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Missing persons: how postwar Japan used radio to save itself

Tokyo, 1945

Tokyo, 1945 (wikipedia)

I am reading John W. Dower’s wonderful book, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. One of the tome’s many virtues is that it reminds us how crucial radio was to Japan’s reconstruction process. Close to three million people were dead and many Japanese cities almost completely destroyed when Emperor Hirohito went to the airwaves on August 15, 1945 to announce his nation’s surrender to the Allies.

Dower begins the book by describing one Japanese woman’s experience listening to Hirohito over the air:

“The villages had gathered around the single local radio over which the single state-run station was received. Reception was poor. Static crackled around the emperor’s words, and the words themselves were difficult to grasp. The emperor’s voice was high pitched and his enunciation stilted. He did not speak in colloquial Japanese, but in a highly formal language studded with ornamental classical phrases. Aihara was just exchanging puzzled glances with others in the crowd when a man who had recently arrived from bombed-out Tokyo spoke up—almost, she recalled, as if to himself. ‘This means,’ he whispered, ‘that Japan has lost’.”

“Aihara felt all strength drain from her body,” Dower’s narrative continues. “Before she knew what happened she found herself laying face down on the ground. The emperor’s voice was gone, but the radio droned on.”

As hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers returned from China, Korea, and elsewhere, many discovered that their families were gone—obliterated in the Allied aerial fire bombings. Others had no idea where their relatives were. So starting in January 1946, a radio program called Returnee News offered updates on the whereabouts of incoming soldiers and their families. The popularity of the show was such that an expanded version called Missing Persons was launched in June.

“Almost immediately, the station was inundated with four to five hundred written inquiries a day in addition to dozens of phone calls,” Dower writes. By the late summer, Missing Persons aired twice a day, five days a week. Most heart wrenching of all was a segment titled “Who Am I?”—reserved for helping returning veterans who were experienced extreme disorientation.

Radio was crucial to Japan during these years. Most Japanese households with radios kept them on for around five hours each day, Dower estimates. Given that the country’s whole political system was being reorganized, public affairs shows were very popular. These included a very frank program about the war titled Truth Box. It received over 1,000 letters a week. Political candidates spent so much time over the airwaves that a poll taken in 1949 indicated the most voters “chose candidates by radio.”

But through the 1950s, the struggle to reunite families continued. Around half of the missives and inquiries that Missing Persons announced received some kind of reply, helping thousands of Japanese find their loved ones. The show broadcast until March 31, 1962, when it was finally discontinued.


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