Zama walk reveals Japan’s military history

by Stripes Japan

CAMP ZAMA - Like the proud heritage of the U.S. Army today, the Imperial Japanese Army was once rich with history and tradition. Few realize, however, that Camp Zama is a virtual museum for those who care to take note, housing many remnants of that bygone era.

Zama was the site of The Military Academy for the Senior Army Program, part of the school for military science studies and career officer training, from 1937 to 1945. Some of the original buildings remain today and can be identified by their dark-grey tile roofs.

In December 1937, the first graduation ceremony was held here, with the late Emperor Hirohito (now Emperor Showa) in attendance. On that day, the emperor named the campus at Zama as “Sobudai,” or “The Military Training Heights in Sagami.” The nearby train station, Sobudai-Mae (literally, Station in Front of Sobudai), bears the name to this day.

In honor of the emperor’s visit and his naming of the campus, a monument was erected. This was considered so important that the military took more than two years to select and carve just the right stone. Dedicated in August 1940 and bearing three characters for Sobudai that were inscribed in the hand of the Minister of the Army, General Gen Sugiyama, it stands just outside the church near the main gate today.

While the Sobudai monument represents a period of strength and pride for the Imperial Army, the smaller ones in front carry a sadder, yet nonetheless proud, tale. One of them has the Chinese character for sincerity chiseled on it. Dedicated in 1974 by the surviving members of the class that graduated in 1941, before the start of war with the U.S., it marks the fact that 953 of the 2,349 graduates died in action during the war or in Soviet concentration camps in Siberia.

A second stone nearby has the word for “Wa,” or harmony, inscribed on it, and was erected to mark the reunion of the last class to study at Sobudai. It is also intended to promote a harmonious relationship between the peoples of the world.

Throughout the base there are small markers commemorating the lives of those graduates who died fighting for their country as well as those who made it back home. One of the more prominent among them is one commemorating the Army Air graduates who initiated the “tai-atari” fighting method whose users would later be known as kamikaze. This class had the highest casualty rate. Out of 2,299 graduates, 1,071 died in the war.

A rectangular monument near the Torii Gate was erected by members of the last graduating class. Inscribed in Japanese is the pledge, “Were we blessed to be reborn seven times, we would gladly give our lives to our country each time.”

One of the most poignant markers is located beyond the Torii Gate. It is a plaque commemorating the graduates who pledged to serve the country with their lives. They signed their written promise in blood and buried it in the ground where the plaque now stands. Of the 1,134 Army Air graduates, 339 died, many in kamikaze attacks, and another 351 died in Southeast Asia.

Just down the road from the church, to the right of building 506 behind the Music Theater Workshop, is an air-raid shelter specially built for Emperor Hirohito’s use when he visited the academy. Now locked at both ends and in disrepair, the shelter offers a stark reminder of the danger people faced, even the emperor, from U.S. bombing missions toward the end of the war.

The Otakebi Torii, located between the Community Center and the Recreation Center, is a replica of the original wooden arch of the academy’s Shinto shrine, where the souls of alumni who died for the country were believed to be enshrined. The temple itself was razed in 1945 to prevent it from falling into U.S. hands.

A happier end came to the Sobudai monument, which was removed from its pedestal and buried nearby in 1945 before U.S. forces took over the academy. It remained hidden until it was restored to its original spot in 1947.

These are just a few of the remnants of Japan’s proud military past at Camp Zama that can offer some rare cultural insights.

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