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Listen to the Voices from the Sea: Writings of the Fallen Japanese Students (Kike Wadatsumi no Koe)
Compiled by Nihon Senbotsu Gakusei Kinen-Kai (Japan Memorial Society for the Students Killed in the War—Wadatsumi Society)
Translated by Midori Yamanouchi and Joseph L. Quinn
University of Scranton Press, 2000, 344 pages

Some Japanese student soldiers who wrote the letters, diaries, and poems included in this book entered the military upon graduation from elite universities, but many soldiers had their university studies cut short when in late 1943 the government eliminated the deferral of military service for students other than those in selected fields such as engineering and natural sciences. The Japanese book entitled Kike Wadatsumi no Koe (Listen to the Voices from the Sea), first published in 1949, had as its goal the promotion of peace so as to never repeat the tragedy of war. The committee that published the 1949 version of the book writes in the postscript of the "desperate voices that fill this entire book, the voices of those very finest of young men, whose eyes were shielded from the sight of the truth, who were abused, tyrannized, and killed" (p. 301). Listen to the Voices from the Sea is an English translation of the 1995 version of Kike Wadatsumi no Koe, with the first English translation (The Sun Goes Down published in 1956) being based on the 1949 version of the book.

Kike Wadatsumi no Koe became an instant success, with about a quarter million copies being sold in a short time after its publication in 1949 (p. 308). After many reprintings and a revised edition in 1959, over one and a half million copies had been sold through 1982 (p. 317). The book also was made into a successful commercial movie in 1950, and there was also a remake of the film in 1995 at the fifty-year anniversary of the end of World War II. Dower (1999, 199) argues that the letters in Kike Wadatsumi no Koe came close to imagery promoted by the wartime militarists even though the editors had no such intention:

These were pure young men. Their deaths were noble. They could not be faulted, certainly not criticized, for having offered no resistance to militarism. It was their deaths, rather than the deaths of those they might have killed, that commanded attention and were truly tragic. Indeed, there were no non-Japanese victims in this hermetic vision of the war. It was, moreover—and here the class bias of the academic compilers revealed itself—their literacy, their status as elite university students, that made these young men's deaths so worth noting. They were selected as figures to mourn because they wrote so well, but also because it was easy to imagine them as the future leaders of Japan.

Midori Yamanouchi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Scranton and co-translator of this book, took on the project of translating these letters "to give a human face to each of those fallen college/university students" and to show that special attack forces members were not "mindless, robot-like figures, who simply followed orders and died" (pp. vii-viii). Yamanouchi performed the initial translation of this book into English. Joseph Quinn, Professor of English at the same university, then rewrote the draft, and Yamanouchi reviewed the changes to ensure accuracy with the original meaning in Japanese. This thorough process resulted in an excellent translation of the original Japanese writings. The book's Acknowledgments section incorrectly states that Kike Wadatsumi no Koe had not been translated to English before (p. viii), since The Sun Goes Down, published in 1956, is an English translation of the same Japanese book.

Listen to the Voices from the Sea includes writings from young soldiers throughout the war and after Japan's defeat, with the earliest writing dated in 1938 and the latest in 1947. The book divides the posthumous manuscripts of the fallen students into three parts: (1) During the War Between Japan and China, (2) The Period of the Asian-Pacific War, and (3) Losing the War. Members of special attack corps wrote about one fifth of the letters in the book, but about half of these writings are dated before they entered the military or before they entered the special attack corps.

The letters of many soldiers, not just members of kamikaze special attack corps, are filled with reflections on death, as they realized that returning home alive was highly unlikely. The writings reflect the young men's great love of learning, and many men complain that they no longer have time to read books and reflect on them since military life demands all their time and energy. Several soldiers mention the brutality of the beatings received from superiors for even trivial mistakes.

Very few letters deal with romantic love with a spouse or girlfriend, but many young soldiers express their affection to family members, especially their mothers. The last letter of Ryoji Uehara, a kamikaze pilot, contains the clue on how to discover his hidden romantic interest. He tells his parents that inside a drawer, which he explains how to unlock, is a book he is leaving behind as he departs on his final mission. Inside the book is a will different than the one he sent from the Army air base. Letters are circled here and there throughout the book, and by tracing the letters throughout the book you can decipher the will he made out to his secret love (p. 238):

My dear Kyoko-chan. Good-bye. I was in love with you, but you were already engaged to marry someone else—so my heart was really in agony. And yet, when I thought of your happiness, I gave up the idea of whispering the words of love to you. All the same, however, I will always love you.

Although many letters reflect the intellectual musings and emotional turmoil of the student soldiers, some writings give very mundane details. For example, one Army soldier takes up several pages to explain the steps involved in taking care of horses used by his field artillery unit. The following short excerpt illustrates the minutiae in this soldier's writing (pp. 45-6):

The tools with which we care for them are: a brush, a metal comb, a wooden comb, an iron spatula, a tub for washing hooves, a can of hoof oil, and a few other things. The brush, metal comb, and spatula are kept inside a bag called "teire bukuro" (a grooming bag). The method of caring for a horse is as follows: first, you use your hands and knees to prop up the animal's leg and you turn a hoof upward; next the spatula is used to clean the hoof by removing all soil, horse dung, etc.; then the washing tub is filled with water and the hoof rubbed clean with a piece of cloth.

A letter can be difficult to understand when the reader does not know the background of the writer and the circumstances at the time the letter was written. Many writings included in this book begin and end abruptly, but they still convey the anguish and tragedy experienced by these Japanese student soldiers. The book does include each writer's basic biographical information (e.g., dates of birth and death, university and major, date entered military, rank), and the translators provide valuable explanatory notes on terms used in the writings.

Listen to the Voices from the Sea includes the postscripts of the 1949, 1959, 1982, and 1995 editions of Kike Wadatsumi no Koe, which provide fascinating background on the strong influence this book has had for several decades in Japan. With this outstanding English translation, Yamanouchi unquestionably succeeds in her goals to show that Japan's special attack forces members were not mindless, robot-like figures and to give a human face to each of these student soldiers.

Source Cited

Dower, John W. 1999. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W.W. Norton.