A few impressions from Kiyosawa’s Diary of Darkness

Via Amazon

I’ve been reading A Diary of Darkness, kept by the Japanese journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi from 1942 until his death in 1945 (trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie). Oh, it’s so good.

The diary covers international affairs, political happenings, and daily life in Japan over the course of the Pacific / Greater East Asia War. Despite strict censorship enforced by the military government and the arrest of several of his intellectual friends for “thought crimes,” Kiyosawa bravely risked his own arrest to produce an honest account of the madness that descended on Japan during the war.

But it’s not just a typical diary either. Kiyosawa kept the journal on the hope that he could use its material to produce a history of Japanese international relations after the war. Thus, along with recording illuminating vignettes of everyday life, Kiyosawa managed to produce a real-time account of the collapse of the Japanese homefront with scholarly rigor as good or better than any secondary source for understanding Japan’s progress during the war.

In politics, Kiyosawa was a committed liberal – more than anything, he complains about the stultifying effect attacks on the freedom of speech had on Japanese society. It’s remarkable then that the journal survived, a powerful testament to the singular importance of that freedom in maintaining a peaceful and democratic society. I regret that he did not live long enough to see Japan become such a society. But hey, it’s nice that he tried.

So anyway, in lieu of something more substantial, here are three quick impressions:

Inflation and starvation

Reading the day-by-day diary struck me with a sense of time-scale that I never really understood from impersonal secondary sources on the war. The collapse of Japan’s food economy caused by the evisceration of its merchant marine by American submarines (thus preventing critical imports) took less than a year. In another year, even Japan’s own agricultural industry had collapsed. A scattering of entries on the issue:

On September 6 1943, Kiyosawa borrowed 12,000 yen — a considerable amount before the worst of war-time inflation – to invest in a food-producing business called Fuji Ice. On November 9, he describes a civilian rationing scheme of 1400 calories per day. On March 14 of the next year, he notes that everyone in the country complains of inadequate food and that most people, including himself, had lost weight. Plus, by then inflation had taken off, making it difficult to even buy food (three bags of rice cost 1,000 yen!). Then, on April 22, the government began to expropriate the pasture land owned by Fuji Ice. Two months later, on June 16, it had simply confiscated all of it. Kiyosawa expresses regret for the investment on July 1. But his financial health mattered less that his health-health by then: the next day, he writes that his friends worry that he has become “emaciated.” By March of 1945, he observes that most Japanese farmers have stopped working because the government steals their entire crop. With imports already gone and domestic production failing, the entire “emaciated” island nation would soon starve.

Censorship and desensitization, a calamity during the fire bombings

Ahead of the Tokyo fire bombings, Kiyosawa observed two interesting trends:

First, frequent American reconnaissance patrols and preliminary attacks did little to no damage but still triggered air raid alerts. This took a terrible psychological toll by interrupting sleep and desensitizing the populace to the warnings (Kiyosawa himself would often choose to sleep through them!). But when the real bombing fleets arrived several months later, many people did not take proper precautions because they had become accustomed to false alarms. This may have contributed to higher than necessary casualties.

Second, censorship of the damage caused by earlier bombing raids in the south meant that the Tokyo populace did not understand the danger posed by incendiary bombs. Military reporters would always describe previous raids dealing “light damage” to “a few buildings” and “great victories” won by the Japanese air defenses. For example, on January 2 1945, newspapers reported that Japan had destroyed a total of 550 B-29 bombers. But they probably lied — Kiyosawa observes that after a raid on January 29th, the Japanese press claimed 29 B-29s destroyed. However, a report in the international press claimed just four lost. Such dishonest, and inflated reporting may have created false sense of security that again encouraged a perverse complacency before the serious raids arrived.

Thus, when Operation Meetinghouse (the worst raid) struck on March 9, Kiyosawa and the rest of Tokyo’s population marveled at the uselessness of Japanese anti-aircraft fire while the city burned and thousands died. By exposing the lie of Japan’s invincibility to the nation’s largest city, the raids may have at last convinced many ordinary people that Japan had lost (and, as Kiyosawa wonders, the disillusioned may have included the emperor himself after he toured damaged districts). Oh, and even if Japan had shot down those 550 bombers? It wouldn’t have mattered: the United States built about 4,000 B-29s, more than Japan could ever have hoped to shoot down with is crippled aircraft industry.

Prophetic wit or dark irony?

On June 19, 1944, Kiyosawa asked the exasperated question “Where are the Japanese warships?” Well… at the bottom on the sea. He did not know that on that day and the next, Japan would lose three carriers and almost its entire naval air force in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (the famous “Mariana Turkey Shoot”). Censorship by the Navy Information Bureau meant that he never learned, either.

Anyway, I could have pulled a dozen interesting anecdotes from the diary. Kiyosawa’s notebook makes an excellent companion to understanding Japanese wartime history. Go check it out, maybe, or something.

One thought on “A few impressions from Kiyosawa’s Diary of Darkness

  1. Just wanted to add to Kiyosawa’s observations of how the Japanese reacted to early American flybys. The Japanese government (and, by extension, the Japanese public) severely underestimated both the sheer amount and destructiveness of the firebombs the Americans would later drop on them. This complacency and ignorance, combined with limited and ineffective firefighting supplies and training, is speculated to have resulted in far more Japanese casualties than might otherwise have been suffered when the firebombing campaign finally came into full swing. Many Japanese people in the cities felt falsely assured of their ability to weather American firebombs, convincing many that there was no urgent need to evacuate to the countryside.


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