Oral History Interview with retired Western Michigan University Professor Michitoshi Soga. He was interviewed at his residence on March 12, 1999 in Kalamazoo, Michigan by University of Michigan film and video studies and english major Jason Winokur. Soga was born in 1926 in Tokyo, where he was raised and educated.

 

W. Were movies a popular form of entertainment during your childhood?

S. Yes. When I was growing up as a child we saw American cartoons: Popeye, Betty Boop. Nothing of Japanese culture.

W. Did you go a lot as a boy?

S. Not much, it was very expensive. Parents or sister or brother had to take me. Maybe once every two months or three months.

W. Did the films change as the war progressed?

S. Lots of movies were more propagandized. Japan is always right (laughs); China is always wrong (laughs again). Brave Japanese soldier. Chinese soldier is very weak. (laughs). We thought that this might be truth. I never thought that it was propaganda.

W. Did they promote the Japanese war cause?

S. It was very one sided. We had to punish to the wrong Chinese. They needed to be fixed. Of course, I was a child and I had to accept what I was being told.

W. How were Westerners shown in Japanese made films before Pearl Harbor?

S. We saw many American, German, and Italian movies. Of the few Japanese movies, Americans were treated fairly well.

W. Did the films change after Pearl Harbor?

S. After Pearl Harbor things, (the times) clearly changed. I still remember the day the war started. I was riding the train from my house to the school and in the train the conductor announced it. I shook. It very very important. It was kinda half scary and half what should I do. One film that I remember was about the Philippines. Philippines were a colony of the United States and most of the Filipinos were against the United States. That was not true, but that was it. So we have to go there to save the Philippines from the United States of America. So they brainwashed the people.

W. Did the movie make you want to become a soldier and fight for this cause?

S. [In Japan] It was quite different. We were educated to...we have to die at 20. I saw my life ending at 20. That was the Japanese way. We were educated, we have to die for our Emperor. We have to save our country.

W. How did that affect your daily life? Was this always a constant thought?

S. Yes, it was. We had a different system of education. 6 years elementary school, 5 years middle, 3 years of high school, and 3 years of college. I was in middle school when the war started. Before the war [with the United States] we had English teacher, English class. After the war started we did not have the same classes. In the last two or three years [of the war] things got different. All Westerners were confined and sent back to their countries. We couldn’t even study English. They prohibited enemy languages. Then there was no class. We were forced to work in the factories or some military base. Some were making airplanes, parachutes. I was involved in the radio locator. It was a detector for airplanes. I was working for the Nippon Electric Company. We were making a copy from the United States which was taken from some downed airplane. We had to make the same thing, because the United States technology was very advanced compared to Japan. We tried to make the same exact machine, but our size was ten times (laughs) bigger then the U.S. made. We wondered how we could make it small. We tried. Finally (laughs) we succeeded, but by then it was almost the end of the war. We were lucky, because many people worked in the airplane factories, which were heavy bombed. My wife was almost killed. Particularly in the two or three years, completely no school, no class, but some liberal Universities offered special class. I couldn’t learn in English, so I took German. German was our friends’ language.

W. Because of America's technological superiority, did you respect them?

S. Yes, because I had many American friends. Many friends [westerners] visited us. My father had a strange history. After he went to college he worked for the British Company De Haviland. They had two daughters. I have a picture. My father took a picture with Olivia De Haviland and Joan Fontane. Working for the De Haviland Company, my father was quite different person. It was a very difficult a time for my father. (The War) Of course there were some very nationalistic people who were gradually taking power. But, the President of the University of Tokyo spoke before all college students drafted before going to war ‘You face the enemy. They are very diligent, and a very sophisticated, and educated people. So you have to respect them. I still remember that.

W. What did society, (people in your community, factory, government, etc.), tell you about Americans?

S. American is the enemy. We were also told that Americans were (Kichiku) meaning monster-animals, anything but humans. But we knew that this was not (laughs) true. The government, the military tried to make people think that way. I did not think it was.

W. Did the later Japanese War films show Americans as Monsters?

S. Yes, very much so.

W. Did films, the government, the military explain why Japan had to defeat the U.S. besides them being monsters?

S. They said, ‘we have to save Asia from the colonists Western World. That we should establish a United Asia under Japanese control. We were told that was a big purpose of this war. That it was a war for right, not for wrong.

