What color was the world at the time of World War II?

Some young Japanese say they have the impression that the entire world was colorless at that time, with everything in black and white.

That’s because, they say, they have only seen monochrome photographs and videos showing scenes of the war, such as air raids and battlefields.

“I thought wartime Japan was a completely different world from our society today,” said Non, a 24-year-old Japanese actress who voiced the heroine of the 2016 Japanese animated film “Kono Sekai no Katasumi-ni” (In This Corner of the World), which depicts Japanese people’s lives during wartime.

The anniversary of the end of the war, Aug. 15, has rolled around again.

Many members of the younger generation seem to feel uncomfortable when they hear older Japanese talk about such topics as pledges to renounce war or passing on the nation’s war experiences to future generations.

“Times are different now,” they often say.

Indeed, history doesn’t exactly repeat itself. Forms of warfare change with the times.

But there are common social factors underlying all kinds of war. Here lie the lessons of history.


In August 1937, one month after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Kafu Nagai, a Japanese writer, wrote his observations of life in Tokyo in his diary.

“As I see the lives of residents in Tokyo these days, they appear to be feeling considerable satisfaction and happiness without feeling any anxiety about the militarist politics, feeling no fear for the war. They rather seem to be delighted at the situation,” he wrote.

Japan posted a torrid economic growth of 23 percent that year, thanks to thriving military industries. The nation was in boom times.

Two years later, when Japan’s war with China had bogged down with the front expanded deep into the interior of China, Tokyo’s Ginza prime shopping district remained vibrant.

There were long lines of people in front of movie theaters. Fashion-conscious women enjoyed wearing short skirts. Trendy colors were crimson like the color of the flower of peony and soft bluish green, the color of bamboo. During the night, neon-lit streets in Ginza were thronged by tipsy corporate employees.

The war was only being fought overseas, far from Japan. Japanese living in cities those days were feeling as if the war had nothing to do with them, according to records of the times.

“Where is the war going on, anyway?” they asked nonchalantly.

It was too late when people realized that the war was on their doorstep.

"I found / The war / Standing in the depth / Of the corridor"

This is a short poem composed in that year by Hakusen Watanabe, an up-and-coming haiku poet at that time.

In the following year, he was arrested on suspicion of violating the public security preservation law because of his artistic activities.

As Watanabe observed accurately, the times were radically changing, with things that were normal mixed with those that were not.


The first notable trend that emerged as Japanese society came under the oppressive rule of the wartime militarist government, and that never reversed itself, was the rejection of diversity.

In Japan’s colonies, including Korea and Taiwan, as well as in Okinawa, the government carried out education programs aimed at integrating the areas into Japanese systems. In Japan’s mainland, academic freedom and freedom of speech were rapidly restricted through various developments including a harsh crackdown on the academic theory that the emperor was an organ of the state.

There were people who were not aware that they enjoyed their lives at the expense of these values and those who knew that but didn’t stand up for the values.

Later generations know what fate befell Japan in the following years.

It is easy to find and talk about past turning points from the perspective of history.

Let us imagine how future generations of Japanese will assess the current situation of this country.

Writer Kazutoshi Hando argues that since the start of its modernization, Japan has been undergoing a 40-year rise-and-fall cycle.

He says Japan has experienced 40-year periods of ups and downs alternately--the period of rise between the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate until the war with Russia, the subsequent period of decline that ended with Japan’s defeat in the war and the following period of economic expansion that ended with the bursting of the so-called bubble economy. Now, Japan is again in a period of decline, according to the writer.

“People forget what happened after 40 years or so,” Hando says. “There were few Japanese leaders during the periods of the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War who had a clear understanding of the misery of the Russo-Japanese War. The same is true with Japanese politicians today.”


Like many other scholars and researchers, Hando doesn’t like to casually say, “History repeats itself.”

That’s because he knows the complexity of history, which is made of countless small facts and coincidences as well as backgrounds behind them all.

Even so, a growing number of people well-versed in Japanese history have been warning in recent years that there are certain similarities between Japanese society today and that in the prewar period.

The new national security legislation and the “anti-conspiracy” law are often cited as symbols of the dangerous atmosphere. But they are not the only reasons to worry.

There are also some deeper trends that raise concerns, such as an excessive focus on the country’s own interests, disparaging comments about other countries and races, the notion that public order should be placed before the rights of individuals and intolerance toward criticism of the government’s ideas about national interests and values.

Hando warns that people’s ideas and spirits that make history don’t change much over time.

There are, of course, certain factors that set today’s Japan apart from its past self.

We have established and cherished a Constitution that guarantees the freedom of expression, thought and academic pursuit. We don’t have the military power to wage a war. More than anything, we, the people with whom resides sovereign power, have the power to choose our own government.

We need to be aware of the fact that we are living in a society whose history has continued from the Japan that suffered catastrophe 72 years ago. To prevent another national catastrophe, we need to monitor closely what is happening right now and try to stop dangerous movements, if any, by speaking clearly against them.

This is, we believe, the responsibility that citizens and the news media of today should fulfill for the future of this nation.

The sky above Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, was not monochrome. The nation was under a bright blue summer sky.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 15