It’s the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day Today, Which Means Something Different to Everyone Reading This Post

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.

V-J-Day, 1945, on State Street, Chicago. Marshall Fields is on the left. |  Chicago photos, Chicago history, City photo
See this big crowd? That’s downtown Chicago and somewhere in there are my great grandparents, my Grandma, and my great aunt.

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.

Memphis Belle (1990) - IMDb
There was a whole movie about a European crew that qualified and went home, because it was such a weird unusual thing. And my Grandpa did it! Somehow! Just luck, I guess.

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.

Mahanayak': What happened when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose met Hitler? Read  this re-creation
Netaji Chandra Bose, a hero of the Indian freedom movement, traveled around making treaties with the Axis against England. He met and worked with Hitler, but was actively involved with the Japanese far more. I don’t think this is something that an American or European can ever accept, but we can accept that we can’t accept it, if you see what I mean, so long as from the other side Indians can accept that we won’t accept it. It’s just one of those things where people on either side of the story will never be able to meet but can still respect their differences.

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”.

Surrender of Japan - Wikipedia

17 thoughts on “It’s the 75th Anniversary of VJ Day Today, Which Means Something Different to Everyone Reading This Post

  1. I love to read Historical Fiction, and it was from one of those books that I actually learned that Japan had invaded India. How had I never known that??? It’s fascinating looking at war from differing perspectives. Although, I am still left with a deep-seated inability to understand war as a concept. What the hell is the point?

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    • I don’t know everything I should about the Pacific theater (Grandpa’s right, it just doesn’t get attention), but I know Japan invaded basically everywhere. They expanded so hard and so fast, as much as Germany in Europe. If you are up for another SSR movie, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy does a really good job of showing WWII in India. There were rebels working with the Japanese, rebels working against them, rebels still fighting the British, and of course the British presence and British Indian army fighting. Japan only invaded some little corners, but they were bombing all over the place.

      On Wed, Sep 2, 2020 at 2:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Technically Japan didn’t “invade” India.Rather it was Netaji who took help from Japanese forces and had occupied regions in Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar.No doubt Japan was a part of the sick political agenda of the Nazis.But Indians were fed up of capitalism and colonialism.This is why Gandhiji called out Netaji but didn’t exactly judge him,because Japanese could have helped to reduce the British influence in India but the long term impact would have been disastrous-we know the post war atrocities inflicted on enemy nations due to suspicion.It is pretty complicated,because we study the Independence struggle and World Wars separately,and praise and condemn Japan simultaneously.It is really weird because in India the Freedom struggle is interpreted the Indian way,and World Wars the British way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was lying in bed last night (this morning?) reading a historical fiction book about Morocco, and I was thinking about India and Japan and it really hit me – like *really really really* finally grasped the perspective bias of how we’re taught history. I know squat about Morocco. I had NO IDEA about Spain’s continued presence in Africa. The book I’m reading tells the story from the perspective of a female who doesn’t particularly like England, doesn’t want to be under her father’s thumb, and is hanging out with a French ex-pat involved in negotiations between the French and Algeria.

        I am now off to find more books written from unique perspectives. I need to know more!!

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        • And now I am trying to think of more books to recommend you! All I can think of is non-fiction, the book Emily just linked to in another comment about Bengali-African-Americans:

          On Sun, Sep 6, 2020 at 4:32 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I think the operative phrase here is: “And they stood by their word.” See, as a German, I came out of history class having heard quite a few times about the Treaty of Versailles. In that document, Germany accepted responsibility for World War I. But apparently, it was only on paper. The people didn’t really agree. And from what I can tell, historians seem to think that that’s part of what made the German people vulnerable to Hitler’s promises later on.

    So however important the articles of surrender with Japan may have been, I think the real work must have happened later. I really don’t know anything about the Asian side of things. When it comes to history, Germans are too busy wallowing in guilt and figuring out where we/our ancestors went wrong to get our head out of our backside and think about the rest of the world. I can only talk about what the European side of things looks like from where I stand: I think the world got lucky that the allies needed the Germans on their respective sides during the Cold War. In a nutshell, the British, French and Americans didn’t let my grandparents starve, so now they’re my friends. The Russians didn’t let my wife’s grandparents starve, so now they’re her friends.

    Okay, that’s just my rambling. Probably not what you were looking for, but part of the different possible perspectives on the topic.

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    • Marshall Plan, Woot-woot!!!! It’s part of American history too, just a little bit. Plus, we sent you Elvis, which was very nice of us. We did the same with Japan, I can’t remember if that was called “Marshall Plan” or something else.

