“I Was Determined to Die for the Emperor”
1. “A soldier must make loyalty his obligation.
2. A soldier must make propriety his way of life.
3. A soldier must highly esteem military valor.
4. A soldier must have a high regard for righteousness.
5. A soldier must live a simple life.”
THESE five expressions were the articles of an oath formulated to inspire those who were newly conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army. Senior officers would come every day to have each recruit recite the five articles under the threat of fist blows if not said correctly. Especially emphasized was unyielding loyalty to emperor and country.
I was conscripted in 1938, when Japan was in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45. On every occasion, we were infused with the idea that the war was holy and that just as the “divine wind” (kamikaze) swept away the Mongols when they attacked Japan in the late 13th century, the gods, or kami, of Japan would give us victory.
After the martial and “spiritual” training, we set out for the battlefield in 1939. My parents gave me a thousand-stitch belt to gird around my hips. It was made by having a thousand different persons sew a stitch of red thread as a prayer for victory and my continued good fortune in arms. Heading for China and bidding farewell to my country, I had mixed emotions. ‘This may be the last I see of my motherland,’ I thought. At the same time, I was determined to die for the emperor.
Wretched Conditions in China
During July 1939, in the violent heat peculiar to the Chinese mainland, we were engaged in a mopping-up operation in central China. I marched fully equipped with a 70-pound [30 kg] backpack but always wearing my thousand-stitch belt. By the end of a day’s march, some 25 miles [40 km], I was dragging my boot-sore feet. I broke the blisters with a sword and poured salicylic acid into them. The stabs of pain almost shot me up into the air! Yet I repeated such self-torture until the blisters turned into calluses and I no longer felt any pain.
Marching in the heat made me as dry as a bone. I would put brown water from a creek into a canteen, add bleaching powder, and quench my thirst. Any drink immediately became sweat, soaking my clothes and leaving white salt spots on my uniform. Soon I itched and felt pain all over my body. One day I unbuttoned my uniform and found lice creeping around and laying nits! I crushed them one by one, but there was no way I could beat the formidable odds. All of us had lice. So when we came to a creek, we jumped in to bathe. Everybody was covered with swollen red spots from louse bites. After bathing, we soaked our uniforms in boiling water to kill the vermin.
Later, I was transferred to division headquarters in Shanghai and became a noncommissioned payroll officer. My work as a paymaster was to keep the accounts for the troops and to take care of the cashbox. One day I saw two Chinese coolies trying to run away with it. I warned them, aimed my gun, and fired. They both died on the spot. Later in life this incident plagued my conscience for many years.
On the Way to Singapore
Late in 1941, fully equipped, we were given orders to board a ship. Nothing was said as to our destination. On arrival in Hong Kong, bicycles, tanks, and long-range guns were loaded. Gas masks and summer uniforms were issued, and we put out to sea again. A few days later, we were told: ‘We are set to wage scientific warfare of untold magnitude. Be sure now to leave a farewell note to your family.’ I wrote a final note to my parents, begging them to forgive me for having done nothing to fulfill my filial duty. I told them that I would be sacrificing my life for the emperor and dying for my country.
In the early morning of December 8, 1941, the same day that Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, we made an amphibious assault on the coast of Songkhla Province, Thailand, while it was still dark.* The sea was raging. A rope ladder swung from the mother ship. We had to climb down two thirds of its length and then jump into an assault boat, which was being tossed about like a leaf in the wind. And we did that with our heavy packs! The enemy bombed us, but our attack succeeded. Our advance through the jungle to Singapore began.
As paymaster, my major work during the maneuver was to secure provisions for the troops. We were to obtain these locally, as we could not rely on supplies from Japan. That meant that paymasters had to advance with the soldiers on the front, hunt down food stocks, and secure them for our use. Although I did not feel guilty about doing so at that time, it was no different from large-scale robbery.
