“Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers” by Yoshikuni Igarashi

China and the United States did most of the heavy lifting in defeating Japan during the Pacific war. After the war neither was much interested in running prisoner of war camps, and most captured Japanese were quite quickly repatriated. Two groups who did not return promptly were those captured by the Red army in Manchuria as they delivered the coup de grâce at the war’s end, and a few soldiers defending Japan’s Pacific islands who were neither killed, captured nor committed suicide when the islands fell. The Soviet Union shipped its captives to work camps in the Soviet Far East and set them to work mining, logging and building railroads, releasing them only years later. Some of the holdout island defenders lived on in the jungle for decades, nominally as guerilla fighters though in fact struggling to survive.

Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, Yoshikuni Igarashi (Columbia University Press, September 2016)
Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, Yoshikuni Igarashi (Columbia University Press, September 2016)

Yoshikuni Igarashi’s Homecomings focuses on the stories of four individual returnees. The first two returned from the labor camps in the USSR, the others were jungle guerrillas who evaded capture and tried to fight on for decades. The two situations were in an important sense completely opposite. Igarashi explains that those released from Soviet detention were wracked by guilt. Most of their comrades had been annihilated in the Red Army’s invasion of Manchuria. They themselves had not only survived, they had allowed themselves to be captured in violation of Japan’s military code. Despite having endured tremendous hardships and privation in Soviet work camps, they felt guilty about returning home. Those who fought on had no such burden. They followed orders and harassed first the US occupying forces and then the locals as one by one their comrades succumbed to disease and malnutrition in the face of suspicions that the war had ended and that they had been abandoned. One was captured only when he was surprised by armed hunters. The other, à la Rambo, surrendered only when his original commanding officer flew to the Philippines and verbally countermanded his original order to keep fighting indefinitely. In contrast to the repatriated prisoners, those men had grounds for considering their extreme dogmatism heroic.

Most lay readers will find the book’s principal interest in these stories, but they are not Igarashi’s main focus. He is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University in the United States. He describes the focus of his research as “the radical transformation of Japanese society in the late 1960s and the 1970s.”

His thesis in Homecomings is that the Japanese media used the soldiers’ stories to bolster a certain concept of post-war Japan. But


… their association with Japan’s wartime past… destabilized the symbolic divide between the war and the postwar period, the divide that the postwar media and society strove to maintain.


His defense of this thesis is much less interesting than the exploits of his subjects. He explains how the press related the men’s sacrifices in a form they didn’t endorse, or that their stories were sometimes suppressed almost entirely. The men concerned are long dead, so Igarashi’s analysis is based almost entirely on books and films written by and about them. Indeed, much of the analysis could better be described as literary and film criticism, and Igarashi sometimes appears to exploit the imprecision of those genres to extend his analysis beyond what the data can easily support.

Much of this exaggeration is quite obscure, but a simple example is his analysis of a brief speech one returnee made on landing at Haneda airport after 27 years in the jungle. Confronted by a welcoming crowd of 4000, his first words were, “I came home all right. Although I am embarrassed, I came home to tell everybody about the defeat in Guam in detail.” Igarashi italicizes “although I am embarrassed” and interprets it to mean that the soldier realizes he has suffered so long for no good reason. That seems implausible. A quick pass with Occam’s razor rather suggests, “I’m just a soldier who did his duty. I did nothing to merit the adulation of 4000 citizens.”

If one section of Japanese society resented painful memories being revived as Igarashi maintains, the facts suggest that another really did consider the returnees as heroes. The reader feels Igarashi may be emphasizing the former viewpoint to excess.

Overall, the typical non-fiction reader is going to find much of Homecomings pretty hard going. The descriptions of survival in the work camps and the Pacific jungles are interesting, but they constitute less than a fifth of the text. Igarashi’s literary and film criticism is likely to appeal to a completely different audience. If you’re Japanese, maybe…?

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.