Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Showa 1944-1953

Title: Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan
Writer and Artist: Shigeru Mizuki
via Goodreads
This is the third volume of Mizuki's outstanding Showa comic book series.   My reflections on the first two books can be found here and here.  Japan's Showa era was defined by the reign of Emperor Hirohito: 1926-1989, a period of extraordinary national transformation.  Mizuki lived through it all and his books weave historical events with his own personal experiences.

The war was not going well for Japan in 1944.  After scoring early, dazzling victories over the Allies, deficient supply lines were taking their toll.  Defeat was essentially inevitable but no one within the military establishment was willing to admit it.  Surrendering was not considered an option.  Instead, thousands of Japanese soldiers and sailors scattered about the Pacific - the author included - were expected to go "onward toward their honorable deaths."  The lives of individuals were worth nothing compared to the honor of the nation.  Under-supplied and with no hope of reinforcements, they fought disease and starvation as much as the enemy.

By his own admission, the author survived it all through sheer luck, though hardly unscathed.  He lost his left arm and endured violent bouts with malaria.  When he finally returned home to Japan, his homeland was physically, emotionally and economically devastated, hardly in a position to absorb legions of servicemen back into society.

The post-war occupation of Japan by the United States had as much to do with the forming of the modern nation as the war did.  With the country's own military leaders defeated and disgraced, the Japanese looked to General Douglas MacArthur as the new father figure.  Even when I was in Japan 50 years later, MacArthur was still held in high reverence by those who remembered.  Not all American decisions were popular or effective but their presence allowed the newly demilitarized Japan to build an economic foundation for the future.  Prosperity came sooner than expected.  When the United States entered the Korean War in 1950, Japan provided a staging ground and vital supplies.  The economy boomed.

Meanwhile, the author struggled to find his own place in the world.  The genius of the series is the effective interweaving of Mizuki's story with that of the nation.  For all of his troubles, his suffering was minimal compared to millions of Japanese.  The Showa series is a powerful reminder of the extraordinary journey the country has been on over the past three generations.


  1. Sounds like an interesting study. I have read a couple of accounts of Japanese in Burma, where they really suffered because they couldn't get enough supplies in overland and even though they controlled Singapore, American and British submarines sank most every Japanese supply ship making its way through the straits.

    1. The Japanese didn't seem to have much of a long term plan for Asia and the Pacific beyond conquest. Control over the region was destiny and the indomitable Japanese spirit would be enough. The truth of how the population - both military and civilian - was exploited and exhausted is far uglier.

  2. My eyes were watering as I read the post. My father was a bay gunner on a B-29, which dropped incendiary bombs on Japan. When b/w films of the post war Japan were on TV, he was silent. I don't think he knew or understood the absolute destruction.

    1. From what I have learned, I think a lot of American airmen felt the same way your father did.

      Even before the A-bombs, the fire bombing was devastating - the same was true in Europe. I will have more to say about all of that in another upcoming book review.