Navy aircraft mechanic Kuniyoshi Takimoto watched as Japanese planes roared off the aircraft carrier Hiryu to attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
The shock assault 75 years ago this Wednesday in Hawaii sparked patriotic celebration in Japan but left Takimoto feeling uneasy.
“I wondered if such a poor country would be all right fighting such a big one,” the former real estate agent, now 95 and one of the few Japanese participants still alive, told AFP at his home in Osaka.
This attack brought America into World War II — though it was already well underway for Europe, and China.
This year’s anniversary comes after President Barack Obama’s visit in May to Hiroshima, the Japanese city pulverized by a US atomic bomb in the closing days of the conflict.
Japan’s Pearl Harbor blitz fired up resolve in the US, with president Franklin Roosevelt declaring the day would “live in infamy.”
“What you see in kamikaze movies never happened on aircraft carriers. We had to do our jobs, rolling the dice against death”
“It was just a start … and more or less a deceptive attack,” Takimoto said, stressing that given its surprise nature some success was virtually guaranteed.
He and other crew members were stunned when first informed of the mission after their flotilla departed toward Hawaii.
Reaching an area 460 kilometers (285 miles) from target, the first wave of some 180 planes — including nimble Zero fighters — roared off the Hiryu and other carriers, followed later by a second swarm.
‘Rolling the dice’
Pilots and mechanics were phlegmatic throughout, as aircraft took off one by one minus any special rituals or even “banzai” cheers.
“What you see in kamikaze movies never happened on aircraft carriers,” Takimoto said firmly. “We had to do our jobs, rolling the dice against death.”
Despite his misgivings about the risks of attacking the US, Takimoto was proud to support the pilots. “We built relations of trust that went beyond words,” he said.
Japan also attacked the Philippines, Hong Kong, Guam, Singapore, Malaya, Burma and the Dutch East Indies, in one fell swoop, overturning what had seemed an eternal Western colonial order.
But despite such initial success, the tide was fated to quickly turn — confirming Takimoto’s fears. In June 1942, at the epic Battle of Midway, a US aerial blitz engulfed the Hiryu in massive flames.
A thousand crew members died, while 500 survivors, including Takimoto, were picked up by nearby Japanese ships, a scene he described as “hell.”
After Midway, US-led forces began to reconquer the Pacific, island by island, on battlefields in Guadalcanal, Saipan, the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Japan finally surrendered but only after the US dropped two atomic bombs — the second on Nagasaki — and the Soviet Union declared war.
Takimoto has no plans to personally commemorate Pearl Harbor this year, calling it just one of many momentous episodes in the war. For himself, he calls Midway “much more important.”
Indeed, Pearl Harbor draws little attention in Japan compared with annual events marking the atomic bombings — solemn, nationally televised memorials attended by the prime minister.
Among the few instances of remembrance are brief fireworks in Nagaoka, the hometown of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who masterminded the attack but was killed after the US targeted his plane in 1943.
In the US, meanwhile, every December 7 is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and the atomic bombing anniversaries are not officially commemorated.
Such historical tunnel vision on both sides is no surprise, says Yujin Yaguchi, professor of American cultural studies and Hawaiian history at the University of Tokyo.
“People more naturally remember getting a beating rather than meting one out,” Yaguchi says.
Both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima have mythic symbolism in the US and Japan, respectively, and are deeply intertwined in historical justifications.
Without Pearl Harbor there would have been no Hiroshima, goes one argument. Another is that a conventional attack on a military base is not the moral equivalent of targeting civilians with nuclear weapons.
“People more naturally remember getting a beating rather than meting one out”
Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting American leader, was generally well-received in Japan, and seemed to be an attempt at seeking common ground, though no apology was offered.
The trip sparked debate over whether nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should return the gesture and visit Pearl Harbor.
Yaguchi says Abe might do so “if he thinks it would strengthen the Japan-US alliance” though only after carefully weighing domestic sentiment. And while Abe appears unlikely to go this year, his wife Akie made a quiet offering of flowers and prayers at Pearl Harbor in August.
Takimoto, who has over the years denounced the war and the leaders who started it, said he believes Abe will go only if he thinks it likely to boost his popularity.