Twelve years ago, at the young age of 22 Yuko Sanami began participating in activities to gather the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died in overseas countries during World War II. The essay she wrote about her experiences won the Grand Prize (Fuji Seiji Prize) in the 3rd Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” essay contest. She is active as a newscaster and journalist reporting on postwar issues, and has also been appointed as a Japan Self-Defense Force reserve personnel. Toshio Motoya spoke with Sanami about her feelings regarding the victims of World War II, as well as a message for young people.
Motoya Thank you very much for joining me today. I have known you since 2010, when your essay won the Grand Prize (Fuji Seiji Prize) in the 3rd Annual “True Interpretations of Modern History” essay contest. You have also participated in our wine gatherings and the Shoheijuku, but this is your first appearance on Big Talk.
Sanami Thank you for inviting me.
Motoya Your activities, including as a newscaster for Nihon Bunka Channel Sakura and as a model, are multifaceted. And as you wrote in your essay, you continue working to gather the remains of soldiers who died in World War II. First of all, I’d like to hear about why a young person like you decided to participate in these activities.
Sanami I began participating in activities to gather remains 12 years ago, in 2001. At that time I was in my final year of junior college and I began doing cleaning work at Yasukuni Shrine simply because I wanted to do some type of volunteering. After I cleaned up fallen leaves and did other tasks, I unexpectedly had the chance to look at a farewell letter from a Japanese soldier.
Motoya Yasukuni Shrine is the location of farewell letters from many people who died in the war.
Sanami Yes. That’s what my friend taught me at that time, too. But since I didn’t know anything about the war, I thought it was very strange to keep farewell letters at a shrine.
Motoya Why was that?
Sanami According to the history I was taught in school, the soldiers in the Japanese Army were wrongdoers who killed massive numbers of people in Asia. I thought this was quite strange because it seemed like the victims usually wrote farewell letters; I didn’t understand why Japanese soldiers, who were the perpetrators of murder, would leave behind such letters. When I think of this now, I am very embarrassed. Yet many students participating in these activities felt the same way. I think that most people in my generation have been taught about the war in this way.
Motoya Did you start researching various things because of that?
Sanami Yes, I did. The end of the farewell letter said, “My life will end here, but I will fight for the children of Japan and the grandchildren who haven’t yet been born.” That’s when I began thinking that people fought in the war because they had something to protect, not just as a unilateral act of violence as I had been taught. I also learned that 2.4 million Japanese soldiers died in foreign countries during the Greater East Asian War. Most of their remains have been left at the battlefields where they died. I was very surprised to learn this, and my heart felt great pain.
Motoya Based on our sensibilities now, that number certainly seems huge.
Sanami Yes – I was extremely surprised. I keenly felt that the unborn grandchildren mentioned in that letter referred to the people like myself who are living in the current era. In school education, the war is something of the distant past. I was taught that the militaristic, bad Japanese of the past and the proper Japanese of today with our pacifist constitution are two entirely different types of people. I thought this was probably wrong. I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, feeling that we are alive because of the soldiers who fought in that war to protect us. To convey my thanks, I at least wanted to bring their remains from the foreign countries where they are left back to Japan, their homeland.
Motoya Where did you go first?
Sanami It was a place in Myanmar that was known as an escape route from the Battle of Imphal.
Motoya Myanmar used to be called “Burma.” I imagine there are many remains there because of the fierce fighting that took place in that country. Was the Government of Japan carrying out these remains-gathering activities?
Sanami Yes. I was involved in activities carried out by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW). The remains-gathering team was composed of four separate groups: MHLW personnel, an association of comrades in arms of Japanese soldiers who fought in Myanmar in the past and then returned to Japan, a bereaved family association, and student volunteers.
Motoya What was it like actually participating in these activities? I suspect there were many things to think about.
