From the time those cute, colorful monsters first entered our lives, it seemed that Pokémon was a problem.
Most of my second-grade class was obsessed with collecting the cards and playing the Game Boy games. Everyone had a favorite Pokémon, and choosing Pikachu was a cop-out and meant you weren’t a dedicated Pokémon trainer. My favorite was Vaporeon, a majestic cat-dolphin creature. We were in our own little world, one in which surreal animals were waiting in tall grasses to be caught and trained for battle.
In the real world, teachers took notice of this considerable distraction, and all Pokémon paraphernalia was banned from the school. Parents were concerned — or just annoyed — with how great a presence these creatures had in our lives. The franchise even posed physical threats to children. In 1997, the television show went on a four-month hiatus in Japan after reportedly causing hundreds of children to experience seizures during a climactic scene in which red and blue lights flashed quickly onscreen. In 1999, Burger King reluctantly recalled its Pokéball toys after a young girl suffocated in California from covering her nose and mouth with one.
Each crisis brought about parental hysteria, but Pokémania persisted. In a 1999 TIME article, Howard Chua-Eoan and Tim Larimer bemoaned the phenomenon and its lessons of ravenous accumulation: “Is Pokemon payback for our get-rich-quick era — with our offspring led away like lemmings by Pied Poke-Pipers of greed? Or is there something inherent in childhood that Pokemania simply reflects?” No one could be sure why this Japanese game took the youth by storm, but plenty of cultural commenters were certain about its lack of staying power. It was “the most effortless Japanese invasion of western pop culture since Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian. It was a fad, they said.
They were wrong.
One of the misconceptions about the explosive wave of pocket monsters was that the whole sensation was generated into existence by executives looking to sell plush toys. While the merchandising didn’t hurt Pokémon’s potential, it was actually created as a passion project by a bug collector outside Tokyo. Satoshi Tajiri grew up catching beetles with his friends in the quickly urbanizing Machido, Japan. He saw the development of Nintendo’s Game Boy and dreamed up a world inside the console where players could catch and trade creatures using the new connecting device: the link cable. He worked on the concept for six years, inventing an expansive map of towns, caves, and seas a player could navigate to find and capture a miscellany of 150 monsters to train and battle.
More than two decades later, there are 812 Pokémon. The latest movie in the franchise, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, had a $58 million opening weekend in the U.S., the biggest ever for any movie based on a video game. Of course, the odd scandal that seems to follow Pokémon has kept up as well. In Montreal, a theater accidentally played the disturbing horror film The Curse of La Llorona instead of the new Pikachu movie to a crowd of crying children.
Pokémon’s astoundingly resilient popularity is clear, if somewhat surprising to those who have never experienced the accomplishment of catching the elusive and powerful Mewtwo. Part of the reason it has such staying power is the fully realized, imaginative world that the characters and their creatures inhabit. In the games, players are able to role play in that world and spend hours on a personalized adventure that combines competition with collaboration.
As children, we would often express the wish that Pokémon were real, and that we could play the game in the real world. Then, in 2016, The Pokémon Company partnered with Google startup Niantic to release Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game in which players catch Pokémon on their smartphones by walking around parks, monuments, and especially Starbucks. The creatures appear against the backdrop of a live video taken by the phone to give the illusion that a Rattata or an Oddish is actually standing before the player.
The summer of 2016 saw children and adults alike playing the game in droves. College campuses, urban walkways, malls, and hospitals were all transformed into Pokéworlds as trainers sauntered about trying to “catch ’em all.” Just as Pokémon had, years before, been deemed a fad, the free app gained the same reputation as it swept the world that summer. Although the number of Pokémon Go players tapered off later that year, the game was still in the top five gaming apps by number of users last October. Last month, Pokémon Go reached one billion downloads.
Two of those downloads were mine. I got the game as a lark during the summer of 2016, then redownloaded it last year when I was ready to get serious. Not quite play-while-driving serious, but serious enough to take over some gyms and catch a Vaporeon.
Everyone has heard about the dangers associated with the game: robberies, car accidents, gaming addiction. But after it was released, Pokémon Go also generated a substantial amount of attention from the academic world. Study after study dissected the phenomenon for its usefulness in education, child psychology, sociology, and even philosophy. While some saw the game only for its dystopian implications on public life, researchers realized how it could benefit conservation efforts, STEM and literacy education, and exercise rates in young people.
