For post-war Japanese generations who took peace for granted, the conflict now raging in Ukraine has given many a new perspective on the cost of not being drawn into war and sacrifice. it takes to fight back.
Kentoku Kojima is perhaps a classic example of this changing mindset as young Japanese people begin to look at world events through a very different lens than their parents and grandparents.
Kojima, 27, grew up believing that war is not a solution to the world’s ills. He majored in Russian at university and saw a bright future ahead of him. For him, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the equivalent of being hit with a stun gun.
When he came across an online report about a Ukrainian mother whose son had been killed, Kojima broke down crying because he was the same age as the youngster. He was also deeply shocked by social media videos of war dead.
Kojima felt a desperate need to do something, and even though the government had issued a notice urging Japanese nationals not to travel to Ukraine, he quit his job and went there.
Kojima has been working as a volunteer in Kharkiv since May, delivering food to local residents who take shelter daily from artillery fire and aerial bombardment deep inside metro stations. The bombardment of the city is now a constant companion, and Kojima said only luck has kept him alive so far.
Going to Ukraine proved to be an epiphany for Kojima as it forced him to drastically change his way of thinking about war and made him realize why people were fighting back. He came to accept that he had never really thought about the difference between an invasion and a fight for survival.
Many other Japanese also took action after witnessing the Ukrainian people’s military resistance to the carnage.
Bunji Sunakawa, who won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Literature in 2021, is one such person. The 32-year-old is also a former member of the Self-Defense Forces.
When the Ukrainian Embassy in Japan posted a social media post in February seeking volunteer soldiers, Sunakawa quickly emailed him asking what he needed to do to enlist.
But the embassy axed the post within days, partly because the foreign ministry asked it to suspend the recruitment campaign.
Sunakawa never received a response from the embassy, but about 70 Japanese reportedly sent similar emails.
Meanwhile, Kojima’s feelings about the resistance are wavering again because a friend he made in Kyiv in May told him he was afraid of being drafted and sent to the front lines to die. .
Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country and required to fight if asked, but Kojima is determined to find a way to help his friend leave.
STUDENT ATTITUDES ARE ALSO CHANGING
The generation that succeeded Kojima and Sunakawa also finds itself forced to confront the question of war and peace, the price it entails and the legacy it leaves.
At a high school in Kanagawa prefecture, just southwest of Tokyo, 122 third-year students were given a questionnaire in July asking them, among other things, whether they thought Japan’s defense spending should be increased.
Fifty-nine percent of them said they were in favor of an increase in defense spending.
One student explained that she had always believed that war should be avoided at all costs, even if it meant giving in to the demands of the “enemy”.
But after watching footage of events in Ukraine, she said: “I can’t say ‘no’ to people who are fighting to protect their nation.”
This inevitably led her to reply that she was in favor of an increase in defense spending, which the government hopes to raise to around 2% of gross domestic product.
But one classmate felt differently because he had been taught in class that the days of trying to change the status quo through military force were a thing of the past.
Still, the youngster accepts that many of his classmates are in favor of increased defense spending since Russia shows no signs of letting up in its war that has been raging since February 24.
The student also said he felt he lived in a time when it was difficult to stand out from his peers and oppose increased defense spending.
Shinichi Yano, a high school Japanese history teacher who has also been deeply involved in peace education, said he has noticed a dramatic shift in his students’ perceptions of the issue.
“I often hear students express their concerns as they ride Japan with Ukraine under attack,” Yano said.
THE PERPLEXED WAR-AGE GENERATION
Shortly after the Russian invasion, Haruki Wada, 84, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, joined 12 other scholars of Russian history in issuing a statement calling on Russia and Ukraine to stop fights immediately.
The reaction to their request was not quite what they expected. Subsequent tweets were generally unsupportive of the statement.
“This completely ignores the will of the Ukrainian government and people (to fight to the end),” one tweet said.
Another said: “You should ask Russia to withdraw completely.
Wada’s anti-war stance stems from his childhood memories of hiding for safety in bombproof shelters. During the Vietnam War, he distributed leaflets opposing the fighting.
“Although we are sending the same message as in the past calling for an end to the war, it is not getting through now,” Wada said. “I feel a big gap with the rest of society.”
Akihiro Yamamoto, an associate professor of historical sociology at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies, has been a lifelong student of pacifism in postwar Japan.
He noted that past anti-war movements in Japan were motivated by two major points related to the wars waged by the United States. Members of the movements did not want Japan to aid its ally in the fighting or get involved in the fighting. This led to major anti-war movements during the wars in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.
This time around, the United States is not directly involved in the fighting in Ukraine.
“It’s hard for a massive anti-war movement to rise up in Japan because most people don’t think the nation will get involved in the fighting in Ukraine,” Yamamoto said.
He also noted that past anti-war movements stemmed primarily from the personal experiences of Japan’s wartime generation and their belief that war, in this country or elsewhere, should never again be fought. But such attitudes are difficult to pass on to future generations because the number of those who have lived through the horrors of conflict is rapidly dwindling.
(This article was written by Sotaro Hata, Kazuyuki Ito, Hiroaki Takeda, Takashi Ogawa, and Yosuke Watanabe.)