TOKYO – When dignitaries and guests gather on the remote island of Guadalcanal this week to commemorate the epic battle where Japan’s relentless advance in World War II was finally halted, one group will be conspicuous by their absence – the Japanese.
The battle for Guadalcanal began on Aug. 7, 1942, and lasted six horrific months. It turned the tide of the war in the Pacific and left a legacy of heroism and resolve for Americans that has endured for seven decades.
But the view from Japan is less clear. Wartime leaders suppressed news of the defeat. The atomic bombings and desperate fighting near the home islands late in the war have come to dominate the historical memory. The horror and sacrifice that Japanese troops endured on Guadalcanal appears little known or appreciated.
“Guadalcanal was a devastating defeat for the Japanese, but it is remembered almost not at all in Japan,” says M.G. Sheftall, a military historian and professor of culture and communication at Shizuoka University in Japan. “It was such an awful, dispiriting defeat for the Japanese — just mud and blood and filth and massacre. You can almost understand why they wouldn’t want to even think about it.”
Guadalcanal was Japan’s first defeat on land after an unbroken string of victories in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. More than 25,000 Japanese soldiers died on Guadalcanal’s beaches, dense jungles and steep ravines. Some 7,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines died, as well.
Conditions were appalling. Each side was short of food and supplies. Each suffered terribly from heat, exhaustion and tropical disease. Fighting was racially charged for both sides; prisoners were not easily taken and wounded were often shot where they lay. Combat seesawed on the ground, in the air and in the waters offshore.
Finally, at the end of a long supply line and unable to sustain the losses, the Japanese conceded defeat in early February 1943, and evacuated their remaining troops. With the loss of Guadalcanal and its key airfield, the Japanese also lost the initiative and began a long, tortured retreat that ended in final surrender 30 months later.
Maj. Gen. Kiyotake Kawaguchi, an infantry commander who survived the battle, said Guadalcanal was “the graveyard of the Japanese army.”
“What was most shocking for the Japanese, beyond the strategic significance of the defeat, was the destruction of the myth that when they finally got the chance to meet the Americans in large numbers in open battle – in ground combat – that the individualistic, materialist Westerners were just going to fold up,” says Sheftall, author of Blossoms in the Wind, an account of the Kamikazes in World War II. “When they found out the Americans could fight just as fiercely as the Japanese could – although in a very different way – it was a shock to them and I’m not sure they ever recovered.”
John Innes, a Guadalcanal resident and amateur historian who coordinates war-related activities for the Solomon Islands, says U.S. military teams continue to search Guadalcanal’s battlefields for remains. About 300 Americans, and a staggering 20,000 Japanese, are still listed as missing.
U.S. authorities attempt to identify all American remains and return them to their relatives. Remains of their former enemies are returned to Japanese authorities. Those remains are cremated in accordance with Shinto customs and are returned to Japan, but no attempt is made to identify them individually, Innes says.
This week, more than 100 dignitaries and guests from the United States and wartime allies are scheduled to mark the 70th anniversary with memorial services in and around Guadalcanal. The commandant of the Marine Corps will travel from Washington to lay a wreath at a sprawling monument dedicated to the allies in 1992, on the 50th anniversary. Warships from the United States, Australia and New Zealand will host activities offshore. A Marine Corps band and honor guard will travel from Okinawa, Japan.
No official participation from Japan is scheduled, according to Japan’s Ministry of Defense. Local authorities on Guadalcanal say they are unaware of any plans for private citizens from Japan to attend, either.
Innes says individuals and tour groups from the United States regularly visit Guadalcanal to tour the battlefields and pay respects to the dead, most often around the August 7 anniversary. Only one veteran is scheduled to attend this year — a 91-year-old survivor of an American destroyer that was sunk offshore.
A small, private monument to the Japanese war dead was built on Guadalcanal in the mid 1980s, and joint memorial services were held with U.S. and Japanese veterans in 1997 and 2002. Innes says that Japanese citizens occasionally visit the battlefields, but that U.S. and Japanese visitors rarely mix and that there are stark differences between the groups.
“With the Americans memorial events, it’s all pomp and ceremony. Bands, martial music, flags. Maybe a little feeling of pride,” he says. ‘But with the Japanese, it’s like being in a church. Very reflective. Sorrowful. You would not know it was (about) a war.”
Innes says that American visitors range from very young to very old. About a quarter of the visitors are vets and family members — though not so many vets anymore, as age and illness take their toll. The rest are history buffs.
“But when Japanese come,” says, Innes, “it’s only the veterans themselves or their immediate families – the sons and daughters. You do not get any war buffs. You do not get the next generation. It seems like the average Japanese just don’t want to remember.”