CHAPTER 15 — Japan
‘… in dealing with the Japanese… [the British Commonwealth Occupation Force] is dealing with a conquered enemy who, by making war against us, has caused deep suffering and loss in many thousands of homes throughout the British Empire. Your relations with this defeated enemy must be guided by your own individual good judgement and your sense of discipline. You must be formal and correct. You must not enter their homes or take part in their family life. Your unofficial dealings with the Japanese must be kept to a minimum.’—Army directive.
19/3/46: Bits of Japan all around us…. Islands tree-covered with yellow sandy beaches, and a little cultivation; houses of unpainted wood and grey slate roofs; more villages. They all look grey… Kure is all grey, hills, towns and harbour.
21/3/46: Rumour: A Jap slapped a British-sailor's face with an axe—he tried to swipe a purse, so they say…. Incident number one….
22/3/46: Stepped onto the sacred soil. It's damn dirty. Marched with band to Railway Station. Japs don't impress. I hope this engine-driver isn't one of those suicide merchants…. [Later, after the 170-mile trip to Chofu] Japan appears all the same…. Grey slate roofs. Pine clad hills and rice fields. And dirty little Japs…. —Extract from a private diary.
After being warned against a variety of diseases (including scattered cases of leprosy), food, vegetables, fruit, water, smuggling and black-market activities, and a Japanese whisky with a heart brand in the centre of the label and mostly methylated spirits inside the bottle (a product of Hiroshima Province), 22 Battalion stepped ashore in Japan early on 22 March 1946. The only casualties were some kitbags burned in a railway wagon fire, which had been started by a Japanese labourer accidentally knocking over a candle. Headed by Colonel Thomas and the pipe band (the Japanese remained inscrutable even in the presence of bagpipes), the battalion marched smartly through the desolate naval base of Kure, took the train for six hours, travelled peacefully through Hiroshima (one page 451 bomb, nearly one-third of a million casualties)1 to the town of Chofu, and took over the local barracks, which overlooked mud flats and had been occupied recently by Americans. Early next morning an apologetic advance party, delayed at Hiroshima, turned up at the barracks with rations, cooking equipment, bedrolls and kitbags. Army life was under way again.
The battalion was part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force of 40,000, drawn from Australian, British, New Zealand and Indian troops, who began arriving in February 1946 at Kure, six months after the Americans. Kure is near the southern end of Japan's main island of Honshu, which is almost 500 miles longer than New Zealand's North or South Island. The New Zealanders' duties were to the west, where they occupied Honshu's southerly province of Yamaguchi, a province covering 2000 square miles and holding almost the population of New Zealand at that time, 1,376,000 Japanese.
The New Zealanders took over three Japanese repatriation centres, and supervised the repatriation of almost 300,000 Japanese soldiers and illegal Korean immigrants. Koreans attempting to infiltrate into Japan seeking employment were checked by strongpoints manned at certain coastal towns. New Zealand patrols combed the whole province, detecting hidden arms or war equipment, reporting war supplies for destruction (one task of the occupying Powers was to see that Japan was thoroughly disarmed), supervising local elections and civil administration to some extent, and seeing that the orders of the occupation were being carried out in offices and schools. Japan, blasted, bombed and devastated, had indeed surrendered unconditionally. No armed rebellions had to be put down; the use of armed force was not required. Of Shimonoseki's 150,000 people, 6000 were homeless, living with relations, in public buildings, and in any shelter they could find. The daily food ration was 297 grammes (ten ounces) of rice, beans and/ or barley.page 452
On reaching Chofu, 22 Battalion was prepared for trouble. Within a few weeks several million Japanese soldiers (it was thought at first) would be passing through the nearby smallpox infected port at Shimonoseki at the rate of about 12,000 a day. ‘These soldiers are the cream of the Japanese Imperial Army,’ an operation order stated, ‘and are reputed to be arrogant and unconvinced that the war is finally lost for them.’ The Japanese Government was responsible for seeing these returning soldiers off their ships, on to trains, and safely away into the north. Nevertheless, riots or rebellion might break out (the code-word for a state of emergency was PARADISE,) and the battalion's task if this happened was to hold Chofu and instantly clear out all Japanese. Detailed plans for this were outlined and rehearsed, but the precautions were unnecessary. The soldiers did not return by the million, and a greatly relieved Town Major reported in April. ‘Japanese say that the Russians captured and sent to Siberia the major portion of the Kwantung Army, and that the only members of this force reaching Japan are a few escapees who entered through Hakata and Senzaki, and who have provided this information. They are of opinion that there will be few repatriates from Manchuria. Since September very few Kwantung Army personnel have reached Japan.’
