Japan is moving quietly, and with certainty, toward a time without any remaining survivors of World War II.
Those who were born before the end of the war now account for less than 20 percent of the entire population. Veterans’ associations and other groups are winding down their activities one after another.
The Japanese have been able to face up to a solemn feeling to their past for 71 years because survivors of those harsh times have always been in close vicinity.
Precisely because of their presence, the Japanese have perceived war as a shared and familiar experience, not as a distant event of history, through the use of the term, “postwar.”
We are left to wonder if memories and records of the war have been properly preserved to be carried on into a new age.
It is probably high time to check if we have the foundation for passing on lessons so that no abominations will be repeated either at home or abroad.
DIVERSITY OF FEELINGS ABOUT PAST
Masaichi Yuzawa gave a speech on July 23 in the capacity of a “living witness” at the Manmo Kaitaku Heiwa Kinenkan (Peace memorial museum on settlers to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia) in Achi, Nagano Prefecture.
Yuzawa, 86, was sent to Manchuria, or present-day northeast China, when he was 15 as a member of Japan’s “youth volunteer corps for the settlement of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.” The war ended soon after. A fellow boy used a gun to fight local Chinese who had come to seize food. The boy was shot dead by a Soviet soldier.
A large number of minors lost their lives in the frigid cold of internment camps. But Yuzawa survived, hired by a Chinese paper wholesaler whom he had met by chance.
“Don’t you resent the Chinese?” one visitor asked Yuzawa, who thereupon replied, “No. I am here because Chinese have saved me.”
Attacks by Soviet troops, assaults by local residents and mass suicides–the escape journeys of Japanese settlers left behind in Manchuria during the closing days of the war could not have been more harrowing. But those former settlers sometimes blurt out a sense of guilt about having usurped land from the Chinese.
If a chance encounter turned a foe into a friend, those who were assigned the role of aggressors had to bear unreasonable suffering. The war had as many faces as the number of people who lived through it. Lessons of history should be learned from a pool of that full diversity of memories.
PRESSING NEED FOR PRESERVING RECORDS
It should also not be forgotten that some continue to hold their tongues to this day.
Some have sealed up their memories out of a sense of guilt about having survived and out of consideration for their family members. Others are balking at the rough atmosphere of recent years, fearing they could be accused of denigrating Japan if they ever spoke up.
“So many people preface their accounts by saying that nobody had ever asked them any questions,” said Satoko Tadokoro of the Japan Veterans Video Archive Project, a Tokyo-based civil advocacy group that is archiving video testimonies given by former soldiers.
Those who were born and raised in the postwar period have to think twice about whether they are facing up squarely to the memories of those war survivors.
Who were conscripted or mobilized, and when, and who died in what circumstances, and where–records that document pieces of information like these must also be essential tools for learning about the real aspects of war.
But reams of official records worked out by local government offices were disposed of or went missing during the postwar process of mergers between local governments.
The Public Records and Archives Management Law, which took effect five years ago, set rules for the handling of records and stipulated that historical records should be transferred to the National Archives of Japan. The legislation finally put in place an organizational structure for allowing records to be preserved for posterity.
But there is a dearth of human resources for locating records and assessing their value. And the records are being preserved in a whole variety of states. Japan should train and develop experts, known as archivists in Western countries, who take charge of the entire process of archiving, including the collection, assessment, organization and preservation of records.
There is another barrier standing in the way. A number of researchers who asked to be given access to records have been turned away at the door for reasons of the protection of personal information.
Although information on the dead is not covered by legislation on personal data, officials have said that disclosing records on dead people could still have consequences for their surviving family members.
The Tokyo metropolitan government is also keeping its list of names of those who perished in air raids undisclosed.
“That would be a valuable source of information for learning about the full picture of the air raids and for finding out which factors meant life and death,” Masahiko Yamabe, a senior research fellow with the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, said with an embarrassed look.
There could be a more flexible response, depending on the content of the records, the purpose of the access being requested and other factors.
“We have the responsibility to inherit the past … and pass it on to the future,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserted last year in his statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Given that, his government should assist efforts to preserve memories and records of the war as assets to be passed on to the future. Doing so would also serve as a strong message to the rest of the world asserting that Japan is determined never to repeat its error.
LEARNING FROM CONTEMPORARY WARS
Japan has managed to remain at peace over the past 71 years, but the rest of the world, in the meantime, has continued to be torn by numerous wars.
It should never be forgotten that the ravages of war are not something of the past but continue to engender many tragedies to this day.
Refugees, in particular, represent sufferers of wars who are growing sharply in number in many corners of the globe.
The Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization, has continually organized sessions to have refugees living in Japan speak about their own experiences.
On one recent occasion, citizens listened to the accounts of a man who talked about the persecution he suffered as a member of an ethnic minority in his homeland of Myanmar and the hardships he had to undergo before having his refugee status recognized.
It is probably the duty of every citizen living in this age of globalization to recall lessons of the war waged by Japan and, at the same time, also give thought to the current state of the world, which continues to be plagued by unreasonable conflict.
What about turning to survivors of wars, at home or abroad, who live among us and listening to their accounts this summer?
Doing so would serve as a modest step for transcending generational and national borders to think about the folly of war and ensuring that peace will prevail tomorrow.