Death Rather Than Surrender
During a fierce encounter at Alor Setar near the border between Thailand and Malaya, we found a huge storehouse full of food. I thought, ‘This wonderful news must be relayed to the Paymaster’s Office in the rear.’ I took off in an automobile seized from the British, with one of my men as the driver. We were driving cheerfully along until we turned a corner and saw a line of British tanks. We had strayed off course and found ourselves facing some 200 Indian and British soldiers! Was this our waterloo? If we could not force our way through, we would end up being ignominious captives. As Japanese soldiers, rather than live in disgrace as prisoners of war, we were determined to die. I aimed my pistol at the driver’s temple, and he had his drawn blade at my stomach. I ordered him to drive straight on. We zipped through a curtain of machine-gun bullets. Although unscathed, we were completely disoriented. We came to a dead end, left the vehicle, and started to walk through the jungle. Attacked by snakes and pursued by enemies, we struggled for several days to reach our troops. When we arrived we found that they had already written a report saying we were killed in battle.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, we saw many British prisoners of war. They stood in stark contrast to the Japanese soldiers to whom the thought of becoming a prisoner of war was dishonorable and disgraceful. The British were still optimistic and said that some day the tables would be turned. We ignored their words, as we were advancing with increased momentum.
The Capture of Singapore
Soon we faced the island of Singapore. Lining the shore were countless mines and barbed-wire fences. Concentrated fire of our long-range guns on a corner of the shore helped to establish a beachhead, and we landed.
Singapore is a relatively small island, but altogether, 160,000 soldiers fought on it. As we edged our way forward, we stumbled over the bodies of our dead comrades. The British feared our night attacks. Japanese Kesshitai (Determined to Die) suicide squads, each with about a dozen members, attacked in waves with their swords drawn. When a call went out for more volunteers, 10 out of 10 stepped forward. We thought it an honor to die for the emperor.
When we crossed Johor Strait from the Malay Peninsula in February 1942, we found that the enemy had aimed their vaunted Changi batteries away from us, thinking we would come from the open sea. However, once they were directed toward us, they were indeed formidable.
Shells from the enemy batteries made big holes in the road that lay ahead of us, making it impossible for military vehicles to advance. A dozen prisoners of war were ordered to stand around a hole. A firing squad with machine guns aimed at them and fired. Another dozen prisoners were told to throw the dead bodies into the hole and cover them with soil. With another series of machine-gun fire, they became the next road fill. The process continued until the road was completely restored. (It is now painful for me to recall some of the atrocities we committed, but they were part of the gruesome reality of that awful war.) By that time my conscience had been “marked . . . with a branding iron,” as it were, so hardened that I was not moved by any emotion at seeing this atrocity.—1 Timothy 4:2.
On February 15, 1942, a high-ranking British officer with a white flag came walking toward us with a few of his men. “That’s General Percival!” shouted a comrade. ‘We did it!’ I said to myself. The commander in chief of the British forces in Malaya had surrendered. I well remember witnessing this historical occasion. My confidence in the power of the Japanese gods of old was strengthened.
After we captured Singapore, I was sent to various places, including New Guinea. Then, in 1943, I received an order to return to Japan. I was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing my parents. However, our ship had to wait because of enemy submarines. By then the tide of the war was turning against us. I recalled what the British prisoners of war in Kuala Lumpur had told us. Yes, the tables were being turned.
Witnessing Tragedy in Hiroshima
When I finally landed in Japan, I clasped my hands in a prayer of gratitude to the gods and to Buddha. ‘It must have been the protective power of the thousand-stitch belt and the ancient gods that shielded me,’ I thought. As we were being discharged, the commander at the post ordered us to have children. “If you won’t have a family,” he said, “you are unpatriotic.” To carry out this commission, I was determined to get married. A relative arranged the marriage for me, and I took Hatsuko as my wife in December 1943.
I was serving as a prison guard on the outskirts of Hiroshima when an atom bomb blasted the city on August 6, 1945. Somebody had to go and help those in the ruins. “If any of you are willing to go with a do-or-die spirit, please gather yourselves together,” pleaded my supervisor. Although my wife was pregnant with our first child, my army-trained mentality urged me to go. We received headbands with the rising sun in the center and the characters reading Kesshitai.
Our mission was to rescue the prisoners in the Hiroshima prison. As we headed in that direction, we passed rivers clogged with dead bodies. Not being able to bear the heat from the blast, people had jumped into the rivers. When we arrived at the prison, we gave first aid to the prisoners and took them by truck to a hospital. Little did I realize that Katsuo Miura, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who maintained his Christian neutrality in Japan during the war, was in that prison at that time because of his religion.
