A G.I.’s View of Occupied Japan

In one of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator, General Quintus turns to Maximus (Russell Crowe) and says:

People should know when they’re conquered.

In the autumn of 1945, the Empire of Japan knew it was conquered.

Seventy years ago, my father, Isamu “Sam” Saito, saw firsthand what a conquered people look like. They were not the screaming, banzai-charging soldiers of Okinawa, or buck-toothed, near-sighted savages seen in the movies, but a war-weary people who felt betrayed by their leaders and now were forced to accept their new role as a defeated nation.

Sam was part of an obscure group of the Military Intelligence Service the U.S. Army used in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Their job was to translate documents and interrogate Japanese prisoners. Most of his buddies fought in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. But because of his knack for the Japanese language, Sam was assigned to the MIS.

After assignments in the Philippines and Okinawa, he arrived in Tokyo in November of 1945. Sam was stationed at Tokyo’s Ueno railway depot. Since he was fluent in Japanese, he directed both U.S. military and Japanese civilian travelers to their designated trains, translated departure schedules and ensured the depot communication was accurate for both Japanese and English travelers.

Upon his arrival, Sam expected to see a flattened, burned out city filled with bitter and hostile people. Instead, he found a Tokyo that was already rebuilding. The city was amazingly clean. The burned out exteriors of many buildings were still standing, but other debris was quickly cleared away. Like a colony of ants, the Japanese busily swept up and hauled away the bomb and fire damage and opened the streets for traffic.

Likewise, Sam was unprepared for the reaction he received from the civilian population. The Japanese were angry at their political leaders for losing the war, and angry that they had such a bleak future. However towards their occupiers, they were indifferent. Sam found that the Japanese people were not friendly, but not frightened of them either. He never felt threatened. Sam carried a sidearm only because he handled the U.S. mail. Other allied soldiers had realized early in the occupation that they would not need to be armed.

A few Japanese were, however, curious why he, a Nisei (second generation Japanese-American), would serve his country even when most of the Japanese population were interned in camps for the war. But their curiosity never extended beyond seeing Sam as an oddity of nature rather than a traitor to his family. They did not have time for luxuries like debating cultural allegiances. They had families to feed and lives to rebuild.

Sam saw what most of America could not: a truly broken Japan. In the faces and eyes of its people, he could see the war was really over.