      But yes, it is that accepting of responsibility, truly and sincerely with no take backs, that is so impressive to me about the aftermath of WWII. And it has lead to a close relationship between former enemies. I guess it is like any fight, you have to accept responsibility and sincerely apologize and then work towards building a new honest relationship.

      On Wed, Sep 2, 2020 at 2:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • I don’t know the history deeply, but there’s a novel called Tokyo Year Zero that gives a taste of what it was like in Japan in the immediate aftermath of the war, with all the societal structures that everything was built on blown up. It’s a detective novel. I didn’t love everything about the plot but the sense it gives you of the time and that moment leaves an impression. Suffice it to say that war is hell and what Japan rebuilt from was ashes.

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      • Thanks to Grandpa! The Dresden bombings in Germany are famous for their brutality, but my understanding is that Grandpa was doing equal damage all up and down Japan for that whole last year before he came home.

        On Wed, Sep 2, 2020 at 11:52 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I don’t know what the Articles of Surrender said, but it would be overstating to say that Japan has ever officially, publicly, said that the war was wrong and apologized. Their relations with the rest of East and Southeast Asia are pretty shaky because of this–not just because of this, but it doesn’t help. There are plenty of (mostly older) people who believe the entire war was America’s fault. I was waylaid by some older guy a while back who earnestly and at length, and very politely, told me ALL wars are America’s fault. I didn’t have the presence of mind to say “Dude. America is 250 years old and there were wars before then.” People still argue that the Comfort Women were actually professional prostitutes, like that would make it OK anyway. Japanese is peaceful now, but it’s because of prosperity/boomers dying out, and not because they went through any process of soul searching or admitting they were wrong. The events of WWII have been covered up in Japanese textbooks for a long time and I think a lot of Japanese people are simply not aware what happened, except that a very bad thing happened to Japan.

    On the other hand, there’s really a limit to which you can hold Japanese people who were alive at that time accountable. Censorship was so heavy that you had to act happy at the farewell dinner before your son, sometimes your 15-year old son, went off to war, or you’d be reported to the secret police by a neighbor for unpatriotism. They didn’t get any idea from the newspapers what was going on, and they couldn’t talk about it among themselves. I once read an account by a well-educated Japanese woman who was connected to some sort of public figure–I can’t remember exactly who she was but I think connected to the government in some way. On the 15th she ran into a gardener who told her the war had ended. As a black joke she said “Who won?” and he thought for a minute and said “Well,I guess we did.” Educated people could figure out that since they were eating grass and people were sending 15 year old boys and 60 year old men into battle that Japan wasn’t doing well, but other people believed what they were told, which was that Japan was winning. Then all of a sudden they had lost. People of that generation experienced the war as years of suffering like a natural disaster, and they were resentful when they were asked to apologize. Their own hardships seem much more immediate, of course, than what happened to people in Nanjing or Burma.

    So, I have some sympathy for that generation, but I do think Japan should apologize and give the comfort women, etc. compensation.

    Not all, or even most older people feel like that, I should say. Here’s an inspiring story: A long time ago an older gentleman approached me at a bus stop and asked if I were American, and said he had been a fighter pilot. I was a bit wary, but he gave me his version of VJ day: “Days before I went up in the plane we received word that the war was over. We had lost, and I was glad we had lost. Still, I could nothing for weeks afterward but lie in bed and cry.” He eventually got out of bed and made up his mind to spend his life working for peace, which he did by working with college students and helping young Japanese to meet with people from other cultures.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was hoping you would comment about the Japan side of things. Perhaps part of the reason there wasn’t the resentment and effort to recover “past glories” after the war is that people were just so exhausted? They were more excited about not starving than about getting angry with other countries?

      My German teacher in high school was a little girl in Germany during the war, part of an anti-Nazi family. And from what she told me, and what you are saying, Germany was weirdly a little lighter in control than Japan. Her father was a police officer who refused to join the SS, was demoted and forced into the army as a Private, and died. She and her family were starving in their small town, she had a sister who died of illness/starvation. But they could talk! She was a little kid, but she knew her family was against the SS, knew that was why her father had to join the army, knew they were against the government. They weren’t rebels or anything, just normal people who didn’t much like the folks in power, and that was an okay thing to say. At least in the privacy of your own home within your family.

