Japan at War: An Oral History

"This groundbreaking work of oral history captures for the first time ever the remarkable story of ordinary Japanese people during World War II. In a sweeping panorama, Haruko Taya and Theodore Cook take us from the Japanese attacks on China in the 1930s to the Japanese homefront during the inhuman raids on Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, offering the first glimpses of how this century’s most violent conflict affected the lives of the Japanese population. Japan At War is a monumental work of history—one to which Americans and Japanese will turn for decades to come." [Text from Amazon.com]
Year of Publication
New Press
ISBN Number
Average: 4.5 (2 votes)


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Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook

Field of Interest/Specialty: History
Posted On: 08/09/2012

Review by Tim Jekel
High School History
World History I & II, Western Civilization, AP US History, AP European History
West Shore Christian Academy
In Japan at War, teachers will find a treasure chest of primary sources to paint a fuller texture of the Japanese Empire at the time of World War II. This book brings together an impressive array of person experiences that provides a much more diverse backdrop to Japanese life, culture, art, and thought at the time.
One example that I use with my 9th graders is Manchurian Days by Fukushima Yoshi. In this personal account, we find the experience of a simple kindergarten teacher who moves to Manchuria to take advantage of new opportunities there. She is forced to return to Japan several times because of failing health but ultimately marries a Japanese emigrant to Manchuria and settles in to the life of a wealthy woman with important links to the military.
Since many students, especially girls, aspire to teaching elementary students, this story resonates with many and brings the plight of ordinary Japanese home.
A second example that I sometimes use is Dancing into the Night by Hara Kiyoshi. This testimony recounts how the war negatively impacted the art of dancing in the Tokyo area. The author, a ballroom dance instructor, gives revealing insights into the business of running a successful dance club. After the shooting war began, virtually all dancing was forbidden. Hara explains how he is forced to ride out the war hosting illegal dance gatherings mostly in the homes of the wealthy. The brutality of the war killed more than bodies, it killed many of the enjoyments of a full life in Japan.
The final passage that I will mention is Playing at War by Sato Hideo. In this passage, the author remembers his youth during war time and especially his experiences at evacuation school in the countryside. Hundreds of thousands of school students were relocated from urban areas to the countryside to learn in relative safety.
While in some respects, this passage resonates with passages from Lost Names, interesting elements appear as well since Lost Names focuses on the Korean experience and this section focuses on Japan. But since as an evacuation student Sato is discriminated against and beaten, the two experiences are remarkably similar. Both are compelled to dig and prepared airfields instead of school, both find mixed honor as class leaders, both express relief when the war actually ended. Playing at War also revealed some class divisions in Japan during the war as city kids looked down on country kids often fighting to highlight their differences.
Also interesting in Playing at War is the author’s contempt for Japanese soldiers themselves while never wavering in his admiration for the emperor. Students may find interesting how Sato was taught to think of Americans as demons. Since the author and his schoolmates were often strafed by American pilots, they had first-hand experience to support this idea.
For all of these passages, and many others, I find they are very helpful to students who try to make a connection with this period of history. Textbooks can make the subject dry and distant, but these first hand stories tend to connect with students better. The primary way I use them is to take turns with the students reading aloud, one paragraph each. I will then interrupt from time to time to discuss some issue raised by the story or explain something that might be unclear. If I have to be away on a given day, I will write questions about the reading that students will answer as they read individually. I give this book high marks as a resource to supplement core instruction. I do not recommend these passages as literature, though, as the level of writing is not artful but simple narrative – as if the authors had taken dictation.

MUST READ! Fantastic Accounts from a Wide-Range of Japanese Citizenry during WWII!

Field of Interest/Specialty: History/Geography
Posted On: 04/13/2010

Organized chronologically and by age/social class/position in the war, these accounts of Japanese & Korean citizens fighting for the Empire of Japan and living under its rule from 1931-1945 are astounding and eye-opening to say the least. Because the author is herself Japanese, the interviewees open up considerably more about their experiences than they would customarily. Each vignette is within 8-10 page max and contains AMAZING experiences that are so detailed that you can virtually see and smell what the people are describing.
Every account is short enough to keep your attention riveted...and is likewise perfectly suited for student consumption. The graphic nature of many stories would be more appropriate for grades 10-12, but there are several to choose from that outline the experiences of children and families which would be appropriate for elementary students.
Topics outlined in this collection: Unit 731, firebombing, Manchukuo, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, civilians on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, jungle warfare, China, and Japanese perspectives on war with America.
Prepare to have your preconceived notions about Japanese barbarism and unified national ignorance turned on their proverbial heads. This book makes no excuses for the atrocities committed by the Japanese from 1931-1945, but it does rehumanize them and helps to provide some reasoning behind their actions. In addition, one is forced to acknowledge that, contrary to domestic propaganda, not all enemies, great or small, are deliberately complicit with or even aware of the actions of their national leaders. My resentment towards the Japanese in WWII is now being reevaluated...