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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Words of War

Some young Japanese are striving to record the wartime memories of aging former combatants before they are forever lost to posterity


Staff writer

In among the familiar roll call of memorial services, television specials, peace ceremonies and other events in Japan planned to coincide with next month's 64th anniversary of the end of World War II, one stands out for its unlikely involvement of youth.

Hiromichi Nagatomi pictured with comrades in arms
At ease: Hiromichi Nagatomi (front row, center), who served with the Tokumu Kikan (Special Services Section) in China, pictured with comrades in arms. He is one of more than 200 ex-servicemen who 32-year-old Sinitirou Kumagai has interviewed. SINITIROU KUMAGAI

Made by a director in his 20s, a documentary film titled "Hana to Heitai" ("Flowers and Troops") will open at Image Forum in Shibuya, central Tokyo, and shortly after at other cinemas around the country.

The film comprises interviews with six former Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who opted, at war's end, not to return to the country for which they had fought and so many of their compatriots had died.

In most cases, after escaping from their defeated military units, or from prisoner-of-war camps, they eked out a living with local villagers before eventually settling down, acquiring in due course jobs, wives, children and then, in the fullness of time, grandchildren.

Fascinating, certainly; but what's really unusual about the film is that its director, Yojyu Matsubayashi, was in his 20s when he made it.

Interesting, too, is the fact that Matsubayashi is by no means an exception.

It turns out that, over the last few years, quite a few of his contemporaries have been reaching out to veterans of Japan's mid-20th-century military exploits.

Generation-wise, of course, these budding historians are the veterans' grandchildren, and as such they are likely the last people who have a chance to know and speak with them directly. Young enough to know very little of the war, they are also old enough to be able to ask.

As well as Matsubayashi, who is now 30, The Japan Times spoke to Sinitirou Kumagai.

For around 10 years, the 32-year-old has been recording the experiences of former soldiers who fought in China.

Then there is 31-year-old Naoko Jin, who has spent much of the last five years interviewing people who were on both sides of the fighting in the Philippines.

Intriguingly, though, none is particularly interested in using those battle tales for overtly moral or political ends. They are not out to administer parting condemnations for acts committed decades ago by the rapidly thinning ranks of their interviewees, nor do they want to pressure individuals into apologizing. Likewise, they do not marshal the testimonies they collect in an attempt to resist, for example, the current gradual watering down of Japan's war-renouncing Constitution.

No, these level-headed observers are simply interested in recording and preserving the kinds of first-hand experiences that no other Japanese alive today has had.

The old soldiers appreciate the nonjudgmental, nonconfrontational approach, and in many cases they feel comfortable enough to reveal more than they ever have before. The interviewers' genuine ignorance about what actually happened during the war also works in their favor, facilitating — necessitating, even — some extraordinarily frank exchanges.

But what else is motivating these young interviewers?

Two say that their experiences traveling in Asia set them on their current paths, after TV programs and the 1997 Asian financial meltdown helped make travel to the region both attractive and cheap in the late 1990s.

They got more than they bargained for. Talking to their Asian neighbors, the young travelers were made to realize for the first time that their own identities as Japanese were largely determined by a war about which they knew very little.

Matsubayashi, in particular, says his documentary film is an attempt to understand what exactly flashes across the mind of a Thai or a Filipino or a Chinese or a Korean, for example, when he utters the phrase: "I'm from Japan."

Meanwhile, several other factors have predisposed these members of a war-divorced generation to take an interest in soldiers' experiences.

All three mentioned the death in 1989 of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa), and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa's apology for military aggression issued in 1993 — both of which dominated TV screens at a time when they were young enough to be still formulating their own opinions.

Still, it's important not to get carried away in extrapolating broad generational trends. These are, after all, the experiences of just three young Japanese. And as Matsubayashi is quick to point out, he doesn't harbor great hopes that vast numbers of his contemporaries will come to see his film — not like they would a Hollywood blockbuster, anyway.

There are at least two public institutions in Japan engaged in collating the kinds of oral histories that Matsubayashi, Kumagai and Jin are amassing. The national government- funded Shokei-kan, in Tokyo's Kudanshita district, deals with the accounts of soldiers who became sick or wounded during the war; while Saitama Prefecture's Peace Museum of Saitama in Higashi-Matsuyama looks at wartime experiences in general, including those of soldiers in battle.

However, thanks to the efforts of concerned young Japanese such as Matsubayashi, Kumagai and Jin as well, the country now has an extra rich vein to tap if it feels the need to dig deeper into the experiences that its wartime generation was put through all those years ago.

Readers interested in learning more about wartime Japan are directed to The Japan Times' ongoing "Witness to War" series.


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