A week after landing in Japan A Company had taken control of the whole Shimonoseki area, with Lieutenant Bell2 as Town Major (9 Platoon occupied the Jumpu-Ro Hotel complete with bar ‘and no 6 o'clock or Sunday closing’), and other officers took similar posts at other centres. Equally promptly, D Company (Major Wright3), taking over from an American company, ran the Korean repatriation centre at Senzaki. D Company put through about 2000 repatriation cases each working day, and early in April drafted the highest daily total of 6000. The Japanese worked in close contact with the repatriated people, and the New Zealanders supervised the Japanese. New Zealand guards at first were mounted full-time on the Korean compound (for some Koreans had no love for the Japanese), but later guards were mounted only occasionally. Generally the company's duties (apart from the usual page 453 patrols and raids on suspected areas) were to supervise repatriated people through medical and customs officials, and to see to their accommodation and feeding in both compounds —one compound held Japanese and the other Koreans. The company was also responsible for keeping two temporary ferry services running smoothly. Some twenty LSTs regularly brought demobilised Japanese troops and families from Shanghai (1200-odd on each ship); a former Inland Sea pleasure ship (400) and a small ex-Japanese Navy warship (100-odd) were on the Korea to Pusan run.
Most of the Japanese ‘had been away from Japan for several years … they were very bewildered and were unable to understand the defeat of the Nation. The Koreans on the other hand were all civilians. At first they were a mixture of voluntary repats. and deportees. In the main they were complete families. With the passing time illegal re-entrants to Japan soon passed the news that Korea was not the prosperous country they knew and food was extremely short. As a result voluntary repatriation almost died out…. [One party of 300 Korean men] arrived at Senzaki dressed in old-style Australian Army uniforms less hat. They had been forced labourers in either Nauru or Rabaul…. [Apart from clothing and feeding them, the Australians also had taught them a thing or two because] they refused to return to Korea until they had been paid by the Japanese Government. A deputation of them was sent to Tokyo, where they were successful in their claim and returned with a colossal amount of money which was distributed. The period of payment from memory was about three years.’
Major Wright, in charge of the Senzaki area and in close touch with Japanese authorities, at times ‘had the feeling that a certain amount of back-chat was not what it should be and enlisted the aid of an Australian sergeant called Kentwell who was born at Osaka and spoke the language well. After listening for some time, he addressed the gathering in their own tongue, and thereafter if I was in doubt the presence of a strange soldier had the desired effect.’ Strictly insisting that all hygienic regulations were carried out, D Company avoided the very real threat of plagues from carriers of diseases from Asia. A cholera scare was dealt with promptly by quarantining a boatload of suspects.
While A and D Companies settled down in their two areas, page 454 the rest of the battalion undertook training (‘worse than when I first went to camp’), guard duties, marches showing the flag, pickets, and was prepared to take up action stations if trouble threatened. Patrols began combing settlements house by house and ranged over the countryside. By the end of April such patrolling was well under way within each of the companies' areas. The pitfalls of occupation were brought home to Private Meggitt4 when a restaurant proprietor entertained him at a party in the shop and later gave him a paper to sign. As a joke Meggitt scrawled briefly at the bottom of the paper, pocketed it, and was instantly surrounded by a hostile mob. He handed back the paper, which was later recovered and was found to read:
BCOF HQ KURE
To whom this may concern—this person has permission to use his boat and has full authority from BCOF HQ.
Signed: CAPTAIN JAMES COOK, 1482.
