Young boys have a fascination with war; a fascination with bravery and glory, with medals and uniforms. Since Hirohito took the throne, young boys were immersed in the beauty of war. They were taught the greatest glory was to die for the country and for God: the Emperor. They were taught when they fell their spirits would glow as deities in the Yasukuni shrine. It was for the young boys of Japan to fight the “Holy War” to free Asia from its European chains, and place Japan as the rightful leader in the east.
In less than a hundred years, what was once a feudal nation had modernized and joined Europe in the game of Imperialism. Japan moved from isolation to colonization taking Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria and parts of China. By the twentieth century it established itself as a major power. It was the only non-European nation of the Eight-Nation Alliance to suppress the Chinese Boxer Rebellion. In 1905 it defeated Russia, the first time in modern history for an Asian country to defeat a Caucasian power.
By the 1930’s Japan possessed, arguably one of the most powerful armies and most sophisticated navies in the world. As a nation, Japan moved to an increasingly militaristic stance, crushing any internal voices for peace or freedom.
In 1937, when Japan’s full scale war started with China, young men of twenty and older were being drafted to fight. The Japanese conscription laws passed in 1873 had many exemptions. It gave first born sons, students and people of wealth a path to buy their way out of servitude, leaving second and third sons of poor farmers to make a large percentage of the rank and file. As the need for manpower grew, boys as young as fifteen were called to active service. By the last year of the war the entire adult male population aged 15-60 and women from 17-40 were given bamboo spears and ordered to resist the coming American invasion.
Like all militaries, soldiers adopted mascots: animals and children being popular. Sometime during the war, a young boy was given a private’s uniform and served as a mascot with his dog. When the mascot was old enough, he would be promoted from a boy to a man and serve not as a good luck charm, but as a soldier, expected to fight to the end with the pure heart of the “100 Million” and die like a “Shattered Jewel”.
The Japanese military perpetrated unspeakable horrors upon the people they subjugated. They in turn suffered heavily. Twenty percent of sailors and one in four soldiers died in the war, around 1.7 to 2 million men in the name of the Emperor.
Most of them did not meet the glorious death on the battlefield they were taught to strive for. The majority of Japan’s youth did not die as cherry blossoms falling to earth, sixty percent of the dead met death from disease and starvation; their lives tossed away like petals in the wind. By September of 1945, the war in the Pacific had consumed the lives of thirty five million people.
Perhaps the young boy in the picture survived the war, or maybe he died a shattered jewel like so many others. Perhaps he was reunited with his family, or became like 123,510 other children in Japan after the war, orphaned and homeless.
The picture offers no clues. It remains a silent reminder of a moment in time; a boy and his dog caught up somewhere in the echoes of war.