In a paper from Russian Education & Society, the authors praise the possibilities of augmented reality gaming: “This game has strengthened the effects of social interaction, giving them a larger scale, dynamism, and influence. According to UNESCO, these trends have colossal educational potential.” Pokémon Go has led the way in its ability to merge the physical, social, and virtual aspects of gaming. A study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that “playing Pokémon Go increased moderate to vigorous physical activity by about 50 minutes per week and reduced sedentary behavior by about 30 minutes per day,” and a call for qualitative studies on the subject claims “sustained and regular use of the app stands to improve not only physical activity but also mental health, social capital, and social interactions in these key populations [teens, preteens, and younger men].” It might have been disheartening to watch an inflatable couch-ridden preadolescent logging hours and hours of Pokémon Red Version on a Game Boy in 1999, but the same criticisms are hardly applicable in this new era of active, engaged Pokémon hunting.
In 1999, TIME interviewed Satoshi Tajiri about his creation, asking why Pokémon was so popular. He answered, “When you’re a kid and get your first bike, you want to go somewhere you’ve never been before. That’s like Pokémon. Everybody shares the same experience, but everybody wants to take it someplace else.”
My own experience with Go was as nostalgic as it needed to be and novel enough to be exciting. Though I have to admit my disappointment with the concepts of some of the newer monsters — one is a balloon and another is an actual bag of trash — the magical thoroughness of the Pokémon world holds up. I even took second (and third) looks at the monuments surrounding a nearby park as I would walk my dog, since they were also virtual Pokéstops that harbored the necessary Pokéballs.
Does this mean I’ll be buying tickets to the new movie? Attending the Pokémon Go Fest in Chicago this June? It’s not likely. But plenty of others will, and the “fad” will live on.
Cozy spring breeze
Over the grassy ground
How I want to play ball!
—Shiki Masaoka (1897)
Day 1: Tokyo
At the start of the Japanese baseball season this past spring, the breeze over the grassy ground at Tokyo’s historic Meiji Jingu stadium was not cozy. It was a brisk, moist wind that swept over the diamond and crashed into the stands. Fans rubbed their arms with gloved hands. Even so, it was time to play ball, and nothing was going to dampen their spirits. It was the opening series between the Tokyo rivals, the host Yakult Swallows and the visiting Yomiuri Giants.
In Japan, baseball is the national sport, but even that description doesn’t quite capture the intensity, emotion, and enjoyment the Japanese attach to its rituals. I travel not to see sights but to see what the people who live where I go really care about, and that’s what I was looking for when I set out on a short journey across Japan. In Tokyo, I had met up with Katsura Yamamoto and Nao Nomura, friends of friends from home, who were helping get me started.
Built in 1926, Meiji Jingu is a cherished venue like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. The Swallows’ faithful wore the team’s alternative home jersey, a Day-Glo lime green that made the stands appear as if they’d been streaked with highlighter. Fan club captains, looking like martial artists in happi coats and black headscarves, shouted cheers through bullhorns. Fans serenaded players, such as the Swallows’ superstar second baseman, Tetsuto Yamada: Ya-ma-da! Ya-ma-da, Yamada Tetsuto! Ya-ma-da, Yamada Tetsutooooo! Yamada and the Swallows jumped on the Giants’ pitching early, and the fans stomped, high-fived, banged plastic bats, blew horns, and opened and closed plastic mini-umbrellas as players crossed home plate, a Swallows custom that made all of Meiji Jingu twinkle — except in left field, where Giants fans, wearing their team’s bright orange, sat, still and subdued, at least until the Giants came up to bat, when they raised such a ruckus that you might have thought their team was winning.
I hailed a “beer girl,” as the almost exclusively female purveyors of fresh brew in the stands are known. They run the stadium steps with kegs of Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin in backpacks for more than three hours, but even more impressive are their indefatigable smiles.
“The pretty ones make more money,” Nao said. “Some of them have been discovered and became models or actresses. If they work for the Giants, they’re on television all the time.”
