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On the Home Front in Japan: Bamboo Spears and Grass Soup

July 1, 1995 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ In the summer of 1945, Masaaki Oshige was 13. Across the gulf of half a century, he still remembers his gnawing hunger _ for food, and for battle.

In the final months of World War II, young Masaaki worked in a factory in southern Japan that made airplane parts. Sometimes he was sent into the woods to forage for pine sap, which was used as crude fuel.

With three older brothers fighting in the Imperial Army, he believed his turn would come soon. He was already on the draft call-up list for a youth aviation unit. When Japan surrendered, he felt cheated of his chance.

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``Becoming a soldier was only natural,″ he says. To shirk would be unthinkable; that would have made him ``hikokumin″ _ un-Japanese. A traitor.

As the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender approaches, vivid memories are surfacing about life during the war’s last harrowing weeks. Although most Japanese are too young to remember those times, the ones who lived through them cannot forget.

From early 1945, it had become increasingly apparent that Japan could not win the war. From one bloody Pacific island to the next, the once-mighty Japanese fleet and ground forces had been torn into tatters like their rising-sun battle flags.

But the country’s military leaders refused to accept reality. The call was for sacrifice and more sacrifice _ not only on the battlefield, but on the home front.

In the humid early summer days, there was more and more talk of a last-ditch ground battle in which everyone was a potential combatant. One rallying cry was ``ichioku gyokusai″ _ ``the 100 million as a shattered jewel,″ referring to the people of Japan and the fate they faced.

In the spring of 1945, civilians were given instructions on how to kill American soldiers if they invaded. Stab them in the stomach with bamboo spears, people were told. Use kitchen knives, or whatever weapons are at hand.

Women tied up their kimono sleeves with thin sashes and practiced skewering straw dummies with bamboo spears. ``Savage Americans!″ they were told to shout as they did so.

On every block, households were told to step up activities through their ``tonarigumi,″ or neighborhood associations, practicing civil defense and keeping watch for any disloyal activities. Everyone had to wear military-style name tags sewn to the chest of their blouse or kimono.

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In June, the government ordered the mobilization of all Japanese men under age 60 as ``volunteers.″ Their weapons: spears, bows and arrows, iron pipes. Cabinet ministers who reviewed the ``troops″ were reportedly shocked by their primitive equipment.

Japan’s leaders might have hoped a display of fierce fanaticism on the part of civilians would prevent the American military from embarking on a land invasion.

Historians are still arguing over the degree to which the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was influenced by U.S. fears of huge casualties in hand-to-hand fighting to take the Japanese mainland.

For many Japanese, daily life had by then become so difficult it was impossible to even imagine how it would all end. Civilians were ordered to black out their lamps with dark cloth. Goods disappeared from stores. Only rationed food _ mostly sweet potato vines _ was available.

Some turned to the black market, selling family treasures like kimonos and jewelry for food.

The penalties were severe.

``My mother was caught (doing this) by police, and all our rice was confiscated,″ recalled Reiko Tanaka, now in her 60s. ``It was so miserable.″

People scoured the countryside for food, eating wild grass, watery soups and even bugs. They cooked with the crudest implements; the military had collected pots and pans to melt for producing arms.

``Our leaders should have known when to stop,″ said Katsuto Okubo, 76, who fought in northern China. ``They only wore out the entire nation.″

War propaganda was everywhere, even on postcards and postal stamps. Japanese victories early in the war were commemorated _ the overrunning of Singapore, the fall of Bataan.

Freedom of expression was suppressed, and news media and letters censored. English, the enemy language, was banned. Any sign of reluctance to support the war effort was to risk being reported to the notorious military police.

To show continuing fealty to the emperor, each household displayed his picture. Whenever the air raid siren wailed, Kiyoko Tanaga, then a 21-year-old teacher, had to rush to her school to shield the imperial portrait by whatever means possible.

``If that had continued, I would have collapsed,″ she said.

Air raids intensified. When the sirens sounded, people donned cotton-filled handmade hoods and hid in household shelters.

In the last eight months of the war, more than 10 million people fled cities to escape American bombings, which eventually killed 500,000 civilians.

Yoko Yamamoto, now 55, lived through one such raid.

``It was a sea of fire,″ she said. ``I held my mother’s hand tightly and just ran without knowing where we were going. ... I thought we were climbing onto something bumpy _ but it was a pile of dead people on the street.″

Schoolchildren were sometimes separated from their families, sent to shelter in village temples and shrines.

Then there were the slaves. Many Japanese recall them now with shame.

During the war, Japan _ which had seized Korea as a colony and built a puppet state in northern China _ brought over hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Chinese for forced labor in mines and arms factories. They were treated as subhuman.

``We called them bad names to feel superior,″ said Okubo, the veteran. ``I feel terrible now.″

The government faces lawsuits filed by the former laborers, but so far has staved off paying any compensation. Japan has refused to pay individual reparation, saying such claims were settled by postwar treaties.

For those who lived through the war’s final, terrible days, the debate over how Japan should atone for its aggression is painful. In June, there was angry debate over the parliamentary resolution in which Japan expressed remorse over the war _ but did not actually apologize.

``I feel upset when I hear young Japanese, who know nothing about the war, say all of us who didn’t protest bear the same responsibility in Japan’s wartime aggression,″ said Toko Suzuki, now 72. ``We should apologize for our wrongdoing, but I hope they understand that we couldn’t do much about it.″

Like many older Japanese, she has never told her own children much about her own wartime hardships. Now, she thinks it might be time.

``We can still tell our stories, so we’ll never repeat the same mistake,″ she said.