Supplies of war materials discovered, seldom in large quantities, by battalion patrols included gas-masks, steel helmets, belted ammunition, detonators, 3-inch mortars, aircraft engines not properly wrecked, concealed aviation petrol, stores of explosives and hand grenades, material dumped at sea, swords, rifles, mines and shot-guns. But within a few weeks patrols found little to report or confiscate.5 The reactions of civilians were recorded by battalion patrols: ‘extremely interested in the activities of the patrol, but rather frightened when their premises were searched’, ‘timid or disinterested’, ‘startled at first, but soon became accustomed’, ‘kindly disposed…. Perhaps the page 455 true Japanese reaction might be determined in these back areas of Japan’, ‘Subservient and co-operative. Children obviously coached to say little more than “Goodbye”’, ‘officials courteous, civilians friendly and generally smiling.’ An officer notes that during all his time in Japan he was never ‘able to lose a feeling (with most Japanese males) that I was dealing with something just slightly less than human in mental make-up … no common ground whatever.’
‘I should perhaps emphasise that prestige was a big thing here,’ writes Lieutenant Bell. ‘We called it prestige (in English). The Japanese called it face (in Japanese). And if there was one dominant aspect, one controlling factor as far as my experience in close contact with the Japanese official classes was concerned, it was this business of “face”. By the time I was through I had come to hate the word in whatever language it was used. This may not have been a general experience. But there is no question it was there. And there is no question, either, that while I was Town Major in Shimonoseki I was involved in a continuous, unrelenting, sometimes amusing, sometimes infuriating, but always difficult battle of “face”, which was the more involved, perhaps, because neither side would ever admit that it was in fact going on.’
Searches and patrols continued over the months, for Headquarters British Commonwealth Occupation Force, considering it ‘foolish and dangerous’ to accept the apparently docile appearance of the Japanese, sent secret reports mentioning the existence of militaristic and nationalistic secret societies and organisations, moves to keep discharged officers and men still in touch, and secret caches containing large quantities of military supplies (more were believed to exist throughout Japan).
Trouble was expected during the May Day celebrations. However the rallies, hampered by rain, were well conducted and orderly, the main theme of speeches stressing the need for uniting labour and reconstructing Japan by hard work. The Chofu audience, says an official report, ‘was almost military in the passiveness of their listening and the precision of their cheers…. Women questioned concerning the main topic of the meeting and as to what May Day was for, were surprised that their opinion was asked for and could give no answer (giggling met most questions).’ Later, a general strike throughout page 456 Japan was cancelled with no repercussions when General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in Tokyo, simply forbade strike action. ‘While God might be in His Heaven,’ noted Lieutenant Bell, ‘MacArthur was in TOKYO.’
The battalion found Yamaguchi province very different from the Nile Delta or Italy. The hilly countryside was covered with bush, fairly dense in places and about twelve to fifteen feet high, an ideal sanctuary for snakes.
Between these hills lay small, flat, irrigated areas—paddy fields—and these were the life of the country in every sense of the word. Rice was grown in large quantities for food, saki (liquor) and export, barley gave the Japanese their beer, and the straw went into buildings. Only these flats were cultivated; the 1000-foot-high hills were not used at all. Each farmer had merely a couple of acres to look after, the government claimed about two-thirds of his output, and his earnings came to only a few pence a day (the Japanese soldier received 6d. a day, the factory worker 8d., and the New Zealand soldier 25 yen, or 8s. 4d.).
One soldier remembers how ‘the women did most of the work, wallowing round knee-deep in mud and water planting and cultivating rice, while the menfolk busied themselves with as little as possible among the small jobs round about, or sat and smoked the quaint pipe, which had to be replenished with a fine, furry tobacco as each minute ticked away.’
In the middle of such an area houses clustered closely, eaves practically touching, so no land would be lost for cultivation. Gardens, if any, usually raised food. The average Japanese house was a frail looking affair, mostly made from straw, negligibly furnished but with ample cupboards and a domestic altar on one wall. If a soldier did not remove his shoes in this altar-room, a Japanese ran up with a few boards for the New Zealander to stand on. Scattered here and there among the hills on small flats were tightly-packed hamlets or small villages, each with its own Town Major or Mayor (but no policeman), a school, and a surprisingly large population. Each school, no matter how small, had its own dental room, assembly hall, and an asphalt playing area. Small clay roads divided the flats or connected one clump of houses with another, and transport page 457 was usually a small four-wheeled wagon pulled by a solitary beast. Closer to the coastline larger towns appeared, varying in size and about equal to New Zealand towns approaching city status.