W. You use the term "Western World," what did the government specifically say about the "Western World"?

S. We were told that ‘the Westerners treat Asians like slaves. For example, India and Hong Kong. There are many examples. Western culture, Western custom is not acceptable. For example, male and females were treated separately [in Japanese society.] Western culture destroyed Asian tradition. Everything Western is wrong.

W. What were you told were the ultimate goal(s) of the Japanese government during the War?

S. The US asked the Japanese to withdraw from Manchuria and other holdings. Japanese government could not accept the demand. The ultimate goal was to force the Americans to back off.

W. At the time, what did you personally think was the reason for the war.

S. We are educated. We are very naive. We have to die. We have to fight to win. In that case, I think that it is necessary. We have to sacrifice our life. I definitely saw it that way.

W. So then you were behind the war?

S. Yes.

W. Did any people in your daily life question the war?

S. Yes, my brother-in-law, Tomoo Horoka was a newspaperman. When the war started, he said, ‘this war, we’ll never win. Soon the air raids will start and we’ll have to take everything to the countryside.’ He studied Marxism. He was checked by the military police. He became the editor of the Asahi Newspaper. He wrote many editorials that were not allowed to be published. In that sense, he was a (laughs) very bad editor. He was very much against the war. He wrote many bad things about Tojo, our Prime Minister. Tojo did not like him. He [Tomoo] said that ‘war would not last so long, maybe 3, 4 years at most. Japan will be defeated.’ So he knew that. At that time, I thought ‘he’s not Japanese.’ Japanese should not say that. Later, Tomoo became the President of this company.

W. Did the government attempt to arrest Tomoo?

S. Maybe the government wanted to, but the newspaper was very strong. So he [Tomoo] was protected by the company.

W. Did any of his anti-war beliefs get published?

S. No, he can not publish. Everything was censored. There was a screen. The government read all his work. So, on particular dates (laughs) Asahi newspaper does not go out.

W. Aside from your brother-in-law, did you hear any other anti-war comments?

S. Yes, gradually, I started doubting this war. Close to the end, I thought we would never win. And the people began to [question] ‘why we are fighting this war, because we will never win.’ Because we [at the NEC] studied this radio locator ourselves, we saw different technology. We wondered how can we compete with American technology. We captured many other things from downed airplanes, and everything was so different; made in Japan than made in the U.S.A. Definitely, this war was not good for us. Gradually, the people started thinking ‘why fight this war.’ But, the same time, the government tightened control of everything. They caught on to this kind of atmosphere. That last one-year: we could not speak publicly.

W. Did any film or literature that questioned the war get out to the public?

S. No. Not anything. Even so, if the government ordered me to fight, we have to fight. That is for our people.

W. What sacrifices were people making for the war aside from leaving schools and regular jobs to go to work in the factories?

S. We didn’t have much food. No high quality, we only have eggs, sometimes little sugar and rice, and potato. Very low quality food. We didn’t have paper, notebooks. People donated diamonds, their jewels. There was rationing. Of course, no gasoline. We used charcoal and sometimes pine root oil to run our cars. The cars couldn’t go up hill.

W. Were you drafted into the war?

S. Yes, I was drafted, but my call date was in September. The war ended in August.

W. At that time, you thought Japan was going to lose the war?

S. Yes.

W. Did add to any fears you might have had after being drafted?

S. Yes, of course. What was our duty was a small boat, the top half was just dynamite. One person would go and hit the American war ship. It was impossible, but I was told I would have to do that. It was a kamikaze boat.

W. Did you see any war action or training?

S. No, I was just assigned to this particular group. I didn’t do anything like that.

W. At the time you were assigned to the mission, were you accepting of your fate?

S. Yes, I accepted my fate. I was of course scared, but I tried to avoid thinking about that.

W. What is your religion and how did it impact your feelings on the war, i.e. being drafted, fighting etc?

S. I am Shinto. I don’t know, might be, maybe not. My family is Shinto, I don’t particularly believe that. When I was child, I attended an American kindergarten, a Christian kindergarten.

W. Was Shinto used by the government to gain support?

S. Shinto was very much a national religion. When a warrior was going to leave for battle, people prayed in the Shinto shrines. It very much used by the military and the government to sway the people. Christians had a difficult time in Japan.

