It was 1943, and Japan was losing World War II. As early as 1942, common citizens and newspapers were freely criticizing the government for its wartime decisions. The government found itself so dilapidated of supplies that it started sending conscripted soldiers and workers into the fields and factories with little to no training. The slogan "Luxury is the enemy" was deployed to exhort citizens to save and scrape in the name of an unlikely victory.

Much of this was lost on young student Matsumoto Shigeo. A student at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, Matsumoto arrived in the city at age 18, and at the urging of a friend of his father's, studied politics and economics, with an eye to becoming a banker.

Now 93 years old, Matsumoto relates in an amazing interview with Buzzfeed Japan how the war situation passed him by.


I wasn't very aware of the war. The news that came out of the movie theater was all about winning, winning. I never thought we'd lose.

That impression changed on October 20th, 1943, when the government of Japan retracted its deferment policy for college students. On October 21st, 70,000 students were ushered to the Meijijinguugaien Stadium in Tokyo, where General Toujou Hideki told them that their lives as students were over, and their lives as soldiers had begun. Similar collection events were held in 13 separate cities from October 21st through November 28th.

Students corralled by the government amassed at Meijijinguugaien Stadium.
Students corralled by the government amassed at Meijijinguugaien Stadium. (Source: Wikipedia)

For many soldiers, the experience was hellish and short-lived. One soldier, Shiosaki Hiroshi, who was assigned to the Navy, remembers being told by his commander, "You are all expendable." Some "soldiers" were sent on suicidal missions to bomb American planes before they took off from airfields in Saipan.

(JP) Link: "You Are All Expendable": The Deployed Students Who Prepared to Die..."Recovering is My Life's Work"

【70年目の夏 大戦の記憶】(4) 勇ましく、そして悲しみに満ちた言葉だった。スタンドでは6万5千人の女学生らが涙をぬぐい、銃剣を掲げた制服姿の男子学生らは泥だ…

Shiosaki, for his part, managed to survive the experience, and ended up entering a film studio now known as Touei, where he worked on the film Hakujaden, which was Japan's first ever anime.

Matsumoto Shigeo wasn't so fortunate. He worked at a factory in Tokyo for a while. Fly-bys of B-29 bombers drove home Japan's precarious position, and instilled a sense of dread in him and those around him.

On February 1945, Matsumoto was called up to the front. He endured three months of abusive training, being bloodied day and night. He was once beaten viciously by his superior officer when the man found a book that Matsumoto's friend from college had given him; the book was Letters of German Students Killed in the War, a collection of letters from students-turned-soldiers in World War I who had been killed in battle.

Matsumoto first saw battle as a member of a mortar division on August 11th - four days before the war was to end. His unit took up position in a hole dug in a mountain, from which it lobbed shells at the Soviet army.


In the end, I knew if we didn't kill them, they'd kill us. It wasn't a question of right or wrong; we had to put our all into killing them to escape from that fear.

But the Soviets overwhelmed them. Unit commanders called for 5 volunteers from each unit to grab a bomb, jump in a vehicle, and launch a tokkou (特攻) - a.k.a. a "kamikaze", or suicide, mission. Matsumoto stood like a stone, avoiding the commander's eyes for fear of being chosen. His troop managed to flee; out of ammo, they were reduced to hand to hand combat.

On August 15th, the Emperor of Japan gave his famous speech declaring Japan's surrender (known in Japanese as 玉音放送; gyokuon housou). But the war wasn't over for Matsumoto, who found himself doing whatever he could to scrape together food to survive:


The midsummer sun had probably been beating down for days. The body was swollen despite only being there three, four days. His face was purple, and the holes of his mouth and ears were drawn. I stuck my hands in his pockets, you see, and searched for rice or something.

When Soviet soldiers came, Matsumoto hid among the bodies of his fallen comrades. Later, while wandering the road, he found an encampment of Japanese soldiers. They had all been slaughtered.

Eventually Matsumoto was captured by Soviet forces and sent to Siberia, where his personal effects were stolen and he was forced to work in the freezing cold for three years. Out of 575,00 prisoners, some 55,000 perished from the ordeal.

Somehow, Matsumoto endured, and in 1948, he returned home. He got off of the train to meet his second oldest sister, who told him that their oldest sister, who had been like a mother to Matsumoto after his mother had died, had herself passed away from tuberculosis in his absence.

Matsumoto finished school at Waseda, and went to work for Toyota. Ever since the war, however, he's continued to struggle with a complex web of emotions: being an invader in Manchuria; being abandoned by his won country; not dying an "honorable death" in battle; and feeling isolated from his colleagues, most of whom never served.

He's since found purpose in telling others his story and sharing his experience. He's also found an outlet in his art, which he uses to render his vivid memories of his experience. But the war left its mark. At the end of the interview he told Buzzfeed: "I can't laugh from my heart anymore."

(JP) Link: A Youth Stolen by War. The 73-Year Conflict of a Student Soldier Who Saw "Hell"


It's estimated that some 100,000 students were recruited for the wartime effort from October 1943 onward, but the exact number can't be determined. Many of those who survived the war returned to school afterwards, and some played key roles in Japan's post-war recovery.