be clearly ‘yes’. McNamara, do you mean to say that instead of killing a hundred thousand – burning to death a hundred thousand Japanese civilians in that one night, we should have burned to death a lesser number, or none? And then have our soldiers cross the beaches of Tokyo and be slaughtered in the tens of thousands? Is that what you are proposing?

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama – Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland – so 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya.

According to McNamara’s rational mind, this was overkill. And yet, in the end, the desire for the American government to end the war as quickly as possible was the overriding objective.

This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way, was dropped by LeMay’s command. Proportionality should be a guideline of war. Killing 50-90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities, and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs, is not proportional in the minds of some people.”

I don’t fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bombs. The US-Japanese war was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history. Kamikaze pilots, suicide – unbelievable. What one could criticize is that the human race prior to that time, and today, has not really grappled with what are the rules of war. Was there a rule that you shouldn’t bomb, shouldn’t kill, burn to death a hundred thousand civilians in a night?

McNamara grappled a bit with the moral dilemma of the bombings of Japan. And perhaps McNamara maintained a lingering sense of guilt over the destruction in Japan.

LeMay said if we lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right! He and I’d say I were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. What makes it immoral if you lose and moral if you win?

Billy Fiske in RAF uniform

He was 16, and he was an Olympic gold medalist. At the age of 20, he won his second gold medal. At the age of 24, Billy Fiske had an opportunity to head up another US bobsleigh team, this time at the 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Olympics in Germany.

Fiske turned down a possible third gold medal, and he never said why. But according to The Guardian, his friend, Irving Jaffee (a two time gold medalist in speed skating at the1932 Lake Placid Games), believed it was because “Fiske objected to the treatment of Jews, like Jaffee himself, in Nazi Germany.”

As a teenager, Fiske went to Trinity College in London, England, to study economics and history, as well as drive his Bentley down the English country roads as fast as he could. In 1938, Fiske moved back to England, where he made friends with members of the British air force at the White’s Club in London, and married an English girl named Rose Bingham. He returned to New York. But when Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, Fiske felt he had to return to England.

Fiske had to deceive in order to make it to England because American passports did not allow citizens to engage in foreign militaries, and it was Fiske’s aim to join his friends from the White’s Club. Pretending to be Canadian, Fiske returned to London where he enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). According to HistoryNet, “Fiske duly pledged his life and loyalty to the king, George VI, and was formally admitted into the RAF. In his diary, a joyous Fiske wrote, “I believe I can lay claim to being the first U. S. citizen to join the RAF in England after the outbreak of hostilities.”

In fact he was the first. He was also one of the first Americans to perish in World War II.

Billy Fiske fifth left
Billy Fiske fifth from the left

The Battle of Britain began on July 10, 1940 when Luftwaffe arrived in London in full daylight to bomb the British capital. As a newly trained pilot in the 601 Auxiliary Air Force Squadron at Tangmere, “there was some apprehension in 601 about ‘the untried American adventurer,” as quoted in HistoryNet. Ten days later, the rookie fighter pilot was in the air in a 601 plane to make patrols, apparently learning quickly how to maneuver the plane effectively.

Three weeks later, Fiske, on August 16, 1940, Fiske was trying to get his plane back to the base after an attack by Luftwaffe. Shot up and badly damaged, Fiske glided his Hurricane fighter plane back to the airfield, hitting the ground hard and exploding into fire. Dragged out of his plane, Fiske suffered severe burns and was rushed to a hospital. But the shock from the burns was too great, and the Olympian and American RAF fighter pilot, Billy Fiske, died the next day at the age of 29.

glickman-suzuki-1
Marty Glickman finishing in front of Monta Suzuki at a race in Paris in 1936. From the documentary “Glickman”.

Marty Glickman was a Marine in the US Military during the Second World War. Monta Suzuki was a Lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Navy. But before the war, they were 100-meter sprinters who competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Their countries had not gone to war yet. They did not even run against each other during the Olympics. But an encounter during a race in Paris after the Games in Germany connected them forever. At the end of the powerful HBO documentary, Glickman, the great American sports broadcaster, Marty Glickman, told this story of everlasting friendship between a Japanese and an American, who exchanged nothing more than a few words, a handshake and smiles. Here is how Glickman told the story.

