As I’ve stated many times, there’s long been a blind spot about the Asian Theater of World War II. You can stack the books written about Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan side by side, the former would dwarf the latter. When books do appear about Japan during World War II, they are usually about the front in the Pacific, or, less often, in the Chinese and Burma theaters. A notable exception is Japan At War: An Oral History. However, Osprey Publishing has recently released The Japanese Home Front 1937 – 1945, which aims to help fill that gap.
Written by Philipp Jowett, it’s a slim volume, only 64 pages, but packed with information. Jowett has written many books on this period, such as The Bitter Peace and Osprey’s Japan’s Asian Allies, and his expertise on this overlooked era is refreshing. As part of Osprey’s Elite series, it is divided mainly among the many different organizations that ruled Japan during the war.
Firstly, there were the police forces, which consisted of the regular police, the Keisatsu, and the Keibitai – translated as Police Defense Corps or Special Guard Unit. This latter group was a type of proto-SWAT, used to put down rebellions. Accompanying them were the Special Higher Police, the infamous “Thought Police” – the Tokko – who functioned as a Japanese Gestapo. And lastly, there was the Kempeitai, the Military Police. Although part of the Army, the Kempeitai exercised enormous control over the Japanese civilian population during the war.
There are also the fire departments, which, surprisingly, Japan lagged behind compared to other nations. This is strange, since Japan has long been plagued with fires, but only six major cities had full-time fire departments. Although Jowett, doesn’t mention it, these firefighting units were actually part of the existing police departments, and would not be separated until after World War II.
Then there was the Keibodan, the Civil Defense Corps. This volunteer organization was uniformed and meant to augment existing police and fire departments as auxiliary personnel. This organization is not to be confused with the Tonarigumi, the Neighborhood Associations, who mobilized the civilian populace at a local level.
There was also the women’s groups, namely the Great Japan Patriotic Women’s Association, who sent parcels of goods to soldiers at the front and the famous “thousand-stitch belts” meant to make a man impervious to bullets. Although women never served in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, some did wear the uniform of Red Cross nurses, or the Women’s Communication Corps. There was also the national uniform, the kokumin fuku, similar to the Army uniform, meant to obliterate selfish individualism and wasteful habits. The book also gives a brief account of the various civilian groups, usually patriotic organizations, that were being trained with bamboo spears to resist an approaching American invasion.
There are seven full-color illustrated plates, depicting the uniforms, people, and insignia of the Japanese home front. Adam Hook is a good artist, and the attention to detail in Osprey books is a major selling point. A good volume that can be read as a companion piece to Japan At War: An Oral History, in order to evoke what life was like on the Japanese home front during the tumultuous days of World War II.