Sanami It was like history had stopped inside the ground; we found remains that were just as they appeared during the war. For example, in Nomonhan, Mongolia, we found the remains of a man who was grabbing onto the roof of a tank like he wanted to hinder the path of the Soviet military vehicles. When I saw this soldier- who was working to protect his country even at the expense of his life – all I could do was quietly say, “Let’s go back to Japan together.” In Myanmar, we were unable to find the traces of a field hospital and we discovered no remains for many days. A former soldier said he wanted to tell his war comrades sleeping in the ground that he had come to get them. He faced the ground underneath his feet and sang a war song that his comrades had sung together in the past. I’ll never forget how he shed tears, saying, “I’m here. Please answer me somehow.” In Russia we gathered the remains of people who died during internment in Siberia. Because the atmospheric temperature was extremely cold, some of the remains in the frozen ground still had muscle tissue. Probably because this tissue disintegrated in the sunlight, a large number of biting louses gathered around them due to the smell. As I was frantically brushing away the mosquitos and black flies, one bereaved family member was sitting inside a mosquito swarm and happily watching the insects gather.
Motoya Why was that?
Sanami The family member held out both hands and looked at the biting louses fondly, saying, “These are the grandchildren of the insects that grew by feeding on my father’s remains, so they have to have inherited his DNA. That’s why they’re flying so happily around us, the people who have come to collect the remains. It’s definitely my father coming to see us.”
Motoya You had some very heart-breaking experiences. You were also appointed as a Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) reserve personnel member, a position for which you applied. Why did you decide to apply to the JSDF?
Sanami I applied because of a story I heard from a former soldier who was working together to gather the remains. He spoke as follows about the war: “Before I went to war, I was a young person who pursued only enjoyable things. I didn’t want to go to war or to die. But when I actually was on the battlefield, the bullet of an enemy grazed my head. That’s when I suddenly and keenly felt that behind me were my parents and the many people of Japan. If I didn’t stop the enemy, his bullets would someday be shot at Japanese people in my homeland. I thought I would be happy to die there, as long as it was to protect my parents and the Japanese people.” He was apparently surprised that he ceased being scared of dying if it was for the sake of protecting others.
Motoya Going to the battlefield entirely changes a person’s way of thinking.
Sanami Yes, it does. He also said, “Now, the JSDF is what has inherited this desire to protect Japan. I want young people to enter the JSDF and succeed the feelings of my war comrades who died.” I applied to become a JSDF reserve personnel member because I hope to help carry out national defense if an emergency were to occur. That was six years ago.
Motoya In the past, JSDF reserve personnel positions were given to former JSDF members who had been discharged. When did it become possible to apply for these positions?
Sanami The system changed in 2002, when it became possible for people who were not former JSDF members to apply to be reserve personnel as long as they passed a test with subjects such as the Japanese language and math, as well as strength measurements. People can apply from age 18. I felt relieved to see there were many young women as well. One initially receives 50 days of training for JSDF reserve personnel, and then is appointed to the position afterwards.
Motoya I see. After one becomes a JSDF reserve personnel member, there are several additional days of training per year, correct?
Sanami Reserve personnel members have to report for five days of training each year. This includes training for natural disasters, lifesaving, firing practice with live ammunition, etc.
Motoya What did your initial training involve when you became a JSDF reserve personnel member?
Sanami My first task was cleaning. I had to learn the thorough cleaning rules and to follow them to clean various locations spanning from the classrooms to living rooms, bathrooms, and washrooms. It was as detailed as if one was doing major spring-cleaning every single day. We had to polish from behind the lockers to below the beds, without leaving even one speck of dust. We even put cloths on our fingers and cleaned the windowsills.
Motoya That sounds like some training!
Sanami It was. We learned this wasn’t just due to a special liking for cleanliness – it was part of our training. For example, in actual combat if one leaves any traces when dismantling a camp, they can alert the enemy to our movements. We were told that’s why thorough cleaning is an important type of training.
Motoya I see. So there’s a meaning to this training.
Sanami During my training, I was surprised to learn that active JSDF members work to protect our country 24 hours a day. I saw that the safety of citizens is not something that just exists naturally; it is created every day by the great efforts of many JSDF members.
Motoya More people should know this fact. Do men and women receive the same type of training?
Sanami Yes, it’s exactly the same. During training nobody tries to put himself or herself forward. Rather, there was a strong atmosphere of everyone supporting each other in order to accomplish things.
