On the 7th and 8th December 1941, Japanese pilots bombed Pearl Harbour, Singapore and Kota Bharu in Malaya within hours of each other. The 25th Army stormed Kota Bharu from three troop carriers escorted by destroyers and after intense fighting against the 8th Indian Infantry Brigade, the better equipped and more experienced Japanese forces took Kota Bharu the following day. In just over two months Singapore capitulated, as did the island of Sumatra by the end of March. Haro Tanaka was a young captain in the all-conquering 25th.

We thought we were invincible, mused Haro. We were samurai, from the blessed country fighting for the divine emperor. And we swept through South East Asia like a swarm of locusts. It was all so easy. 

The Japanese economy and appetite for raw materials grew quickly in the 1920s and 1930s while the military force and budget grew at an even faster pace. The United States of America, as well as many other nations, became increasingly alarmed at Japanese nationalism and military incursions. Trade embargoes were applied to reduce Japan’s access to the materials required for continued expansion.

From the Japanese perspective, war became inevitable. They needed a steady supply of raw materials, especially coal and oil, which had been affected by the trade embargoes. The colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands, as well as the other allies, were all pre-occupied in the desperate struggle against Germany and the Axis nations - so they were unprepared for the Japanese military might and alien warrior culture. Nor was the United States ready for war, let alone the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese on the other hand were battle hardened, well equipped, especially in the sea and air, but most of all possessed a zeal and fury in battle akin to fanaticism. The concept of Yamato-damashi, Japanese spirit, equipped each soldier with a strict code: never be captured, never break down and never surrender. To be a coward or to be captured was a disgrace to the family and the emperor. Each soldier was trained to fight to the death, to die before suffering dishonour. And this meant the Japanese had no respect for an enemy that surrendered.

As Haro prepared breakfast, he thought back to his initial experiences as a supervisor in a prisoner of war camp. The people of Sumatra welcomed us as liberators. After three hundred years of Dutch rule, we offered them the hope of freedom. As for the war prisoners, they had to work hard and obey. What did they expect after defeat and surrender?

We were masterful he mused. We weren’t even scared of the tigers in the jungle because we were Japanese warriors. And Haro recalled the pervasive smell of clove cigarettes, and the prayers from the mosques before sunrise and in the evening. He remembered the rattle and bell ringing of passing trolley vendors, the singsong tattle of the local language and the winsome young Indonesian ladies.

Apa kabar?” he had haltingly asked the young maiden drafted locally for the pleasure of the Japanese soldiers.

Saya baik,” the lady replied solemnly.

After the rather mechanical intercourse, Haro didn’t visit the comfort ladies again. He tried to talk to Indonesian women in the town of Palembang, but they were shy of foreigners, so culturally as well as linguistically, it was just too difficult.

Camp life was comfortable for the victors, with plentiful food including good rice, enough sake and even women for those so inclined. The occasional cruelty towards the prisoners was to be expected in warfare. They required discipline as a constant reminder not to be foolish. And those that were… and Haro reflected, as he did many times, on the young Dutch prisoner who was captured trying to escape.

The burning sun on the prisoner’s back as he knelt on the ground. The officer from Kempetai, thesecret police striding forward and the sneer as he raised his sword. Then the horror - the head rolling around the ground as the officer strode back to his waiting car.

At the time Haro treated the event as another war ritual, like the comfort women. And the experience blended into all the other distractions of the occupation. But after the Japanese surrender, stories spread throughout the country of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army. Increasing disrespect became evident for their barbarism, defeat or both. Where did we go wrong? He asked himself again.

Haro wandered the streets amidst the despair of people loitering with little to do. Hunger pervaded, as well as the haunting shock of what had happened to their country when the atomic bombs ended the war in August 1945. He stopped by a queue of people applying for work at the dockyards, which were overseen by the American occupation force.

“Konnichiwa, Tanaka-san,” greeted a well-dressed man in a suit.

“Do I know you?” Haro replied.

“Maybe you have forgotten. My name is Daiki Miyagi. I met you briefly with your father Kodo before the war. And now I see you are applying for work.”

“Yes it is difficult for returning soldiers. I have been looking for many weeks but so far nothing. Living on a government pension is not easy, Miyagi-san. Anyway, thank you for stopping.”

“Tanaka-san, I may be able to help you. Why don’t you walk with me to the teahouse so we can talk.”

They strolled through the busy streets, though one could not fail to notice the difference between the present and the years before the war. Where there had been purpose, unbridled confidence and supreme organisation, there now prevailed a mood of downcast listlessness evident in the people ambling by.

“Have you heard of the Yakuza?” Daiki asked. 

“Yes, a little before the war. Ronin by nature and a threat to our great society.”