‘Here’, writes Stone,6 ‘industrial works made their appearance and in a big way, as I was once in an aeronautical and naval factory which employed 10,000 workers. These wartime factories were of course stripped of their fittings and plant, and were very spacious. Streets, excepting those connecting the main centres, were not very big, asphalted and in need of repair. Sanitation was unheard of anywhere in the country where I went, the refuse being collected and stored away in wooden buckets with lids to ferment before being distributed on the soil. Hence, living under such conditions, is it any wonder disease is so prevalent? Traffic is fairly scarce, mostly pretty dilapidated buses running beneath overhead powerlines where once ran a tramcar. In these areas were to be found some clever industrialists. [He instances the identical duplication of American motor-car engines, and a small building filled with intricate instruments for ships, all made locally.]
‘It was here the Japanese people were encountered most, except perhaps on railway stations. Dress was usually informal and general, the menfolk wearing a light-type cap with a big peak, denim coat and trousers with a type of puttee up to the knees. Sandshoes, black, constituted the footwear mainly. Not very big in stature, the women donned a shirt with baggy trousers so as to be able to squat down for a rest in preference to sitting. A piece of board the length of the foot, with a plaited flax-type piece of cord coming up between two toes and fastened back along the sides of the board, solved the women's footwear problem. Naturally, the dress of the Geisha Girl was of a different standard.
‘Generally the Japanese treated us with a watchful eye, interested in all that was done, but did not create any hindrance, hardly. Each patrol was accompanied by two or three policemen who sped around on 3/4s girls' bicycles, and an interpreter, who set about their respective jobs methodically. Time and again, if a civilian was to be questioned and a policeman was called in to help with proceedings, he usually had personal page 458 details before the interpreter had told him what was going on.’
In common with the rest of the New Zealanders, the battalion did not relish the role of occupation troops. ‘I don't think many people really wanted to go to Japan. We preferred to go home, or to England, or both, so that our outlook was probably a little jaundiced.’ Most of them were men from the 14th and 15th Reinforcements, and few of them had been in action in Italy. Agreements over occupation details and the final approval of the United States Government had taken a long time, and the men were tired of delays and false starts when at last the ship had sailed from Naples on 21 February 1946. The voyage, in muggy weather, was no pleasure cruise, with a measles epidemic aboard stopping leave at Colombo, Singapore (where 135 measles and fever cases were sent ashore) and Hong Kong. Extravagant propaganda about Japan made the final destination even more drab: the poverty stricken and devasted province had no leave centres or pleasant clubs or restaurants, and few if any comforts, despite the efforts of the YMCA. The language was incomprehensible, tuberculosis and venereal diseases were widespread, and the soldier's pay (at first merely 60 yen to £1) went nowhere on the wildest of black markets. The men from Italy took a sour view of Japan. ‘The dogged determination to do as little as possible and to be as troublesome as possible,’ one new broom from New Zealand summed up in his report, unfairly as it appears when one considers the detailed reports of many patrols, and the amount of territory covered and examined by so few men. This outlook lasted until they were replaced with volunteers from New Zealand in June, July and August.7 Yet it should be remembered that the echoes of Colonel Andrew's ‘Second to None’ still remained with the unit: three officers and ninety other ranks representing the battalion at the Anzac Day parade at Kure were considered ‘easily the finest of the 2 NZEF contingent in drill, dress, and general bearing.’page 459
The last spectacular action of the battalion's original J Force men was a sweeping raid on Shimonoseki's black market at the end of May. An unsavoury gang had cornered the rice supplies, the life blood of the ordinary citizen. Bit by bit the names of the racketeers were pieced together at secret rendezvous with disgruntled Koreans, special patrols, and ‘hush-hush’ interviews with anonymous victims. The raid, a complete success, surprised and seized fifty-seven of the sixty suspects, including protesting policemen who were thrust into their own cells. Another clean-up of a different nature was ordered in the prisons, when a visit to Chofu prison disclosed ‘… human animals locked up in cages which were just large and high enough to hold a medium-sized circus lion … a hideous animal smell…. In semi-darkness and in a stench you could cut through … [the warder said some of] those creatures crouching in the distant corner of each cage … never got out of those cages.’