The Giants are Japan’s oldest and most beloved team. They’ve won 30 Japan League championships since the circuit was created in 1936. The Giants are also Japan’s most despised team, and my friends Nao and Katsura, historians in non-baseball life, love to hate them. Nao’s team is the Hiroshima Toyo Carp — her late father was from Hiroshima — while Katsura adores the Hanshin Tigers, the Giants’ archrivals, who play near Osaka. During the game, she frequently checked her phone for Tigers updates. Her love affair with the Tigers had not prevented her from marrying a devotee of the Chunichi Dragons, the team in Nagoya. Their intermarriage produced a son, now 14, who has chosen the Tigers.
“He’s a good boy,” Katsura said with the unmistakable tone of a victor.
Other good boys sat throughout the section. They wore school uniforms and filed down the aisles to their seats with the correctness of parliamentarians shuffling into session. Despite their formal clothes and posture, they were having fun. But they were not just any students on a school trip. They were all survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident. The Swallows had brought them as special guests, and when they were announced on the P.A. between innings, the entire stadium, including the players, stood and cheered.
There was something quintessentially Japanese about the experience. The baseball stadium is where harmonious, courteous, rule-abiding Japan lets down its hair. Almost from the beginning, when an American missionary named Horace Wilson introduced the sport here in 1872, Japan adopted baseball as its own. As one Japanese writer put it, “If the game hadn’t already been invented in America, it would have been invented in Japan.” But the ballpark here serves other purposes, too: It is a cultural inheritance transmitted through bloodlines, a meeting spot, and, as I would discover soon enough, a place of emotional refuge.
Day 2: Osaka-Koshien
My friend Shutaro Suzuki, a devoted member of the Swallows’ fan club, insisted that I see Osaka’s team, the Hanshin Tigers. “They are the most crazy!” he told me. So I boarded the Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, west to Osaka. The train is state of the art, with airy compartments redolent of leather that offer an ideal vantage from which to watch the landscape of coastlines, forests, and mountains streak past.
The Tigers’ field, Koshien, has special meaning to Japan because it hosts a two-week, 49-team school tournament that, each year since 1915, has crowned a national champion. Tigers fans were certainly colorful, many in black and yellow, with tiger masks, tiger whiskers, tiger socks, and tiger tails. Some had dyed their hair with streaks of yellow. I took my seat in center field. No one around me spoke English, but once they saw I was an ally — as a matter of baseball-travel policy, I always root for the home team — they offered me cold chicken tempura and whiskey highballs, and high-fived and fist-bumped me. When the Tigers chased the opposing BayStars’ pitcher and the fans bid him sayonara with “Auld Lang Syne,” I sang along, even though everyone else was singing in Japanese.
Outside, I found Koshien’s monument to Babe Ruth, a plaque set in a block of stone mounted in a pavilion. Ruth played here while leading a legendary 1934 tour of American all-stars across Japan. It was a spectacular success and critical event in the history of Japanese ball, helping launch the country’s professional league two years later.
“Ruth was very important to Japan,” Robert K. Fitts, author of Banzai Babe Ruth, a superb history of the tour, told me. “He was the most popular athlete in the world. He was like Muhammad Ali. The Japanese considered amateur ball as pure, and professional as tainted. The Ruth tour showed it could be honorable. It also showed the economic potential.”
Japan was good for Ruth, too. His skills were in decline, his career drawing to a close. But in Japan, he magically found his swing, and his youth, again, mashing 13 home runs in 18 games. Crowds lined streets serenading, “Banzai Beibu Rusu!”
Ruth even shared his hosts’ fantasy that the tour would restore deteriorating U.S.-Japan relations. He returned to America full of optimism, his trunks packed with rare Japanese objets d’art. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor seven years later, he opened the windows of his apartment above New York’s Riverside Drive and pitched the Japanese treasures one by one onto the street below.
The disaffection was mutual. For the Japanese, banzai turned into a different kind of rallying cry. Their soldiers in Burma were said to have charged into battle screaming, “To hell with Babe Ruth!”
Day 3: Hiroshima
My next stop was Hiroshima, where the war ended when American bombers silenced those battle cries and really sent this Japanese city to hell. It is, somewhat incongruously, a cheerful place of 1.2 million people. It has wide, busy streets, pedestrian-only districts with fashionable boutiques, artsy cafés and teahouses, good restaurants, a red light district that has become somewhat standard in large Japanese cities, and an expansive public park along the Ota River with striking sculptures and statues recalling that it was here that, on the morning of August 6, 1945, in a hot flash of light, 140,000 lives were extinguished, with tens of thousands more perishing later.
