In my pre-Indian film life, I was a history major. And in my real life and deepest most important places, I am the granddaughter of two WWII vets. So I want to write this post. Especially because, coming to Indian film with this background, I am constantly stopped short by how WWII was experienced differently in India, especially related to Japan.
There are two VJ days. And multiple VE days too. We think of historical events as having a beginning and an end, a date we memorize that is forever certain, but at the time things were happening, it wasn’t that clear. On August 15th, Japan surrendered. On September 2, the formal articles of surrender were signed on the USS Missouri. There’s even more than that, the surrender of Japan was announced on August 15th in Japan, but August 14th in the US because of the time zone difference. And of course, ever since the bombs were dropped, it was clear surrender was coming, we were just waiting for the word.
But there was a “VJ” day even at the time. People knew the war was almost over, knew it was coming, but when the announcement happened, it felt different. One of those shocks you think you are prepared for, but you never really are.
In my family, there are two VJ stories we tell again and again, one from each side. My mother’s mother was working at a summer camp. She was the only adult there with a couple dozen little kids, and two “big boys” (teenagers) to help out. The big boys were bored hanging with the little kids, so she gave them permission to ride their bikes into the little town for supplies, all by themselves, and then come straight back. And they didn’t come. She looked for them all day, and then it was dinner time, and then time to put the other kids to bed, and she stayed up by the fire trying to keep her eyes open because they still weren’t back. They finally arrived and she was FURIOUS. But before she could say anything, they came running up and told her it was VJ day! Japan had surrendered! The whole town went mad and they stayed all day celebrating.
And then there’s the other side, my father’s family story, which is so remarkable I kind of can’t believe it every time I hear it. My Grandpa was running bombing missions in the Pacific. There was a points system where, if you completed a certain number of missions, you would get leave to go back home. If you read WWII history, this is kind of a joke, because no one ever survived that many missions. They kept raising the numbers to make sure it was impossible. But my Grandpa did. He and his crew and his plane flew so many missions, and returned, that they actually qualified for home leave. That’s the first part that is hard to believe.
The next part is that Grandpa landed in America, home again, and promptly called up his parents’ house (where my Grandma was also living) to tell them “I’m home! Unbelievably! I have survived the war and a flight all the way across the Pacific in a plane too falling apart to be in active service and I made it here, to your loving arms!” and no one was in! He called again and again, getting madder and madder, no one picked up. You see, he had landed in America on VJ Day. His wife and parents and little sister were downtown, celebrating, and the phone was ringing in an empty house and Grandpa had no idea. Grandma never even felt bad about it either, it was one of the best days of her life, celebrating with the whole city, even if it meant her husband was calling and calling and no one was picking up.
That’s my story, that’s what VJ Day meant to my family. But the funny thing is, VJ day was the end of a world event, which means everyone in the world has their own story, and it means something different to everyone in the world. We are in the middle of another World Event now, and this is coming home to me more than ever.
In India, WWII was a complicated experience. Thousands of Indians fought and died in the war, that is unquestionable. The allies would not have won without the Indian troops. Many more thousands of refugees poured into India from all over Asia, started lives there, and are still part of the fabric of Indian society. And then there was the Quit India movement, which pushed for an unspoken promise that if India was “good” and fought this war correctly, they would be rewarded with their freedom. That was also part of it. The part that is hardest to understand if you are not from a 20th century colony is that some part of India also fought with the Nazis and the Japanese. Because when you have suffered under colonial rule and violence for decades, what the Nazis and Japanese were doing maybe didn’t seem that bad. But the thing is, it was. The Nazis and Japanese did things during WWII that were the worst in human history.
The end of WWII was different because the losers actually said “I was wrong”. That is why we have two VJ days. It wasn’t enough for Japan to surrender, we wanted them to sign a paper saying that this war was wrong. They did, and they stood by their word. Japan is such a happy peaceful place now, that it’s hard to remember what they were before. But truly, they were evil. Not just wrong, not just misguided, actually evil. And now they aren’t! And they weren’t before either really, I’m not an expert on Japanese history but I don’t remember any kind of “worst people EVER” story coming up again and again. Just somehow, for about ten years, the country went mad.
My Grandpa always complains that the Pacific doesn’t get as much attention as Europe, and he’s right, it doesn’t. The war in the Pacific went on much longer (Japan began invading China in 1931), and was almost equally brutal. Nothing in history can equal the Holocaust, but the Japanese POW camps and the Comfort Women official army policy are everything nightmares are made of. The camps had a death rate of 27% for European prisoners, soldiers survived through every means up to cannibalism. It was far worse for Chinese prisoners. At the end of the war, only 53 Chinese soldiers were found still alive. 53.
The Comfort Woman policy was official Japanese army policy. In order to maintain order and moral, women were captured, teenagers whenever possible (with the assumption they would be virgins and therefore not spread veneral disease to the soldiers), occasionally children, and set up in the designated “comfort stations”. Survivors report they were raped 20 to 30 times a day. Enlisted men were offered central Asian women, any European women captured were set aside for officers. The women were part of the moving army, in the documents they were listed as “units of war supplies”, moved from camp to camp with the troops. If they became pregnant, they were given forced abortions. When blood ran low, they were used to donate blood to troops. And in one instance, they were killed and eaten by soldiers cut off from food supplies. Historians vary in their estimates, but generally it is accepted that around 200,000 women were forced to be Comfort Women, and of these 2/3rds did not survive.
So VJ Day is important. This day, the September 2 day when the formal articles were signed, is when Japan began the process of admitting they were wrong and trying to do better. Not that they lost, but that they were wrong, from the start, they did terrible terrible things and need to be better. That is what I want to remember. That there was a moment when both sides of a war shook hands and said “let’s build a better world”.