After the Games, I ran in Paris. And there were two Japanese sprinters: Yoshioka and Suzuki. And as I dug my starting hole, I noted that in lane number one was Suzuki, and we smiled at each other. I liked him. He liked me. I could tell by the look in his eye. I won the race. Wykoff was second. Suzuki was third.

glickman-suzuki-2
Takayoshi Yoshioka and Monta Suzuki in 1936; from the documentary “Glickman”.

And as we jogged back to the starting line to put on my warmup clothes, I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned and there was Suzuki, extending his hand, those wonderful brown soft eyes smiling at me. He congratulated me. I didn’t speak Japanese. He didn’t speak English. That’s all there was. But there was an empathy between us.

I mentioned earlier I was a Marine during World War II. You know how Marines felt about the Japanese, particularly the Marines. Early in 1942, I read where on the landings in Luzon, a Japanese lieutenant, a former Olympian, was killed in those landings. And I, a Marine, cried. Can you imagine the feeling we had for each other? We’d known each other two minutes? Three? He was a Japanese soldat. I was an American marine, and I cried for him.

That’s what athletics can do. That’s what sports can do. And it doesn’t have to be the Olympic Games. It could be the schoolyards. It could be the New York Knicks. That’s what sports is truly all about. Camaraderie. The love we feel for each other.

See Part 1: Marty Glickman Part 1: The Memorable Broadcaster, the Forgotten Jewish Olympian in Berlin

Yamanaka Rose and Breen
1,500 meter winners: Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, Murray Rose and George Breen

What was it like?

It’s December 7, 1956 – 15 years to the day that Japan infamously entered World War II by declaring war on the Allies by bombing Pearl Harbor, and executing a series of simultaneous attacks on Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Malaya.

Japanese swimmer Tsuyoshi Yamanaka is stepping up to the edge of the pool, readying himself for the 1,500 meter race against world record holders, American George Breen, and Australian Murray Rose. All three were born prior to the beginning of World War II, and all grew up listening to the propaganda of their respective countries during the war years.

But Yamanaka was in Australia. And while Australian attitudes to the Japanese today are overall quite positive and respectful, my guess is that in the 1950s, the many of the physical scars of the Pacific War may have faded, but not the mental ones. Memories of Australian POWS being forced to build the Burma Railway through the jungles of Thailand among others were powerful, and likely involuntarily arose when an Aussie confronted a Japanese.

I don’t know. And perhaps, Yamanaka was oblivious, as all high performance athletes tend to be towards distractions. What we do know is that the 1,500-meter race at the Melbourne Olympics brought war enemies together in a celebration of friendship, encapsulated in a photograph after Rose took gold and Yamanaka took silver, and seen by millions around the world.

Rose and Yamanaka
Murray Rose and Tsuyoshi Yamanaka

In this documentary on Murray Rose, the famed Aussie swimmer explains the symbolism of that time and that photograph:

Murray Rose: When I was growing up, I was part of a propaganda campaign for the Australian war effort. Fast forward a few years, and I’m swimming at the Olympic Games, and my main rival and competitor is Tsuyoshi Yamanaka-san. We embraced across the lane line and a photograph of that time was taken and was picked up by newspapers all over the world. For one main reason – the date was the seventh of December, 1956, the fifteenth anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. So it became symbolic of two kids who had grown up on opposite sides of the war and had come together in the friendship of the Olympic arena.

As the commentator John Clarke further explained in the video, Rose “did the Olympic Movement an enormous amount of good because it exemplified what Murray called the Olympic spirit.”

To watch Rose, Yamanaka and Breen battle it out, pick up the documentary entitled “Murray Rose – Life Is Worth Swimming” at the video below at the 21-minute mark.

Also see my post about the novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a moving story of the Australian POW experience.