Home > Asia-Pacific, Conflict & Security, History > Essential Ingredients of Truth: Soldiers’ Diaries in the History of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific

Essential Ingredients of Truth: Soldiers’ Diaries in the History of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific

Aaron William Moore writes in Japan Focus:

n the last decade, numerous film and print media treatments of the Second World War have focused on the “soldier’s perspective.” Because the wartime generation is now rapidly disappearing, postwar generations have become especially eager to know the war. In particular, there is a hunger to learn how it was experienced by ordinary servicemen—a focus popularized most effectively by historian John Keegan (and film directors such as Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola). Scholars and war history buffs alike seek “reliable” accounts of the war; presumably, the best histories of the war are those that rest on a firm foundation of the most “reliable” sources. Certainly, the larger historical narrative of the war is incomplete without adequate attention to the personal records that servicemen kept at the time, such as diaries and letters. Nevertheless, like any document, it is essential to pay close attention to the assumptions shared by the authors of these documents and their audiences today, especially regarding the “truth” such texts putatively contain. Invariably, issues of self-discipline, including self-censorship, as well as military discipline and direct external censorship, intrude.

Diary writing in Japan is a practice with a long and formidable history behind it, including notebooks (tebikae) composed by the warrior class, bureaucratic diaries (nisshi), literary diaries, and travel diaries. In the modern military context, Meiji era war reportage and field diaries (jinchu nikki / nisshi) were the most important precedents. Field diaries were potentially subject to peer and superior review, as they were in most, if not all, modern armies, and this practice (beginning in the early Meiji with “work diaries,” or sagyo nisshi) eventually gave way to a form of guided diary writing that permeated nearly every wing of the armed forces.

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