This is in the Wikipedia article on the Japanese flag – Nisshōki, or Hinomaru – and needs to be seen enlarged (bigger than a laptop screen). It was posted by Takato Marui from Osaka. The date is August 17 1939. It shows the “enrollment of my granduncle. The text of the sash says ‘Draftee from Kamisuwa’.”
Marui has more on Flickr. Suwa city is in Nagano prefecture.
The flag on the right shows its conventional design from 1870 to the present. On the left is the variant sun disc with sixteen red rays in a Siemens star formation which was used by the Imperial Japanese Army from 1870 to 1945 and, in a different form, the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1889 to ’45. To the dismay of all other East Asian countries, it was re-adopted for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in ’54.
Where is the conscript off to? Obviously, China. Japan had been, as Toynbee would have said, intoxicated by a string of victories. It had defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and Russia in 1905 and had been on the Allied side in the First World War. In 1931, it had occupied Manchuria and from there, in 1937, it had launched a full-scale invasion of China. The Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 was the largest-scale war in Asia in the twentieth century.
The Japanese had been drilled into a submission to ultranationalist causes. In war, their human feelings were suppressed further than war normally suppresses them. Spontaneity, and often even common sense, were sacrificed to strict performance of the soldier’s role. Relationship between the new ethos and the ethos of the samurai. Effect on soldiers of the propagation of myths of the Emperor and of Japan through State Shinto. The British who fought the Japanese in Burma and Malaya, or were enslaved by them, spoke more bitterly about their cruelty than their fellow-soldiers spoke about the Germans. They would not forgive them.
Despite the earlier victories – there would be many more in the early stages of the Pacific War – there is a conspicuous look of strain on most of the faces in the photograph. And, in fact, in 1939, things were no longer going well in China. The war seemed to have reached a stalemate. The Japanese were losing many men. They were fighting the Russians at the Manchurian border as well. It was expensive. They had started to meet the resistance of the Kuomintang, who were headquartered at Chongqing, with the repeated indiscriminate bombing of Chinese cities. The photograph was taken just on the eve of their unprecedented defeats at Changsha and at Guangxi.
It isn’t polite to write about a photograph some of whose subjects might still be living, but Mr Marui has placed it in the public domain. There could be many reasons for the expression on their faces. One might have expected such a send-off to be solemn (the Japanese tended to look solemn in photographs), but the faces are sombre and troubled. Toynbee would have told us that they betray not only a response to immediate events, but a “schism in the soul”. It was an ordeal to live in a society in which so many were required to kill. State Shinto and its causes opposed the calls of Buddhism and of common kindness. Perhaps they knew unconsciously that they were heading towards disaster. But the main subject of the picture looks as if he is already fighting. I am not sure that I would like to have met Mr Marui’s granduncle in the Malayan jungle.