W. During the war, what did the military/government say about the results of Japanese battles?

S. At first, from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal [they said] that Japan had a very successful campaign. After that with Midway and other battles Japan lost. But, they never told us the truth. Always: we won, we won. Gradually, we found that it was not true. So many dead soldiers came back, and broken war ships. No matter how hard they tried to hide it, the truth always came through somewhere. Finally, the government could not hide anymore, so they started to speak of it.

W. In the beginning stages, aside from your brother-in-law, did everyone you know think that Japan would win the war?

S. No, I didn’t think. I did not think we would win the war, but we had to fight. That was why I was scared. Maybe someone, but, after that one year, because we did such a good military campaign that some people might have thought we might have finished in this way. But, not completely, for example, no one thought we could have occupied the United States. But, after we finished Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, many people might think we could finish that way. But, literally, after that, we lost more and more. Not many thought we could win.

W. What kind of reverence did you have for the Emperor?

S. The Emperor actually was God. We prayed to the emperor. Always a picture of the Emperor existed in every school in Japan. Every ceremony was always related to Emperor. There was a military parade that Emperor went through when I was in middle school. We watched at the side of the road and saw the Emperor’s car. That was the only time I glanced at the Emperor’s real face. Usually, we just saw a picture. We thought the Emperor is actually God.

W. What were you doing during the bombings of Tokyo?

S. First time I was in school and thought that was most scary thing. But, that was almost nothing compared to later. In the last two years, after Saipan was taken the B-17, which at that time was very large, came almost every day. At first they bombed mainly the military factory, the cannon factory, something like that. Most people thought ‘okay we are safe.’ But, then they changed tactics and started bombing at night. Not many as before, now one plane, one plane every two minutes. They would go at very low altitudes. We could see them clearly. Essentially, the target became ordinary people. Then we had a very bad experience. Because the Japanese house is made of wood and paper, it was a very easy target. So, they bombed this way and started a fire circle from outside. So, they tried to kill all people. I saw many try to escape and die. I could not help the people. The most shocking experience I had was on March 10th. The same amount of people as from the atomic bombing died. I visited the downtown area, where NEC, (my company) did business. I came to ask for some small parts made in Japan. At nine, it was late, and I would stay if it was late, but I wanted to go home; so I left the company to go home. I took the train, a thirty-minute ride to my home. During this train ride, the air raids started. Then the train stopped and I walked home. I reached home about twelve. The next day, I had to go back to the NEC. The train was not running, so I walked back to the company. When I got there, I find no one was around, that everyone has died. But, our parts were saved inside the shelter. No one was inside the shelter, just parts. Then, I walked to the train station. Everything was bombed. The steps to the platform were filled with bones: horse, cow, dog, human. Just bones. It was most amazing. I thought, that is a war, that is a war. That is the most shocking thing in my life.

W. Did you ever think that something like that could ever happen in Tokyo?

S. No, I can’t talk too much about this. So many people died. Even I don’t want to talk, even now. Actually one lady living in Pittsburgh explains the same thing. Father, mother, family all dead. She escaped from inside the fire. I was safe. The next day I walked. The ground was still very hot. Everywhere there were dead bodies. Most shocking.

W. Did your views of Americans change after this attack?

S. No, not really. I thought, ‘that is war. War is a terrible thing.’ I thought, ‘because Japan does the same thing; would do the same to America if we can.’

W. After the attack, did you hear any talk of surrender?

S. Yes, actually, I got sick with TB. Even so, I was drafted. I left Tokyo to the mountains to heal my body. There I saw many diplomats. They knew that the war would end soon. Then, August 15, the war ends and the Emperor’s voice is broadcast by the radio. We were gathering and could not hear well, but we knew the war was over, finished. That Japan had unconditionally surrendered I was very sad, of course. I went to a small street where there were many shops. I went to the post office. I met a Chinese man and I think he was a shoemaker. I looked so sad, that he tapped me on my shoulder and said "don’t worry, we have been defeated so many times we expect it. War is nothing. You will be back to normal soon." He (laughs) comforted me. So, I thought all Chinese were great.

W. How did other people around you act after finding out about the surrender?

S. Crying. Particulary old people. People said that Japan would never be defeated. They thought that Japan would never be occupied. The history changed. I think all the people cried. My mother was excited, screaming, ‘the war ended, the war ended.’