Hiroshima’s team, the Toyo Carp, was off for the week, but I wanted to see the city, which had risen from the ashes, a revival in which baseball played a role. Even after the war, the Japanese never considered abandoning their American sport. On the contrary, they seemed to embrace it even more warmly. In 1946, the Japan Baseball League resumed play and, in 1949, announced an expansion from 8 teams to 12. Hiroshima wanted a squad, but the city was so devastated and impoverished that it couldn’t attract one of the corporate sponsors that typically fund Japanese teams. So its people raised a campaign, collecting public donations, and in 1950 fielded a team on their own. The city named the team for the abundant koi in the Ota River, but chose the English word, carp. Another name that was considered was the Atoms.
I visited the A-Bomb Dome, the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotional Hall near ground zero that somehow withstood the blast, before arriving at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The opening exhibit is a diorama of three figures — a woman, a girl, and a boy — their skin hanging like wax from their bones, an exact depiction of physical torment not even imagined by Dante. All of the exhibits were unspeakably sad, but perhaps none more so than the tricycle beloved by a 3-year-old rider who perished. His father, feeling the boy was too young to be left in the cemetery by himself, had buried him in his backyard with the tricycle. A dozen years later, when the boy’s remains were finally interred in a cemetery, the tricycle was moved to the museum.
“It’s a myth that people were vaporized,” a docent named Kumiko Seino told me matter-of-factly. “They were carbonized. Their bodies were burned black, like hard wood.” During the recovery, the Ota quickly filled with corpses. A lack of equipment made burial difficult; a lack of wood made cremation equally challenging.
Kumiko was one of the museum’s “memory keepers,” who share their experiences as hibakusha — survivors and children of survivors. One reason she began volunteering was that it pained her how often she met young Japanese who knew little about the bombing. “They think the bomb fell in an open park,” she said. “They don’t realize it was filled with people and it’s a park now because they were all destroyed.”
She took me to the Peace Bell and the Children’s Memorial and into the basement of a building where I had to put on a hard hat. A worker had survived here, protected by the concrete despite being only a little over 500 feet from ground zero. In one corner was a senbazuru, 1,000 origami cranes on string. It’s a way of lighting up the space and showing that people remember. Little else seems to have changed. A steel door is still canted on its hinges.
Kumiko walked me around the Peace Park, showing me different cenotaphs — monuments to families that once lived here. “Takada’s wife and children,” said one. “Takagi and his wife,” said another.
“Sometimes I feel I am coming to see my grandmother,” Kumiko told me. “I don’t like to come at night. Maybe there are ghosts.”
“Because they don’t go to heaven. They died so quickly they didn’t know they were dead.”
I don’t believe in ghosts myself, but in meeting Kumiko and others, it wasn’t hard to see how the living people here could be haunted. Hiroshima is full of people born after the war who were their parents’ second try at life. I encountered no bitterness; on the contrary, Kumiko was careful not to make visitors uncomfortable. What happened happened, there was no going back, and Hiroshima’s mission as a city has become to make sure it never happens anywhere else.
Later, I walked down a side street and slipped into a plain but appealing little restaurant. Two men signaled that a seat next to them at the counter was free. Hironabu and Hiroyuki, both 61, spoke limited English, but between hand gestures, nonverbal cues, and a translation app, we passed an evening of remarkably wide-ranging conversation. I bought them a round of shochu; they reciprocated with a round of chicken meatballs. I got a lesson in restaurant Japanese: Yaki means grill and tori means bird. To help me understand what I might be ordering, they patted body parts. Behind a glass panel, the chef-owner turned skewers over hot coals with the attention of a surgeon performing an organ transplant. Which, in a sense, was what he was doing.
“Kidneys?” I asked. “You have two?”
“No! One!” he said. “Shio kimo.”
I offered other possibilities — heart, stomach, intestines. “Oh, I know,” I said. “Liver!”
We ate atsu-age, thick cuts of deep-fried tofu, lotus root, and shiitake mushrooms. “Shiitake!” Hironabu said, and was overjoyed to learn we use the same word in English.
Their parents were survivors. Both men were born in 1955, 10 years after the event. Like Kumiko, they represented the city’s reissue, its rebirth, but neither of them had ever discussed it with his parents. It was just there in the background. There were other things to talk about.