      My Grandpa was in Saipon, like I said, and he was part of the firebombing missions. From his side of things, once LeMay came in, it was just brutal for the flyers, mission after mission, too little gas so there could be more weight saved for bombs, flying over 24 hours straight to reach the mainland, the very limits of everything in order to cause as much damage as possible. But if he was being driven hard, then the Japanese were driven even harder with the planes coming again and again. They also had part of the island fenced off, where the Japanese fighters were still fighting away. Something about what was going on just drove people without stopping. I don’t know what that was. No one was happy, I can’t imagine the fighters hiding in the jungle were happier there than they would have been in an American POW camp, my Grandpa was certainly not happy about flying mission after mission half asleep and running out of gas and trying not to think about the bombs they were dropping, but somehow that corner of the war was just all out and no one seemed to know how to stop it from either side.

      On Wed, Sep 2, 2020 at 10:55 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. This is only tangentially related, but this discussion has put my mind on that track again: What does it mean for our view of history and for our lives today that “nothing in history can equal the Holocaust”?

    I mean, those Japanese war crimes sound pretty bad. But somehow, my mind doesn’t really process that. War tends to bring out the worst in people and governments time and time again. And the US are still involved in wars, even Germany started sending out troops again. Does it mean that Japan wasn’t quite as evil as Germany, but maybe more evil than the colonial powers like Britain? Can you quantity evil?

    See, there is a very concrete dispute going on in the town where I work. It has a big memorial on the site of one of the first concentration camps, where visitors come from all over the world. However, after the concentration camp was disbanded, the Soviets used the same camp to imprison people they disliked. Granted, many of them were the former guards of the concentration camp, but enough innocents ended up there without trial and froze and starved and died of diseases. Pretty much your “normal” kind of totalitarian prison camp.

    So now the victims from this second camp feel overlooked. And I understand them. How dare I use a word like “normal” in that context! But somehow, by stressing the singularity of the Holocaust (as is certainly necessary), I think we’re inadvertently normalizing everything else. So I’m glad you’re challenging my subconscious “evil meter”.

    I think it’s especially tricky for Germans, because we’re really not in a position to call out any other country on the way they treat their minorities, their prisoners of war and the like. (And if we give more attention to the victims of the Soviet camp, we are taking it away from the Holocaust survivors. You just can’t do that.) But I think we also have a special responsibility. We have seen the extreme of what we are capable of – if not ourselves, then our (great)grandparents, definitely human beings like ourselves: We manage to stand by during the most gruesome of institutionalized mass murders. And that can’t mean that we look away for everything that’s not quite institutionalized mass murder. It has to mean that we become extra wary of any and all kinds of discrimination and violence – that we mind the slippery slope.

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    • Yes, exactly, what the Japanese did with Comfort Women and the POW camp conditions would be the worst war crimes of the 20th century, except that the Holocaust is worse. My Grandpa is right, the Pacific does get forgotten, and that’s wrong because it was similar total war and aggression and a whole culture around violence. But it’s right, because the Holocaust was worse.

      In America, we had the Japanese internment camps. Terrible thing we did. But can’t be compared with the Concentration Camps, or the Japanese POW camps, or the Soviet prisons later. But it’s still a terrible thing. In isolation, it is a terrible thing. And just because it wasn’t nearly as bad as what our enemies were doing doesn’t mean it is any more okay for us to have done it.

      One thing I do find good from the Holocaust is that the study of it gave us the terminology and definitions to retroactively recognize past evils. The Armenian Genocide wasn’t a Genocide until after WWII, if that makes sense, because before that it was just “that thing the Turks did that we can’t really understand or define”. But now it has a definition and can be talked about as a specific event. Even leads to fruitful discussions like “was the Irish potato famine a Genocide or a natural tragedy?” There may not be an answer yet, but it is good for us to ask the question and talk about it. There had to be something that big before people would be forced to look at it and identify it.

      In my class on post-colonial something or other in grad school, the teacher talked about the Holocaust as a blessing for the colonized people in a backwards way. It was a terrible thing, blatantly clearly evil. More importantly, it was visibly evil to all these soldiers from all these countries, regular people who saw the camps and then came home and talked about it. Similar camps (not quite as bad, but very similar) had been in place in colonies for decades, but they were hidden away, no one really saw them but the colonized people and the guards in charge. Now you had a definition and a reference, and suddenly the prison camps up and down Africa run by the various governments looked a lot worse. There was some writing by African writers afterwards basically saying “you looked the other way for a hundred years until these same practices you used on us were brought home to you”.

      On Thu, Sep 3, 2020 at 6:24 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. I didn’t exactly know what the Japanese did during the WWII till I read The Rice Mother. It opened my eyes for all the atrocities that happened in Asia.

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