W. Prior to the surrender, did you hear of any desertions by military personnel?

S. No, I hadn’t. But, after the war, I heard the stories of many.

W. How were the atomic bombs reported? How did you hear about it?

S. A few days before the war ended, the radio announced that some new bomb, they didn’t say atomic. They said that, ‘some new bomb killed many people in Hiroshima. That this is a quite historical moment. This a quite new bomb and we were unprepared for that.’ My father was an engineer and the government asked him to go study the effects of this new bomb at Hiroshima. But, he didn’t go. He knew that there was radiation and that it was dangerous. Again, the government tried to call the Western people cruel for dropping the bomb. At that time, we did not know the details. Everything came out after the war. Then, later they announced the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. Again they said the Americans were cruel for dropping another bomb.

W. Did you have a strong reaction after initially hearing about the bomb?

S. No, we didn’t have. We didn’t know the details.

W. How did your feelings about the Americans, Western culture, and the Japanese government change after the war?

S. In one night, everything changed and everything in America is wonderful. On August 18th, America is enemy number one. After that, enemy is our best friend. America culture is great. Fast, they came, the chewing gum, the cigarette, and coffee. Then gradually in film, song, and everything. Later, Coca Cola, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and almost all other aspects of American culture entered our life.

W. Was that change initially hard to deal with?

S. It was particularly difficult to accept. I was not easy for me, but gradually I did.

W. Were some people angered by the American presence?

S. Yes, very. One friend went to military school (naval) and came back not so happy to accept this fact.

W. Were there any riots or rebellions?

S. No, we didn’t have. The Emperor ordered the surrender, so we had to follow the surrender.

W. When did you come to the U.S.?

S. 1961. I got a PhD in Japan.

W. When you came to the U.S. did you personally see the any of the racism that was around during WWII in the U.S. at the time of your arrival here?

S. I was surprised. I was completely defeated by the United States, so I came to this country with my head down. I was scared, but everyone was so friendly. A janitor even cleaned my desk. I was so surprised. In 1961, Kennedy wanted physicists from all around the world to compete with the Soviets who had sent out Sputnik. I was told I could do anything I wanted. I worked in nuclear physics.

W. Being Japanese, did you have any qualms or apprehensions working for the U.S. in nuclear physics due to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

S. No, I saw a great potential in nuclear atomic energy.

W. Do you feel that certain aspects of the war have been forgotten?

S. I did not forget, because of my experience. But, many young people born after the war, never experienced the war. Even, I was amazed when a young Japanese high school student came to visit me and did not believe we had the war. I think Japanese schools do not teach the war.

W. Do you feel that they intentionally cover it up?

S. I don’t know. Maybe, one thing that experienced is that the Japanese history is very long. We start at the beginning and always finishes before the Meiji. We don’t have the time. Maybe that is true, but someone might be intentionally avoiding the war.

W. Do you think that the government officials might have had some guilt for some of the mistakes they made during the war?

S. I think so. But, a few still think war is unavoidable. It was big, big, terrible mistake. Japan did a lot of damage to the Asian people, to the Chinese. The Rape of Nanking, some people think it is true, but others think it is not. We as Japanese should get together with scholars to find the truth, but they don’t do it. I think it was true, I met a couple of former soldiers who told me that it was true.

W. Has the government claimed that is not true?

S. The government says that is true. Still, some people, do not believe it could be true. Some older people can not accept it.

W. In the years after the war, did some feel that Japan lost due to strategic mistakes or that they should have never bombed Pearl Harbor?

I don’t know. I have to leave that for historians. I can only say that they did something terribly wrong beginning with the Chinese invasion, the Manchurian invasion. Over two-thirds of my early life was just war.


NOTES:

First of all, I want the reader to understand and know that Professor Soga appeared very open and inviting in the telling of his history. He did not seem to be avoiding any particular questions. Professor Soga, in general appeared very comfortable in recounting most of his oral history.

Not physically being at the interview, the reader loses much in not being able to watch Professor Soga’s mannerisms and to listen to his pauses between words. For the sake of the reader of this transcript I deleted the pauses which could have made this reading tedious as the momentum of the story might slow down too much for the typical reader. It is important to note that in discussing the Tokyo incendiary bombs he takes many breaks in between comments.