“You play baseball?” Hironabu asked.
Yes, I told him, I played third base in high school.
“He,” Hiroyuki said, pointing to his mate, “center field. Me, I watch.”
“I was no good,” Hironabu confessed.
“Me neither,” I said.
“You know the Carp? They are the number-one team! The best team!”
We drank to that.
On the way back to the hotel, I stepped into a 7-Eleven, which had copy machines that also allow you to order and print baseball tickets. Everything was in Japanese, but it was easy to get a store clerk to help. The next day, I planned to go to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, the westernmost large island of the Japanese archipelago, to see another game.
Back in my room on the 10th floor of my hotel, I lay on my back and closed my eyes. A little later I felt myself swaying, and for a moment wondered if I’d drunk more than I’d realized. As the bed began to swing like a hammock, I gripped both sides of the mattress and held on until the earthquake passed.
Day 4: Fukuoka
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks can play indoors when they need to — the Yahuoku! Dome, completed in 1993, was Japan’s first retractable-roof stadium — so the one thing I hadn’t worried about was being rained out. I couldn’t have anticipated an earthquake. In fact, it was a whole series of earthquakes, dozens of them, foreshocks and aftershocks sandwiching the main event, 7.3 on the Richter scale, that I’d felt all the way back in Hiroshima. Dozens died, at least a thousand were injured, and many tens of thousands found themselves without shelter.
Further spasms buckled highways and bridges. But the trains to Fukuoka were still running, so I decided to stick to my plan. When I checked in to my hotel, I got evacuation instructions along with my keycard. TV reports showed emergency workers freeing trapped victims and carrying zipped yellow body bags. Officials spoke with tight, grim expressions.
The first game after the earthquake was canceled, but the second took place as scheduled. Waves of people came out, filling the stadium. I had expected some kind of pregame acknowledgment, a moment of silence at least, but at 1:00, the SoftBank Hawks unceremoniously took the field and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ first batter stepped to the plate.
The first seven innings featured some of the dullest, most error-ridden baseball I’d ever seen, as if after a tragedy of great magnitude, no one’s heart was really in it. Although the fan club in right field tried, even they had a certain forced feeling. Finally, with the listless Hawks down 7-3 and showing no signs of life, I decided to leave. I visited the Sadaharu Oh Museum, which celebrates the life and career of the man known as the Babe Ruth of Japan, and the team shop before catching the bus back to the city center. Somewhere along the way, I had the sudden feeling something was amiss. I patted my pockets and checked my satchel to confirm the loss. My Japan Rail Pass was gone. You could only buy it outside the country, and you needed to keep the physical pass on you. I was a bit ashamed to feel as aggrieved as I did given the devastating loss the people here had just suffered, but it was expensive, and I’d have to pay full fare to get back to Tokyo, so I decided to go back on the off chance I’d find it.
An hour had passed since I’d left when I got a taxi to go back, but the driver still had the game on his radio.
“The Hawks are still playing?” I asked.
He eyed me in the rearview mirror. “Tie,” he said. “Seven to seven.”
The Hawks had scored four times in the bottom of the ninth. I dashed back into the stadium, where the fans who’d stayed were on their feet waving rally towels and a team band banged taiko drums and blew horns as the teams slugged it out in extra innings. The Hawks were down to their last out in the bottom of the 12th (in Japan, games are declared a tie after 12 innings) when their 32-year-old outfielder Yuki Yoshimura, whose three-run pinch-hit homer in the ninth had evened the score, hit a walk-off blast to win the marathon contest.
Mic’d up in the outfield, Yoshimura addressed the fans. Japan calls these postgame exchanges the “hero of the game” interview. The whole place was silent as he spoke. A woman next to me translated, though I hardly needed her help.
“I know I’m just a baseball player, and we can’t do much,” Yoshimura said, “but we know the people of Kyushu are suffering and they won’t quit, and we were never going to quit, either.”
I admired him for being able to speak even more than for what he’d done in the game — though later, when a television reporter asked him a question, he covered his face in his palms and sobbed.
It put the loss of my rail pass in perspective. Still, after the stadium exploded fireworks that reverberated dreadfully under the closed dome, and after the fans performed the ritual of releasing oblong yellow balloons in the air, so symbolic of letting it all go, I decided to check the lost-and-found — because you never know.