Motoya So you also learn how to accomplish teamwork in that way.
Sanami There were things that made me think this training could change a person’s way of life. Among the JSDF reserve personnel who joined at the same time, there was a young man who was always hanging his head down. When I tried talking to him, he said he spent every day in his room without going to school or work. He was participating because his parents made him choose between getting a part-time job and joining the JSDF as a reserve personnel member. Because it wasn’t his will to be there, he was always lamenting and saying he wanted to leave. But as the training progressed, he came to stand up straighter and his gaze grew sharper. He said the training was very difficult and he thought about quitting many times. Yet he realized that JSDF members carry out the same type of training 365 days a year in order to ensure peace for us, and he suddenly felt very grateful from the bottom of his heart. He also came to feel gratitude towards his parents, and with a strong smile he said he was going to start doing part-time work.
Motoya There are pros and cons to a draft system, but it has a great educational effect on young people such as him. Incidentally, were JSDF reserve members actually dispatched during the earthquake disaster?
Sanami Unfortunately, the number of JSDF reserve members that were convened during the Great East Japan Earthquake was very small.
Motoya A total of 100,000 JSDF members were dispatched to the areas affected by the disaster, so I thought the reserve personnel would be used to make up for the members who could no longer be in charge of national defense…
Sanami I hope the policy is changed so that reserve personnel will also be dispatched in the future during times of disaster.
Motoya I agree. At the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) Camp Kanazawa in my home prefecture of Ishikawa, a mock battle takes place once a year that is a training exhibition and is open to the public. I really like watching this training exhibition, such as seeing mortar firing, tanks, and people riding motorcycles who have to quickly fall over and raise their rifles. I went each year when I lived in Kanazawa. The JSDF land, sea, and air forces take turns to put on military parades and naval reviews each year. I’ve seen all of these events for both the sea and air forces, including the JGSDF Central Parade held at Camp Asaka in Saitama prefecture.
Sanami They are opportunities to be reminded of Japan’s great defense capability.
Motoya You are a member of the JGSDF. Ground troops are the foundation of the army; if they are not good there’s no point in enhancing the navy and air forces. But since Japan is an island nation, I think the navy and air force capabilities are more important compared to inland countries. China is currently invading Japan’s territorial waters and airspace in various ways. Yet the Chinese navy and air forces are not to the level that they could actually fight and win against the JSDF, so these aren’t threats to Japan. Toshio Tamogami, the former chief of staff of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), also wrote an essay that won the Grand Prize in the 1st Annual True Interpretations of Modern History contest. He said military strength does not change over a brief interval; it must be watched over units of 10 years.
Sanami I believe he’s right.
Motoya Yet at the same time, Tamogami says that Japan must make preparations since China is steadily increasing its military strength. China is constantly trying to expand its territory, such as by putting pressure on its neighboring countries, occupying Tibet, and waging war with India. Up until now Japan was thought to be safe since there is an ocean between the two countries, but the threat to Japan will gradually increase if the Chinese navy – which deployed an aircraft carrier last year – continues growing stronger in this way. I am always saying in Apple Town, this magazine, and the Shoheijuku that Japan must reliably draft policies in response to this.
Motoya I am attempting to contribute to my country by expressing my views in written and spoken words. I think it’s wonderful that you are contributing to your country through actions, such as by gathering remains and becoming a JSDF reserve member. Where did your enthusiasm come from?
Sanami From when I went to Iwo Jima in order to gather remains. We found the remains of a person with ruined fingertips. When I asked the people around me what the reason was, they said it was because the man had been digging trenches by hand. I heard that, among the 20,000 Japanese soldiers that were dispatched to Iwo Jima at that time, there were many members of the so-called “Second National Guard” who did not pass the army’s physical examination for a variety of reasons, which is why they were conscripted last. The U.S. intended to conquer Iwo Jima in five days, but these soldiers held out for 36 days. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who was in command, dug the trenches in order to commence a protracted war based on the thinking that even one extra day of fighting meant an extra day of life for the women and children on the Japanese mainland. I heard the soldiers started digging with shovels, and then used their bare hands when the shovels broke. As I looked at the remains of a small finger in the palm of my hand, I couldn’t stop crying when I thought of the Japanese people that are alive today.