Then, in the next three months, the men from Italy left for New Zealand, except for a few who chose to stay, including Staff-Sergeant Murphy,8 who later died of sickness and was buried at Kure. The old hands were replaced by young volunteers from New Zealand who, with rest camps opening, entertainment organised, and many trips under way to beaches and beauty spots, entered into and accepted the new life with a zeal which would have appalled any wartime campaigner in the battalion.
September: ‘Intensive training … fieldcraft and platoon tactics … the necessity of saluting within the Battalion….’
October: ‘Patrolling … training … sport … pig hunting expeditions have become popular.’
November: ‘… six days of manoeuvres…. Colonel Thomas handed over command of the Battalion to Colonel McCaskill….’9
In December Japanese children were entertained at Christmas parties. The next six months passed in patrols, refresher courses, lectures, sand-table exercises, route marches, range page 460 exercises and live shoots. In mid-1947 the strength of the battalion at Chofu was severely reduced by drafts returning to New Zealand, and others were away on ceremonial appearances and duties with the Tokyo Guard of the Commonwealth Force. On 15 July an astonishing routine order stated ‘that Parasols and Umbrellas would not be carried by troops as they are not part of the regimental dress.’ Indeed, the days of the battalion were numbered now. Within a month, on 7 August 1947, 22 Battalion—the last of all the original infantry battalions of the 2 NZEF—ceased to exist, and was renamed 2 Battalion of the New Zealand Regiment. In September 1948 J Force was withdrawn from Japan.
But the men returned to New Zealand with uneasy memories of a teeming, inscrutable, brilliant nation crammed into a land which was the Far East no longer, but the Near North, growing closer and closer with every year that passed. They returned with a memory of devastation unparalleled in any of the war zones of Europe and Africa, and this memory too, refusing to fade, crept steadily closer as time went by. But perhaps, among these memories from out of the bloody years, something more precious than all the other victories was stirring at last: the tiny beginnings of a world conscience were returning with the men of the battalion into all the scattered homes within the remote islands of New Zealand in the South Pacific.
1 The bomb on Hiroshima (which with other towns had been warned in leaflet raids to evacuate civilians) brought 306,545 casualties: 78,150 dead, 13,983 missing, 9428 seriously injured, 27,997 with minor injuries, and 176,987 classified as suffering from sickness, privation, and lack of homes, food and clothing. ‘It somewhat took my memories back to the wreckage of Cassino and the twisted iron of Rimini,’ writes C. H. Stone, who, describing how the battalion first viewed the bomb's devastation in silent wonderment, adds how men ‘could not for a period fathom out how so much could be done by a single blast in such a short space of time.’
5 An extract from such patrol reports (in this instance, Lieutenant Kennedy and 12 men from B Company in a one-day search of Szuki town) reads: ‘Factories and Installations: (Wartime and present use.) Electric substation [map reference]; a flour and rice mill working under Jap Govt instructions; small engineering shop making rivets, nuts and bolts, and employing six men; Iron works, made machinery for coal mines during the war, now making iron pots, employs 15 men; two saw mills each employing 10 men; many pottery factories; a large iron foundry [map reference] employs about 60 men, made Jap mors [mortars] during the war, now makes parts for rly engines, searched by Americans last Sep, very modern machinery incl electric smelting pot, lathes, overhead crane, and its own power plant. Several caves had been dug in the bank surrounding the factory, but these appear to have been all blown in.’
7 Noting a different atmosphere ‘with the change-over to young and enthusiastic volunteers’, Oliver A. Gillespie concludes in his War History volume, The Pacific: ‘The New Zealander, with few exceptions, made a reliable soldier for occupation duty—a duty which carried with it immense privilege and power among a people to whom obedience was implicit. He rarely departed from an attitude of fairness and decency and controlled with ease a population among which, in the Yama-guchi prefecture, he was outnumbered by 343 to one.’