The reader probably noticed the numerous times that Professor Soga laughed. In the situations that I recorded, it appears that he is laughing at either the irony or surprising results of what he is describing. However, there are other occasions that as editor, I leave out times when he laughs. This is because, at those times he appears to have a nervous or embarrassing laughter in which he laughs at very serious events such as his wife almost losing her life. In those cases, as editor, I note with extreme delicacy that he experienced some unimaginable and shocking events that is becomes very hard for the mind to rationalize.

Lastly, Soga’s description of the Tokyo bombing and other sad accounts might seem dry on paper, but by watching his expressions the interviewer saw the serious tone and sadness of his face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterthoughts:

 

Especially in this case where I am studying the history of a foreign country, an oral provides an insight that I have not found in history books. Although anyone that I could interview might have their own personal bias, I find that the personal history would have less of an agenda than an American writing about American history with a brief overview of the other country’s culture. I found that the process taught me more about the life of a Japanese man who lived in Tokyo from 1926 past World War II, then I could have learned in most other media.

In writing the questions, I planned on asking Michitoshi Soga the questions that interested me. In choosing the questions, I found that I was writing down what I always wanted to know about the War from the perspective of the Japanese. In deciding what questions to ask, I forced myself to look into the oral histories on the web to think of the differences between the American experience that I find on the web page and foreign experience I was about to learn about.

The interview, different than any history book or voice over narration documentary gives me a view into the physical expressions of the participant. Walking into the house of Professor Soga, I walked into his world, his memory. Actually watching a man open up his story to me removed most of my apprehensions that I have in reading a written history. Though speaking years after the experience, with years to reflect and possibly change his personal position, it was apparent that the now aspect of the interview allows for little story editing. Though, Soga might have guessed the type of questions I would ask him, he could not have prepared statements for the exact questions I was to ask him.

Extremely important in the process for me was the candidness and invitation in Soga’s manner. This made me feel comfortable to ask whatever questions I had prepared. Throughout the interviewer I thought that I was getting honest responses to all my questions. Although the experience could not provide me with the same cultural backdrop as actually visiting Japan, I felt that being in his house, I was able to see the physical appearances of its culture in Michitoshi’s house.

Though I have seen Japanese war films, read texts, and seen some World War II documentaries, I was surprised by a lot of what Michitoshi Soga told me. I did not think that the people of Japan thought that they would not win WWII. I did not know that the war-like atmosphere that persisted in Japan during WWII was as intense as he described it. It is almost unimaginable to think of the existence of a culture where children are taught to believe that they will die for a cause by the age of twenty. One aspect of Soga’s history that shocked me was that the incendiary bombings of Tokyo did not effect his view of Americans. His view that war is war and that people are not off limits in such cases is also a very foreign idea to the world in which I grew up and live in. To simply read about perspectives did not have the strong effect that actually hearing someone relating them has on me.

In terms of the transcribing and editing process: writing down the taped comments of someone who is not a native speaker can lead to misrepresentations on my part. I spent many hours determining what the best way to phrase Soga’s grammar and punctuation. Though, it might have appeared time consuming it allowed me more time to consider the importance of each spoken line.

In general, the experience has shown me the validity and narrowness of the oral history. Though any history book constitutes one perspective, a good text hopefully uses many sources for the details of that history. The oral history provides me with a perspective I might never find in that text, but one that comes from a single mind. I do not mean to downplay the importance of the oral history as source of historical document. What I heard and saw in the hour plus that I was in Professor Soga’s living room provided me with answers to questions that I always pondered. On afterthought, though, it has led me to many other questions, like why didn’t I see such important views in the texts I’ve read.

My meeting with Michitoshi Soga demonstrated the importance of sitting down with someone and discussing his perspective before judging him. Talking to someone about the impact that his culture had on him removes the abstract of a text describing how, in only a sentence or two, the Japanese were all behind the war. I have also neglected to mention the amazing story that was told to me about Tomoo Horoka, a powerful Japanese newspaperman who was against the war. This account astonished me as it basically goes against the theme that the majority of American texts about the Japanese side of the war present. In conclusion, although Soga’s perspective might appear small, it provided me with insight into many other lives.