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Recording Memories of the Departure of Students for the War Front:
An Interview Survey Conducted by Waseda University Archives

Mizuki Hiwa
Assistant Professor, Waseda University Archives

Many keywords associated with the Asia Pacific War and Japan’s defeat—“disabled veterans,” “war orphans” (like the protagonist in Ashita no Joe), “mothers on the quay” (mothers waiting for their sons to return from war), “Japanese orphans left behind in China”—are now in danger of being forgotten. The “departure of students for the war front” may be another memory that is fading away.

Departure of Students for the Front and Waseda

Send-off rally for students leaving for the front (October 1943, Totsuka Gymnasium)

First off, I will briefly outline the historical developments that led to the departure of students for the front and the University’s involvement in them.

Due to the prolongation of the Second Sino-Japanese War and insufficient military strength, the temporary exemption of students (including high school students) from military service that had been allowed under law was phased out, and war became an immediate problem for students.

In 1941, graduation dates were brought forward. Students scheduled to graduate in March 1942 had an early graduation in December 1941, followed by a physical examination and enlistment. From 1942 onward, the length of the course of study was shortened by six months, and graduation ceremonies were brought forward to be held every year in September. Then, in October 1943, the deferment of military service for liberal arts students was terminated, and approximately 4,500 Waseda University students were slated to go to war. A send-off rally for the departing students was held on October 15 at Totsuka Gymnasium (once the site of Abe Stadium, now the Center for Scholarly Information/Central Library), and a wartime atmosphere suddenly descended on the campus.

In addition, the draft age was lowered to 19 in December 1943. Many students became victims of a futile war, sent off to the battlefield in the middle of their studies or before they could even be admitted to a university.

Memories as Students, Experiences as Soldiers

Unfortunately, many veterans associated with the university who went to war when they were students and miraculously made it back have already passed away. Those still living are already approaching their nineties. Opportunities to listen to their invaluable voices are indeed limited.

Mr. Suetoshi Ohtagaki

Mr. Nobuo Shibasaki

In 2005, the Waseda University Archives started a full-scale interview survey of veterans who left for the war front when they were students or after they had graduated early. To date, we have interviewed a total of 33 alumni and other people associated with the university. In May 2013, Takehiko Ena (a student who left for the front in October 1943 and veteran of the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps) gave a lecture entitled “From Pen to Sword” in the Okuma Small Auditorium to a packed, standing-room-only audience. In addition, we have held four exhibitions on the themes of the “final Waseda-Keio match” and the departure of students for the front, including “Late 1943: The Final Waseda-Keio Baseball Game” (March 2005) and “From Pen to Sword―70 Years Since the Departure of Students for the Front” (March 2013).

In this article, I would like to discuss the content and significance of our most recent interviews. Mr. Suetoshi Ohtagaki (interviewed on November 4) was admitted to the School of Political Science and Economics, Senmon-bu (Junior College) in April 1943 and conscripted while still a student in November 1944. He related his invaluable experiences about what it was like to be a student at a university during the war, including memories of constant labor service with hardly any classes during his university days (which only lasted a little over a year and a half) and an anecdote about asking University President Tomio Nakano to sign his Japanese flag when he went to war. He left for military service in the Northern China region after November 1944 and witnessed Japan’s defeat in mainland China. He provided us with intriguing information about not only his experience in the war, but the withdrawal of troops to Beijing after Japan’s defeat, the process of repatriation from the mainland China (he was repatriated in December 1945), and the conditions in Japan after he returned. After Mr. Ohtagaki returned to Japan, he abandoned his plans to return to Waseda because of his financial situation.

Another interviewee, Nobuo Shibasaki (interviewed on November 20), was admitted to the School of Law, Senmon-bu (Junior College) in April 1941, graduated early in September 1943, and joined the military in December. We had a very interesting discussion about what the campus was like during wartime, including the content of the classes and the speeches University President Hozumi Tanaka delivered to the students, and how campus life was not solely focused on the war. He had some heartbreakingly tragic experiences as the prospect of defeat became more and more apparent: the many deaths of fellow shipmates he witnessed at the time of his voyage from the Philippines to the Korean Peninsula through 1945 after he started working as an escort ship cryptographer on operations to ship supplies to the Bonin Islands in 1944, the bitter disappointment he felt at not being able to do anything but watch as an escort ship his contemporary at the university boarded sank, and the sight of atomic bomb victims in Sasebo in August 1945.

I need to stop here due to space constraints, but the results of our interviews with Shigenobu Imoto (who took a leave of absence from the university and left for the front in 1943) and many other veterans who participated in the survey will be incorporated into Waseda Sesquicentennial History Series which we are currently compiling. I plan on further discussing the interviews in other publications, including successive issues of Transactions of Waseda University Archives.

Recording the Past is Our Obligation to the Students Who Served in the War

Our interview survey of those involved in the departure of students for the war front is an urgent task, and we don’t have a moment to waste. It is both the mission and obligation of the university, which “sent off” these students to the battlefield, to preserve as many of their “voices” as possible for future generations. I believe it is our duty to the students who went to war and never made it back to not only record the horrors of war and the hardships of leaving school for the front, but also think about the form our international community should take as we listen these “voices.”

*We are still looking for materials and information regarding the departure of students for the front and people willing to be interviewed. Please contact us at Waseda University Archives (Tel: +81-4-2451-1343, Coordinators: Masashi Mochizuki, Mizuki Hiwa).

Mizuki Hiwa
Assistant Professor, Waseda University Archives

Professor Hiwa assumed his current position after working as a part-time employee at the Kanagawa Prefectural Archives and an assistant at the Waseda University Archives. He completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University and withdrew before obtaining his degree in 2009. He received a Ph.D. in Literature in 2012. He specializes in the early modern and modern history of Japan, as well as the history of northern Japan. His forthcoming book The Ideology of Benevolent Rule and Ainu Governance [Jinsei Ideorogi to Ainu Tochi] is set to be published in January 2014.