Motoya I understand.
Sanami Those finger bones are connected to the lives of Japanese people today. As a Japanese person who is alive in the modern era, I thought that I want to convey my feeling of gratitude. At that moment, a bereaved family member who was next to me said, “Since my father died, I’ve been a bother to my relatives.” Apparently, the people who praised that person’s father during the war rapidly changed their tune afterwards, when they continually condemned the bereaved family by saying, “Your father did bad things.” The bereaved family member suffered greatly because it was hard for people from homes without fathers to find employment. It seems that the evaluation of these soldiers – who worked so hard to protect Japan – changed entirely after the war, when the public opinion said the soldiers were horrible people. I wondered why this had happened, so I immediately started researching when I returned from Iwo Jima. That’s when I learned that history was rewritten after the war according to the occupation policy of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ).
Motoya That is true.
Sanami A radio propaganda program from the GHQ entitled “This is the Truth” began from December 8 of the year the war ended. Newspapers began running histories of the Pacific War, and before one knew it, people came to think that Japan had unilaterally done bad things during the war. This way of thinking is also known as a “masochistic view of history.” I think we must apologize to the people who attempted to protect Japan, even by ruining their fingers on Iwo Jima, for not putting this to rights. I hope that as many remains as possible will be returned to their homeland of Japan in the very near future, and that Japan will regain the honor of its predecessors from now on.
Motoya I think that’s a wonderful thing. The U.S. wanted to complete and use the atomic bombs during the war at all costs, so that it would gain predominance in the war between the East and West that had already begun from the last days of World War II. The U.S. used all sorts of channels to gain time by making vague the answer to the continuation of the Emperor System – Japan’s sole condition – during negotiations on the surrender. By dropping the completed atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. successfully intimidated the Soviet Union. Yet there was no way to erase the fact that the U.S. had slaughtered more than 100,000 citizens – the worst crime in the history of the world. To protect its image as a “good country,” the U.S. had to portray Japan, the nation where the bombs were dropped, as a “bad country.” That’s why the U.S. brainwashed the Japanese people; it created the War Guilt Information Program, spread propaganda as you mentioned, and censored and rewrote all sorts of publications. That’s why Japan is still criticized by foreign countries regarding incidents that never happened, such as the Nanking Massacre and the comfort woman issue. Because 70 years have already passed since the end of the war, Japan must return to being a country with a respectable history.
Sanami I hope we can regain proper views of history.
Motoya The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will certainly acquire a majority in the House of Councillors election this year. The LDP should govern in a way to spread correct information about Japanese history. I look forward to your future activities as you work to recover our history through your actions. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Sanami The Korean novel Kashikogi reads, “You are living today in a vain way. But to the people who died yesterday, today is the tomorrow they strongly hoped to live through.” During World War II, many people died in battle to protect their country. We live now in the current era because it is the “today” that the soldiers who died in the war hoped to be alive to see. One should live each day as if it is important, and should be grateful to one’s predecessors and parents. I hope this way of thinking will be connected even more to the future.
Motoya One of my “Words to Live By” is, “I want to live a life in which I regret not even one second.” It’s wonderful that you say people should also be grateful for the sacrifices of their ancestors. I wish you good luck in your future endeavors.
Sanami Thank you very much.
Born in 1979. Graduated from Toho Gakuen College of Drama and Music. Sanami is active as a newscaster on Nihon Bunka Channel Sakura, and is also a journalist who reports on postwar issues. From 2001 she has also participated in activities to collect the remains of Japanese Army soldiers who died in battle during the Greater East Asian War. Over the past 12 years she has visited old battlefields in Myanmar, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Mongolia, Russia, Iwo Jima, and other locations to collect remains. In 2010, Sanami was appointed to the position of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Reserve Personnel, Second Class, Rifleman, Infantry. She is the representative of the Association of Grandchildren Who Listen to their Grandparents’ War Experiences, as well as the Association for Learning the Truth of Internment in Siberia. She also actively gives lectures and writes with a focus on magazine essays.