Many people have their ideas of Japan during World War II based mostly off movies about the war and an HBO miniseries or two, as well as a lot of folk legend passed down over the years. However, some of this has given us a slightly confused picture of how things actually were. A lot of Westerners think of Imperial Japan was a society where people worshiped a god emperor, and happily and regularly threw away their lives in suicide attacks in his glorious name. The truth is a lot more human, as things usually are with human beings.
10. People Did Believe That Hirohito Was Divine, But That Doesn’t Make Him A God
Many people think the Japanese Emperor was considered a god and renounced this at the end of the war, but the concept of the divinity of the emperor is a lot more complicated than most people think. The emperor did claim to be distantly descended from the Shinto god Amaterasu, but he never claimed to be an actual god, nor did the Japanese people claim such for him.
The other major misconception is that the Emperor ever renounced his divinity at all. His statement was interpreted that way by Westerners, but his intent was actually to point out that unlike what we were claiming, Japan had actually been democratic at least to some extent since the Meiji Era, and that the Emperor was not divine in terms of absolute rule and hadn’t been, but was in terms of his responsibility to perform rituals and functions that kept the Shinto gods watching over Japan.
9. Kamikaze Pilots Were Hardly The Willing Sacrificial Cows That People Tend To Think
One of the most enduring legends of World War II are the kamikaze pilots of Japan. The stories have taken such hold in the popular imagination that people tend to think of Japanese people as more suicidal for it. Regardless, this is a commonly held belief that these pilots were happily going to their deaths, willing sacrificial cows who signed up to go die for their divine emperor. However, the truth was way, way more human.
The Japanese authorities knew that no sane man really volunteers for a suicide mission, especially considering none of these tended to be missions of particularly great singular importance in the grand scheme of things. So, most pilots who were going to go on suicide missions were actually “recruited” for it at the last minute and briefed almost right before. In some cases they weren’t forced to go, but considering the patriotism of war, it was hard to be the one to say no.
8. The Japanese Army May Have Surrendered Because Of Stalin, And Not The Bomb
One of the favorite moral debates, and long held controversies, is the use of the atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The usual justification is that the Japanese simply would not have surrendered otherwise, and that it was the only way to end the war without literally killing every single Japanese person on the island. However, the truth is that many historians now believe that the entire thing was unnecessary, and we basically killed all those people for no reason.
Like we said, the justification was always that it was the only way to end the war, but many scholars say that the war was about to end anyway, and that the Japanese surrender didn’t really even have to do with the atomic bomb in the first place. The real reason why the Japanese were about to surrender was because the Germans had been beaten, and Stalin was about to open up another front against the Japanese and bring his considerable weight to bear against them. With the beating they were already taking, Stalin coming in to throw his weight around was just too much and they knew it.
7. The United States Tends To Forget Other Countries’ Major Roles Against The Japanese Army
Many movies in the United States tend to focus more on the roles of their own people, and history books always tend to focus on our own guys as well, so sometimes people forget how major a role other countries played in the Pacific Theater, helping the United States against the Japanese Army. One country that’s still rather peeved about their contribution not being noticed is China, who sacrificed greatly during World War II and suffered horribly at the hands of the Japanese, having many of their people slaughtered, tortured, and experimented on. Their resistance in China was crucial to the war effort in the Pacific Theater.
Another country that many forget about is Australia, which provided fierce resistance during World War II against the Japanese and was important to provide staging grounds for the Allies. While the United States tended to be largely responsible for the most aggressive moves toward the enemy, the Australian contributions fighting on islands like Papua New Guinea, New Britain, and others put up yet one more furious front of resistance against the fierce and well organized Japanese Army. Roughly 40,000 Australians died in the war effort, and nearly one seventh of the entire population was involved in some way or another.
6. Many People Forget The Slow Buildup To Pearl Harbor, Or The Reasons For The Attack
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it was a shock to the core of the United States of America. Even though it was essentially a military target, it was technically on US soil, and it was the first time such an incident had occurred in modern United States history. Most Americans were blindsided and could hardly believe what had happened, but the truth was that even civilians who had been watching could likely have seen this coming for a long ways off.
The buildup to Pearl Harbor was over the course of a good decade or so, as the Japanese continued to try to expand their territory and holdings, and the United States felt the need to slow down or stop them entirely. To this end, the United States applied sanctions of various sorts against Japan over the years, increasing the tension but not resolving anything. The Japanese wanted to aggressively take territory, but we were the biggest thorn in their side and they knew how dangerous we were. Their goal was to cut off our supply abilities at the knees so they could gain momentum before we could stop them — they knew they needed to act extremely fast.
5. Japan’s Strategy May Have Been Well Calculated, But Some In Leadership Had Misgivings
While Pearl Harbor may have been an extremely calculated move against a military target, it was also an incredibly risky strategy, and some in the Japanese leadership knew it and even voiced their misgivings, but were ultimately ignored. Admiral Isoroku, the man in charge of the Japanese Navy during World War II, felt from the start that the entire outlook was grim, and while he obeyed orders as a soldier and worked to the best of his abilities, he was not hopeful.