“Well look around you, Tanaka-san,” Daiki replied. “We are no longer great, our leaders led us astray and now we have Americans running our affairs. The Yakuza retain many of the traditions of the samurai and we always look after our own. With your heritage and training, Haro, I could find you a good position inside my team.”

“Thank you, Miyagi-san, but I don’t think I’m interested. I will keep trying to find honourable work,” and Haro faced Daiki Miyagi. 

“As an ex army officer that may be difficult, Tanaka-san, and I wish you well. Here is my telephone number. Feel free to ring me if you change your mind.”

In the days that followed, Haro often reminisced on the glory days. He recalled his other posting in Sumatra, training Indonesian officers for the role of liberators once the war was over. While the Japanese didn’t promise independence for Indonesia, they took steps to keep the Indonesian elite on side, as the lower classes struggled with food shortages and occasional cruelty wrought by the occupying forces. Certainly the Japanese harboured no respect for the Dutch and they were enthusiastic in assisting the Indonesian officers. 

The Indonesian military students were brimming with anticipation and purpose. Haro enjoyed their spirit and intellect as well as the opportunity to impart his martial arts training to his fellow Asians. He felt needed and effective. Haro also savoured the experience of Indonesian food, music and culture 

He remembered Haruka, his closest friend in Sumatra, who moved in the political circles of the Indonesian hierarchy. And he recalled their dinner conversation after Japanese naval losses in the Pacific campaign.

“I won’t be returning to Japan if we lose this war,” declared Haruka.

“Why not? What will you do?”

“I am seeing a charming young local lady whose father has influence with the Indonesian leaders,” Haruka replied. I would rather stay here and support the Indonesians against the inevitable return of the Dutch and I don’t see a bright future in Japan as a returning officer of a defeated army. Besides, we might even face war crimes, apart from the disdain of our countrymen.”

Perhaps Haruka chose the right path, thought Haro. I wonder how his life is going now in Sumatra.

Over one thousand Japanese soldiers chose to remain in Indonesia, joining tens of thousands from other previously occupied countries who for various reasons, did not wish to return to Japan after the war. Many of the Japanese soldiers left behind in Indonesia lent valuable assistance in the ensuing fight for independence with the returning Dutch colonial forces.

Haro continued to seek work, but became increasingly disillusioned with post war Japan and despondent about his future. A few weeks later, he found the note handed to him by Daiki and rang the number. 

“Miyagi-san, I have been thinking about your offer and would like to know more.”

“Sure, let’s meet tomorrow for lunch and I will explain our expanding activities. You won’t be sorry, Tanaka-san.”

At a waterfront café the next day they enjoyed turtle soup, boiled rice, broiled sea bream and sweet pickled melon as Daiki explained the growing number and influence of the Yakuza, especially in the ports.

“The U.S. administrators fear our influence on the one hand, but see us as a nationalist force on the other, countering communist leanings from certain elements in our disillusioned society. Hence we are taking positions in the Kobe docks while continuing our gambling activities.”

“What role would I have?” Haro enquired.

“I need people who can command respect and lead, Tanaka-san, and I believe your experience will benefit my organisation. 

Daiki Miyagi was an ambitious gang leader reporting to a senior yakuza boss and was responsible for moving cargo to and from the docks.

“What sort of work would you have for me initially?”

“Your first assignment Haro would be to arrange for some dusty old fusuma panels to be moved from a castle in Osaka to the docks in Kobe for shipment to Hawai'i.”

“What is the nature of this transaction?” Haro probed further as he picked up some fish with his chopsticks. “Who owns the fusuma and what do we know about them?”

“The fusuma had been stored in the basement of Osaka castle for many years, after being displayed there before the war by the industrialist who owned them,” explained Daiki. “The Americans recently appropriated the castle for navy offices. In the clean out, the fusuma found their way onto the black market. One of our merchant clients bought eight of the fusuma panels then sold them to a Doni Yamaha, who was visiting Japan after internment in Hawai'i. Anyway, part of the deal with our client is to arrange the shipment to Lahaina in Hawai'i. And that’s where we fit in.”

“That doesn’t seem too complicated,” said Haro. “Why me?”

“We are busy, Tanaka-san. Strangely, the Yakuza are more involved in these sorts of operations than ever before. There are many shipments coming into the country and there are indications the Americans will help us to recover from the war. I need good men and this would be an interesting project for you.”

Daiki also reasoned it was a relatively clean assignment that would enable Haro to get his feet wet. Daiki would expose Haro to the dirtier areas of his operations when he was ready.

“Okay, Miyagi-san. I will join your team. When do you wish me to start?”

“As I said, Tanaka-san, I have much work going on and the sooner the better. I suggest you start on Monday. I will brief you about the fusuma shipment, introduce you to some of my team as well as the group of men who will work with you to collect, ship and load the fusuma cargo."