And, this being Japan, someone had, of course, turned it in.
Originally published on Travelandleisure.com.
Todd Pitock’s last piece for the Post was “A Discouraging Word” (Argument, May/June 2017).
This article is featured in the March/April 2018 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
When Japan crossed the Manchurian border to invade China in 1937, it expected an easy conquest. But two year later, its army had fallen far behind schedule, and success was nowhere in sight.
“Japan has thrown her full military strength into China and has not been able to clinch a victory,” Hallett Abend reported. (“Japan Picks On Uncle Sam,” November 25, 1939) “Nor has she been able to make any profit from the venture. The expenditure of manpower and of money goes on and on, and seems destined to continue indefinitely. Japan cannot accept blame for this failure — some other power must be made a villain for the piece.”
The imperial Japanese government needed foreign enemies to remain in power Since the 1920s, it had become increasingly totalitarian, dedicated to growing its empire through military conquest. But its plans for conquest required a firm hold on power at home. By asserting that foreign governments were planning to conquer Japan, the government could keep the state in a permanent state of readiness. Foreign threats also justified suppressing democratic opponents in the government and forcing more of the population into military service.
Russia had been an attractive enemy. (The two countries had remained at odds since Japan had emerged as the surprise victor in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war.) The Soviet army in Siberia presented a constant threat to Japan’s armies just across the border in Manchuria. In 1938, the two countries had fought a battle over this border. When they clashed again in 1939, the Russians soundly defeated the Japanese who now kept a safe distance from the Soviet army.
Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in Asia, was a natural enemy. And now British interests in China were complicating Japan’s attempt to sweep across the country. And in the Pacific, the British fleet was a serious threat to Japan’s navy.
In 1939, the Japanese identified a new enemy. That year, the U.S. had revoked its 1911 trade agreement with Japan, hoping it could pressure Japan to end its China venture and scrap its New Order program for East Asia. “The abrogation of the trade treaty has scared and angered Japan,” Abend wrote. “She fears being cut off from her main sources for essential war supplies, and is dumfounded at the threat of having to lose her best market for her major export, silk.”
The war in Europe had already hurt Japan’s export market. With European nations busily arming themselves, Japan found it difficult to purchase weapons for its China venture. Meanwhile credit from European sources was drying up, which left the U.S. as its last source for resource. Japan’s reliance on American oil was a point of particular vulnerability. So the Tokyo government decided to push back at the U.S.
The Japanese press, which was strictly controlled by the Imperial government, began running stories about American aggression against Japan, hinting that the U.S. was planning to attack the islands.
“Uncle Sam is now regarded by the Japanese public as the big bad man of the world,” wrote Abend. “No mention is made of the two years of American official patience and forbearance, during which there were more than 600 flagrant violations of American rights and properties in China. The Japanese public has no knowledge of the fact that more than 600 American protests are on file in Tokyo, and that few of these cases have been adjusted. The list grows longer every week.”
Despite its anger at the rape of China, America continued trading with Japan. The U.S. had “overwhelming sympathy” for China, Abend wrote, but it remained committed to neutrality. And American businesses continued selling steel and oil to Japan’s forces.
Abend’s article concludes with an observation I’ve often found in articles of this time, all of which anticipate the climax of Japan’s opposition to the American presence in the Pacific. “only one thing … would drive America to a reluctant abandonment of that neutral attitude. This would be deliberate and intolerable provocation on the part of Japan herself. Common sense should lead Japan to reverse her anti-American campaign.”
As long as Japan could keep buying oil, it wouldn’t want common sense.
We knew Japan would declare war on us. We didn’t know when or how, but we knew why.
Ever since 1931, the U.S. had been pressuring Japan to withdraw the army it had sent to conquer Manchuria and, eventually, all of China. America had tried exerting diplomatic pressure, but to no avail. The Japanese Imperial Government’s primary goal was to become the conquering ruler of Asia.
When diplomacy didn’t work, President Roosevelt reduced, then ended American export of machinery to Japan. When that didn’t work, he stopped all sales of American oil. Even though its operations in China were running out of gas, Japan persisted. Finally the government froze Japanese assets in the U.S. Roosevelt knew how the Japanese would respond when he signed the order locking Japan’s wealth in American banks. “This means war,” he told his chief adviser.