Belief in the Gods Lost
A week later I was to report to the Paymaster’s Office of the Engineering Corps in Hiroshima. As I walked toward the car that would take me, a local school relayed a special broadcast through its community loudspeaker. It was the first time that the voice of Emperor Hirohito had been heard over the radio. I stood erect and listened to his announcement. Tears filled my eyes and left tracks on my cheeks. I felt as though I was being robbed of all strength. He said that he would be ‘enduring the unendurable.’ He would eat humble pie and surrender to the Allied Forces! The unforgivable word “surrender” on the lips of the god-emperor!
The “divine” wind never blew, and Japan, the “divine” land, was defeated. My confidence in emperor and country was shattered. Days drifted by with no aim and no hope. Thinking the true God was not among the gods that I had believed in, I knocked on the doors of various religions. However, all of them pandered to selfishness, featuring faith healings and greedy gain. I ended up believing in my own brand of religion. The ultimate goal of life, I concluded, was to show neighborly love through one’s work. As I dealt in bicycles, I tried to sell quality bicycles at reasonable prices and provide swift repair service in a kind manner. Work took the place that the gods had previously occupied in my heart.
Finding the True God
Early in 1959, when I was working in my shop, a couple visited me and offered the Watchtower and Awake! magazines. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they returned a few days later to encourage me to study the Bible. As I always wanted to know more about God, I readily agreed. I also invited my wife to join in the weekly study.
Eventually, I began to see that I had believed in something without any substance. I could now see the absurdity of having fervently devoted myself to someone who was not in a position to provide salvation. Psalm 146, verses 3 and 4, swept away any lingering attachment to the emperor that remained in my heart. It reads: “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs. His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” The unreserved loyalty I had given to emperor and country during the war was now to be directed to the great Universal Sovereign and the Originator of life, Jehovah God.
However, there was one thing that had been weighing heavily upon my heart. It was the bloodguilt I had incurred in the battles in China—and especially in Singapore. How could a bloodstained man like me serve the great Universal Sovereign? This dilemma was solved in 1960, when a circuit assembly was held in Iwakuni, where we lived. We gave lodging to missionary Adrian Thompson and his wife, Norrine, as he visited the city to preside over the assembly. I seized the opportunity to give vent to my innermost worries by relating my experiences in Singapore. “I have incurred much bloodguilt. Am I qualified to have divine approval?” I asked him. To that he just said: “You are walking the course of the first-century Roman officer Cornelius.” His words cleared the last reservation I had, and I was baptized the following day together with my wife.—Acts 10:1-48.
Joy of Loyally Serving the Most High God
What a joy it is to be able to serve the Grandest Personage in the universe, Jehovah, who surpasses all the other gods that I had served! And what a privilege it is to be able to participate in a spiritual fight as a soldier of Jesus Christ! (2 Timothy 2:3) I started to show my allegiance to God in my family. Soon after I was baptized, I overheard my father saying to my mother: ‘Tomiji won’t do an act of obeisance to the Buddhist altar, neither will he hold memorial services at our family grave anymore.’ You see, the Japanese consider it an expression of love when children hold annual memorial services to honor their parents. Hearing my father’s words impelled me to share the truth with him. He studied the Bible with me and was baptized in the fall of 1961, together with my daughter Eiko and my son, Akinobu. Masako, my youngest daughter, followed their example. My mother had her own religion and did not agree to study at first, but after several years, she also joined us in serving Jehovah.
In 1975, I joined my wife in the full-time ministry as a regular pioneer. Since then, I have been able to serve as a soldier of Jesus Christ on the congregation front. When I feel a little tired, I recall the zeal that I had in serving emperor and country and think to myself, ‘If I served emperor and country with that much devotion, how can I do less when serving the great Universal Sovereign?’ And I regain my power to continue. (Isaiah 40:29-31) I no longer serve any human under the compulsion of the five articles of the oath, but I am serving the Most High God, Jehovah, with heartfelt devotion based on accurate knowledge. He is worthy of our whole-souled loyalty.—As told by Tomiji Hironaka.
The Pearl Harbor attack took place on December 7, 1941, Hawaiian time, which was December 8 in Japan as well as in Thailand.
[Picture on page 15]
Tomiji Hironaka during the war
[Pictures on page 16]
Civil-defense workers fighting fires in the battle of Singapore
General Percival’s surrender to the Japanese
The Bettmann Archive
[Picture on page 17]
Hiroshima after the atom bomb fell in 1945
[Picture on page 18]
My wife and I with the book that changed our lives—the Bible