Sixty years after the war--What can young Japanese generation do?

Naoko Jin

This year, 2005, marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It is said that three quarters of the current Japanese population were born after the war. I myself was born in 1978 and my mother was born after the war too. My father was born before the war but he belongs to the generation called “those who don’t know about the war.” When I think about this topic, I feel anxious whether we can tell the next generation about the war or not. 

Strictly speaking, however, I know about war.

We live in the information-oriented society so that we are exposed to endless information immediately through the Internet. When we turn on the TV, we can instantly get information with vivid visual images about war and conflict, which is breaking out all over the world. There are bookstores everywhere and most towns have a library. When we compare the amount of information, we have much more today than at the time of war. We are in a situation where we can’t say we do not know about war. Even though we have not experienced war, once we get information and use our imagination, it is possible to learn how cruel war was.

Because we are the generation born after war, isn’t it becoming an excuse to say, “We don’t know about the war” or “We don't recognize the war”? When I first thought of this, I was a high school student. A German friend of mine suddenly said, “I don’t want people to know that I am German because the Germans did cruel things in the past.”

I was so shocked that I couldn’t say a word. I never thought that my country’s past was my problem. The words of my friend had a big impact on me. A few years later, I was confronted with a situation that made me aware of the fact that I was Japanese.

It was the spring of 2000 when I was a university student and visited the Philippines with some other students. “I didn’t want to see any Japanese. Why did you come to the Philippines?” An old lady came up to us bawling and her thin body was shaking. She was married in 1942 but the next year, her husband was captured by Japanese soldiers and never came back. His body had not been found and she had anger and hatred toward the Japanese from the bottom of her heart for 58 years. We could do nothing but try not to cry in front of the woman who was showing her anger with her entire body and crying very hard.

Our aim of visiting the Philippines was not just leisure, but to learn the truth about the past and to build a friendship. Therefore, at the guide and advice of Tsuyoshi Amemiya (a professor emeritus of Aoyamagakuin University), we learned about the past between the Philippines and Japan before visiting and we talked thoroughly about what our responsibility was for the past. During our discussion, there were many times when students had to ask themselves, “Why do we have to apologize?  We are the generation who don’t know the war. Why do we have to feel indebted?” However, when we stepped into the Philippines and came face to face with the victims of the war, all the arguments made no sense in front of them. We were thrust into the fact that we were more Japanese than we had ever been conscious of. 

Inevitably, we were seen as “that Japanese.” Though it was rare that the Filipinos would open their hearts, there were thousands of cruel stories all over the Philippines. At the restaurant where we dropped in, in the geepny (a popular vehicle in the Philippines) we got on accidentally, people were all living in earnest with the wounds they got from the war which had not yet healed. A woman told us, “I didn’t want to see any Japanese.” A high school girl said, “I thought the Japanese people are an awful race before I met you.” We were genuine Japanese and we could not ever hide or run away from this fact.

Japanese youth visiting the Philippines

Since then I came to think that even if we didn’t experience war, we have to be conscious that we were treated and seen as Japanese when we stepped out of our home country. Obviously, if we don’t have this kind of experience it is very difficult to realize this. But we live in an international society where no one could say, “I don’t know about the war my country fought,” “I do not relate to it” or “I didn’t learn in school.”

“What can I do as a member of the young generation?”

I thought that I should confront “the past”, and accept the damage of the ex-Japanese soldiers and would like to spread their thoughts. After visiting the Philippines, I looked up some materials and data about the war and came to know that some ex-Japanese soldiers regretted what they had done. I heard from a friend that a man was talking in delirium about his atrocity until he died at a home for the aged. I decided that I would like to bring video messages of ex-Japanese soldiers who regretted their actions to the Philippines where people still have anger and hatred toward Japanese people.

However, it is very hard for ex-Japanese soldiers to speak of their “heart wounds” to a member of the younger generation like me. These days, I am continuing to interview ex-soldiers that had joined the war in the Philippines. Their response variesWhen I mentioned the Japanese responsibility for the war, one of them suddenly raised his voice even though he was talking calmly before. "You say that it was an invasion but on the other hand the Philippines became independent as a result of the war.” He kept talking about the good sides of the Japanese army with passion. When he talked generally, he finally seemed to come to himself and said, “All human beings are nice. It is a war that makes people bad.He murmured with a gloomy face. They were victimizers, but at the same time, can it be said that they were also victims of their own government? It was painful to watch him as he justified the war.

On the other hand, there was an ex-solider who said, “We Japanese did a bad thing. We should admit it.” He added, “But most of the soldiers never say that they killed someone. They don’t even tell the history. We have to admit what we have done.” As he said, most of the ex-soldiers in Japan seem to bury their experience of war.

Furthermore, when someone tries to speak out, their family members prevent him from talking. In one case, soon after I sent a letter to ask for an interview I got a reply from an ex-soldier’s daughter saying, “Please leave my dad alone.” For those who survived the war, made a living and raised a family, war is a dark experience that they would rather forget. And they sometimes never even talk to their family about it. In this case it seems that the daughter was sympathizing with her father. But it couldn’t be said that this is always the best way.

People sometimes release themselves from their actions by confronting their horrible past. One method to cure someone who has suffered mentally is to speak out about his or her experience. Sometimes speaking about their traumatic experience to others will heal their wounds. I wish that soldiers who don’t talk about the past faults would confront their history.

There was one common thing that most of the ex-soldiers who I interviewed said, “I don’t want anyone to have an experience like me.” Most of them indicated that they had an abnormal state of mind during the war. By talking to a member of the younger generation like me, one of them gradually changed his attitude. At first, he insisted that the Japanese army was right, but then he started talking about the ambivalence he was feeling. I cannot stop hoping that ex-soldiers, who were victims as well, will confront their past and live at peace for the rest of their lives.

Although it has been 60 years since the end of World War II, politicians who don’t know about the war like Prime Minister Koizumi still worship at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine and say that an apology has already been made. It is the same as a quarrel with friends, however. If a friend is still hurting from our action, we keep offering our apologies until he or she is convinced that we are genuinely sorry. And this attitude will build a true friendship. In my view, this is the natural way if we are really considering the feelings of others. 

As a young Japanese person, I would like to seriously accept the history of our war and take it as “My problem” and I would like to build friendships with other countries. When there is no one who experienced the war left, we, “the generation who don’t know about the war,” are the ones who keep talking about the war. I would like to listen to the voice of people who have experienced war to be a bridge of peace. If the reason for war were to make economic progress or to get resources for a particular country, I would rather aim for a future that is sustainable where there is no struggle and no need for war. For the younger generation, I would like to make steady efforts.

Ms. Jin with Filipino Children