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Son of Japanese POW who survived Pearl Harbor attack reflects on post-WWII family history

Kiyoshi Sakamaki, eldest son of Kazuo Sakamaki, Japan's first prisoner of war during World War II, is seen talking about his father's collection of notes in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, on Nov. 10, 2021. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

TOKYO -- Dec. 8 (Dec. 7 local time in Hawaii) marks 80 years since the Imperial Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii brought the United States into World War II. The Mainichi Shimbun visited the family of the first Japanese prisoner of war, who was captured after being deployed on a midget submarine to assist the attack, and traced their post-war history.

    Kazuo Sakamaki, who died aged 81 in 1999, was a former naval officer and the only one of 10 sailors on a "Ko-hyoteki" (Type A target) class midget submarine to survive after it ran aground during the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The other nine were commemorated as war heroes, but the imperial military concealed Kazuo's existence as the crew's sole survivor who became a POW after capture by the U.S. military. Aside from two published collection of notes, Kazuo himself did not actively speak about his experience after the war. Out of respect for his wishes, his family has largely refused to talk to the press. But this year one family member decided to begin giving interviews.

    "I had no interest whatsoever in my father's war experiences," Kazuo's oldest son, Kiyoshi Sakamaki, 72, said in a gentle tone as our interview in early November began at his home in the central Japan city of Toyota in Aichi Prefecture.

    According to Kazuo's collection of notes, and as confirmed by Kiyoshi, he was born in 1918 in west Japan in what is now the city of Awa in Tokushima Prefecture, as the second-oldest son of eight siblings. He aspired to be a teacher, but went to a naval academy after Japan entered a war footing.

    This June 2019 photo provided by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) shows a midget submarine that was discovered by the U.S. Navy outside Pearl Harbor in 1960, as pictured in the MSDF First Service School in Etajima, Hiroshima Prefecture.

    In December 1941, the young Kazuo boarded one of five two-man midget submarines headed for Pearl Harbor on a mission to torpedo U.S. battleships. But he became unable to properly operate the submarine once its gyrocompass broke down, and it ran aground following an attack. It then washed ashore and was captured by the U.S. military.

    How was the family told at the time? Nobuo Matsubara, Kazuo's 88-year-old brother living the city of Tokushima, who was 15 years his junior, recalled he was playing in the street when a naval officer came to the house. The officer had come to inform the family that Kazuo was "killed in action" while concealing that he had been aboard the midget submarine.

    A while later, the officer paid visited again to say that it was unknown if Kazuo was dead or alive, and not to reveal this to others. The submarines' military achievements were later announced in March 1942. Photos of the nine sailors who died at Pearl Harbor were in the newspaper, and they were commemorated as war heroes. Although Matsubara felt it was odd there were nine people when submarines were supposed to hold two sailors each, he couldn't pursue the matter any further. Until the very end, the imperial Japanese military withheld from the family that Kazuo was the missing sailor captured by the enemy.

    Kazuo returned to the family in 1946, a year after World War II ended. Around this time, he made headlines as a Japanese POW captured immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He received numerous letters from strangers, with one even ordering him to "immediately perform ritual suicide and apologize to the public." The wartime belief that capture is shameful had not yet disappeared in the period immediately following the war.

    Kiyoshi Sakamaki, center, and his father Kazuo, right, are seen in this family photo provided by Kiyoshi.

    Kazuo later married and through the introduction of an acquaintance, began working at Toyota Motor Corp. In Kiyoshi's youth, TV broadcasters and newspaper reporters visited the house every Dec. 8. But Kazuo refused to talk to his family about the war. Kiyoshi recalls just one instance where he was handed his father's collection of notes, published in 1949, and told to "read this book if you want to know." They were too difficult for Kiyoshi at the time, and left mostly untouched.

    A turning point came in summer 2020. Matsubara's friend Hironobu Aoki, 80, a resident of the town of Minami, Tokushima Prefecture, reissued Kazuo's collection of notes with revisions to make them easier to read. Kiyoshi carefully read through his father's records for the first time.

    The notes showed an exchange including quotes such as "Please kill me," and, "You won't be killed." Kazuo reportedly had the conversation with a naval officer at the POW detention facility in Hawaii. Overwhelmed with shame as a prisoner of war, Kazuo initially sought death, but eventually resolved to live after overcoming a period of debilitating despair. After securing himself newspapers, a pencil and a dictionary, he devoted himself to studying English at the detention facility. Kiyoshi was moved by his change of heart.

    Kiyoshi wanted to do something to get many people to read his father's collection of notes. But he also remembered his father's words: "History must be conveyed accurately. The mass media will not always communicate matters accurately. It's even more absurd for other family members to give an account of events while pretending to know what went on." Though Kiyoshi felt uneasy going against his father's words, which his family honored for a long time, he decided after being encouraged by the reactions of people who read Kazuo's notes.

    An enhanced edition of them containing additional documents was published in August 2021. Kiyoshi also provided company newsletters dating back to Kazuo's time working for Toyota, as well as letters from his father and other material, in the hope they will help readers learn about Kazuo and his life as a businessman who committed himself to Japan's post-war recovery.

    Kazuo was known for being good at taking care of others, and founded a company badminton club. He used the English he studied at the detention camp to engage in work involving car exports, and served as president of Toyota's Brazil subsidiary. The father Kiyoshi knows was cheerful and fond of mahjong. But there were times when the family felt the presence of scars left by the war.

    Kazuo Sakamaki, center, is seen in this family photo provided by Kiyoshi Sakamaki.

    As a grade schooler, Kiyoshi had a homework assignment to explain his own name's origins. His father gave a stern look and only answered, "It's as the character reads, 'Isagiyoshi' (a Japanese term meaning 'graceful' or 'dignified')." Based on the kanji character for his name, Kiyoshi thought his father may have actually wanted to die with dignity at Pearl Harbor. Several years ago, with the memories lingering, Kiyoshi went to Aichi's neighboring prefecture of Mie to visit Kiyoshi Inagaki's bereaved family. He was aboard the same submarine as Kazuo, and died in his 20s. When he put his hands together in prayer in front of Inagaki's grave, it occurred to him there could be another meaning behind his name. While acknowledging it is just speculation, he said quietly: "I might be carrying the name of this comrade Kiyoshi."

    The cenotaphs of the nine sailors who were aboard the midget submarines are near Mitsukue Bay in the town of Ikata, Ehime Prefecture, where the crew trained behind closed doors. On Dec. 8, 2021, 80 years to the day since the Pearl Harbor attack, a new stone monument will be erected as a historic landmark. On the monument's ceramic panel will be a transferred image of all 10 sailors, including Kazuo, pictured together.

    Kiyoshi, who thought he would never set foot in the area again after visiting eight years ago, plans to attend the unveiling ceremony. He thinks his father will be pleased to reunite with his comrades after they parted many years ago.

    For more information on the reissued collection of Kazuo's notes, please contact Ishida Sokki on the phone at 088-625-0720 (in Japanese).

    A crowdfund has also been launched at to collect donations for creating the historical stone monument.

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, Tokyo City News Department)

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