Washington expected a declaration of war from Tokyo, to be quickly followed by an attack on a distant base. In late November, 1941, the Defense Department ordered every military base in the Pacific to remain at high alert because “hostile action” with Japan was possible at any moment.
No one anticipated that, within a week, Japan would launch a massive, long-planned attack on our fleet before it even declared war.
However, readers of the Post knew that Japan was desperate and audacious enough to try something like it. Since 1939, they’d read articles by the Asian correspondent Hallett Abend, who chronicled the rising militancy in Japan. In the Post of March 4, 1939, he wrote, “So Sorry for You,”which discussed Japan’s vast security and espionage networks and the growing recklessness of its military. In August, he told readers how much Japan was willing to gamble on conquering China:
Japan’s foreign gold reserve, which in 1925 totaled about 2,000,000,000 yen, is now entirely exhausted…the yen is so shaky that Americans, British, French, and Dutch banks in Shanghai will not accept Japanese currency.
If Japan can succeed in carrying out her plans for grab in China, she may become one of the richest nations in the world within a decade. But there will be only very small profits, or no profits at all, so long as the Chinese continue their military resistance.
In April of 1941, he exploded the comforting myth that the Japanese would never have an effective air force because they simply couldn’t fly.
Japanese mothers all carry their babies on their backs, you know. Heads wobble around so much in infancy that adult Japanese have no sense of balance.
Very interesting—but nonsense, of course. The story is typical of the dozens of old wives’ tales going the rounds about the congenital unfitness of the Japanese as aviators.
It is believed that the Air Military Academy trained more than 700 new pilots during 1940, with the probability of a much larger class this year.
The present strength of the army’s air force…[and] the navy’s…gives Japan around 6000 pilots.
In September of last year, [Japan] had upward of 4000 efficient war planes. Since then she has been turning out about 250 planes a month, so that by the end of February of this year, allowing deductions for losses in China, Nippon’s war air fleet topped 5,000 planes.
(“Yes, The Japanese Can Fly,” April 19, 1941)
In contrast, Abend admitted, there were no more than 7,000 military aircraft—and 40% of these were sluggish trainer planes.
Japan had planned on building several thousand more planes in 1941. However—
the shortage of alloy steels and the growing difficulty of importing machine tools has prevented this peak from being reached. The United States will sell Japan none.
As far back as 1939, Abend had given a surprisingly accurate picture of Japan’s attitude toward the U.S.
Japan is exasperated… She finds herself baffled and checked by the two things she fears most—the might of the American Navy in the Pacific, and the possibility of losing her vital trade with the United States. She must retain that trade at all costs. And she must not risk a collision with the American Navy. Yet, if she goes ahead and grabs everything she wants in the Far East, she will almost certainly risk trouble with our Navy.Japan has jockeyed herself into a position where it is almost necessary to have all or nothing. If she decides that the United States is the barrier to the coveted all, Japan is quite capable of provoking a war with us, just as an individual Japanese commits hara-kiri rather than confess to failure.
America has studiously remained scrupulously neutral during more than two years of the China Japanese hostilities, even though American sympathies have been overwhelmingly on the side of the Chinese. This neutrality has been carried to the extent of continuing a trade in war materials and supplies with Japan. There is only one thing that would drive America to a reluctant abandonment of the neutral attitude. This would be deliberate and intolerable provocation on the part of Japan herself.
(“Japan Picks On Uncle Sam,” November 25, 1939)
That “deliberate and intolerable” provocation arrived two years later, and left 2,402 Americans dead.
The next time an enemy struck at America, the fatalities—all civilians—reached 2,996. This new enemy, though, hid his intentions even better than did Imperial Japan.
Bring up the subject of Victory Over Japan Day (August 14), and you’re sure to start a discussion about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is often overlooked in discussing how World War II ended was how the war appeared to American soldiers preparing for an invasion of mainland Japan. Unaware of any atomic super-weapon, they were dreading the future.
Americans—both soldiers and civilians—were expecting a long, bloody campaign. A Post editorial from August observed—
“If you ask the average American how long he thinks the war in the Pacific will last, he is likely to reply, “If you’re asking me, my opinion is that we’d better get ready for a long war out there. All of us pay lip service to the idea that the country faces at least a year, and maybe more, of fighting before Japan accepts unconditional surrender.”