Admiral Isoroku was worried that Japan’s cities, which were densely packed, populated, and made mostly of flammable material, would be susceptible to major air raids. This part proved incredibly prescient, as General Curtis LeMay’s bombing raids leveled a huge portion of Japan’s infrastructure and slaughtered countless innocent people. He was also worried that Japan’s economy would not be able to sustain itself during a long war, and that they had a very short time to win. Pearl Harbor was supposed to give them a huge head start — otherwise they had no chance at all.
4. It May Surprise Some Americans That In Japan, The Non-Atomic Bombs Are Often Forgotten
In the United States of America, we spend a lot of time commemorating various wars or other patriotic events, and we have a lot of holidays about them. Arguably, there are at least three that center entirely around events regarding war, and they are all official holidays: Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth Of July. For this reason, we would think that in Japan, all of the various bombings and air raids we conducted against them would be acknowledged by the Japanese government, and commemorated as a sad and or solemn event of some kind — especially something as serious as the firebombing of the city of Tokyo.
However, these events have been largely ignored and the Japanese activists who try to bring light to these events find resistance. The authorities feel that some of the material released, or too much acknowledgement of what happened, could make the Japanese government from the time period look bad for not ending the war earlier, when their citizens were suffering so horribly from such horrific raids. The other issue is that there has been little momentum over the years to talk more about all the firebombing raids, because everyone was enthralled by the power of the atomic bomb, and wanted to talk about nothing else after it dropped.
3. The Japanese Did Not Just Take The Bombing Of Tokyo, They Punished Innocent Chinese
After the Doolittle Raid, the first attack on Tokyo shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were furious and wanted immediate revenge. However, the American mainland was a long way away, and the Japanese wanted to get revenge now. Well, as it turns out, the Doolittle raid was basically one way, and the pilots needed to land in China in order to survive. The American government even feared that the Japanese would retaliate brutally and that the Chinese military would not be able to stop them, but the government went through with the raid anyway, and the airmen happily accepted the Chinese help they were offered when they landed — they even gave gifts and other trinkets in honest thanks.
Unfortunately, the entire thing soon became a nightmare. The Japanese not only wanted to get revenge, but more strategically, they realized that this was a major vulnerability. They went on a massive sweep through the Eastern Coast of China, razing villages, slaughtering countless civilians, and raping women. Those who were found to have directly aided and abetted the American airmen were singled out for particularly humiliating and gruesome torture, the trinkets they had been given in thanks now giving them away as helpful post-conspirators in the Doolittle Raid.
2. Many People Don’t Realize That The Japanese Did Not Respect All Their Enemies Equally
As we mentioned in the above entry, the Japanese decided that since they couldn’t reach our mainland, our closest vulnerable ally was the best to punish. Some people believe that that Japanese also punished the Chinese, though, because they feared even worse United States and Western retaliation if they did the worst things they did to the Chinese against Westerners. The Japanese singled out the Chinese people for the very worst experiments from their notorious Unit 731, but that was only the beginning of their biological attacks against the enemy they respected the least.
The Japanese infected the food supplies of many villages they had raided and left in China with cholera, and they deliberately infected fleas with the bubonic plague over Chinese villages as attempts at (and experiments on) biological warfare. Recently, despite the denials of the government, the Japanese courts ruled that the government during World War II did indeed order and authorize such things. However, despite the court repudiating the Japanese government’s continued denials, they also state that under Japanese law, and international agreements, the Japanese government does not have to pay anything to living victims or their families. As far as the authorities are concerned, any reparations for anything regarding the war have already been paid by Japan with agreements made at the end of the war, and it is all over and done with.
1. Many Think Pearl Harbor Was As Close As They Got To America, But This Isn’t So
Most people think that the Japanese only ever got as far as Pearl Harbor, but there were occasions where they actually struck a little closer to the mainland — although not severely enough that most people remember much about either incident. In 1942, a Japanese submarine patrolling off the coast of Los Angeles near Santa Barbara damaged an oil well on Elwood Beach before making its escape. However, the stranger attempts by the Japanese to get at our mainland were their fire balloons.
The Japanese were getting desperate and willing to try anything against the United States in 1944, so they launched about 9,000 fire balloons, which were balloons meant to float across the ocean, and deliver an incendiary payload onto the mainland United States, hopefully over an area where fire would spread easily. A few hundred made it across the ocean, but most of those were shot down. People in 15 different states did report seeing them, but their design was clearly not great, as an incident where a balloon exploded not long after landing, and killed a pregnant woman and five children, was the only time any of their balloons worked. It is also the only officially recorded incident where a someone was hurt on United States soil, during World War II, by an attack from a declared enemy.