Our soldiers hadn’t been told that military planners were predicting the price of a successful invasion could be as high as a million casualties. However, they had all heard of what happened at Okinawa. There, between April and June, over 250,000 soldiers and civilians had died in a fierce, unrelenting firefight.
In his article, “What Japan Has Waiting For Us” [July 28, 1945], William McGaffin reported on the new tactics the Japanese army had developed.*
Because of its implications for the coming big show on the mainland of Japan, this duel of ours with disappearing cannon was closely watched by military strategists on our side and theirs too.
We did not ever have an easy time of it … It was a much tougher problem when the enemy opened up with several dozen [cannons] at once—mass firing. This is an American specialty. The Jap was not supposed to know how to do it. He never had done it before. He does not do it now as well as we, but too well, at that. The effect of two dozen shells exploding almost simultaneously in a single area—mass firing—is exceedingly more disastrous than two dozen shells arriving one by one over a period of time.
He kept his guns alive to harass us in spite of our overwhelming strength. He kept them alive by taking them into thousands of caves prepared against the day of invasion—caves like those presumably ready in the rugged regions of China und Japan.
The Japs are good at camouflage. Many a cave had a deceptively painted trap door. Sometimes it was impossible to detect such a gun position unless you had your glasses right on it when the trap door flopped open and the gun was rolled out.
Groupment Henderson, a mixed Marine and Army outfit specializing in counterbattery fire, made a rich haul one afternoon by accident. The air observer spotted a group of camouflaged light antiaircraft guns. Marine Lt. Col. F. P. Henderson, who commands the groupment, began giving the enemy pieces the treatment he had found most effective. Before going for “destruction,” with the 200-pound shells of his 8-inch howitzers, he ordered his Long Toms to ‘walk’ volleys of their 100-pounders around in the area.
This knocks off camouflage, opens up a target and gains a by-product of personnel casualties. The results, however, never were so astonishing as on this day. For when the camouflage was knocked off, seven more guns were laid bare—seven formidable 150-mms. The light anti-aircraft guns, insignificant game in comparison, were there to protect the precious 150’s. The colonel’s 8-inchers proceeded to knock off the seven big guns.
Each night new positions would be fixed. They were not always new guns. Often they were old ones moved to new places. Moving around was the only way the Jap could keep his guns alive.In the end, upward of an estimated 500 Japanese guns were knocked out on Okinawa. It took weeks to get them all.
The strain on troop morale was another new factor we had not encountered before. Our divisions on Okinawa never had been under shelling by heavy artillery. They stood up well, considering their greenness to this type of ordeal, but a percentage of battle neuroses—‘shell shocks’ we called them in the last war—inevitably developed. Many had to be evacuated.
On Okinawa, these now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t guns proved to be a definite new threat to an American invading force. It was defeated eventually. But thoughtful strategists are wondering: If he could do what he did on Okinawa, what must he have waiting for us in Japan or China?
He has tipped his hand now, showing us that he has large-caliber guns, that he knows how to mass-fire them and how to keep them alive indefinitely in caves.
And, though his air force and his fleet have been whittled down from their dangerous proportions, his big guns have hardly suffered at all. For he did not bring them out until Okinawa. It would seem a logical deduction that he has plenty waiting for us when we come into his homeland for the big show.
Military chroniclers of the future, perhaps, will see in Okinawa a sort of final testing ground of the Pacific, where new weapons and new ways of using them were tried and perfected for the great battles ahead. We shall need every bit of the experience we have gained here.
Okinawa proved to be a different sort of testing ground. We tested how well their defenses held up in the home islands and found them more deadly than we had expected.
Thankfully, we can only imagine how much more intense the fighting would have been had we invaded mainland Japan. On August 6 and 9 we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and the war, and the Japanese government surrendered. Because the invasion was cancelled, hundreds of thousands of GIs would return home. The cost to Japan was over 200,000 civilian deaths—a number that would probably have been small compared to the carnage of a lengthy invasion.
* Note: McGaffin uses the diminutive title “Japs” to indicate the soldiers of Imperial Japan. It was a term that was widely and thoughtlessly used in America before the war. It would have been hard, I suppose, for a reporter to write of the Pacific war without using a hateful term for the enemy. So I’ve decided to retain the term in historical context.