Remembering my father: My post-war life as a child of a war criminal

Osamu Komai

I, Osamu Komai, am 68 years old. Our nation is blessed with peace and I myself lead a tranquil life.

Looking back, so many victims perished in “that” war. Yet now, those of us who survived the war live carefree days and seldom remember those victims. This peaceful and quiet time can be most dangerous.

When August 15 (I call it the “Day we lost the war”) comes around, I pledge anew, “We shall never fight a war again.  We shall never ever fight a war no matter what. A war destroys everything. It is the worst act that human beings can ever commit. But at the same time, it is only human beings that can stop a war.”

My father, Mitsuo Komai (born in 1905 and died at the age of 41), was one of the victims of the war.

Although not a professional soldier, he was second in command of the first branch camp of Kanchanaburi POW camp in Thailand and it was his job to send Allied POWs to the construction workforce for the Thai-Burma railway. It was there, the         Father at Kanchanaburi POW camp with my photo
first branch camp that some British
POWs were found to be engaged in suspicious activities of building a radio and gathering information. During the interrogation of these POWs, my father beat two POWs to death, and for that he was hanged on March 14, 1946 at Changi prison in Singapore.

Our family had evacuated from Osaka to Morioka, my parents’ hometown, in 1944 as the war intensified. My mother received the news of the execution of my father after the war, and cried every day. I was 8 years old and my mother 37. I remember her telling me, “The war is over. Your father will be coming home soon. Be a good boy and wait for your father.” Then one day she said abruptly, “Your father is not coming home anymore.”  I asked why and my uncle who sat next to my mother answered, “Osamu, your father has been executed as a war criminal.” I remember my mother stopping him as she cried and said, “Brother, please say no more.” I kept asking, “Was it an honorable death?” Mother scolded me, “You fool!” and wept.

I could not ask my mother the circumstances of my father’s death nor did my uncles and aunts explain it to me. Since then, the topic of my father’s death and the word “war criminal” became taboo in our household. But countless times, I heard adults in our neighborhood whisper behind my back, “He is a child of a war criminal.” Some even said in my face, “People like your father ruined our country,” or “This terrible misfortune of Japan was brought about by people like your father.” “War criminal, war criminal….” The word was stuck with my ears always, but I could not ask my mother or school teachers what it meant and thus kept it in my heart.

I later learned that my mother had asked my teachers at elementary, middle and high schools after I entered each school, “Please take a good care of my child since his father was executed as a war criminal.” It seems that she was very concerned if I would become delinquent. I heard about it when I met these teachers after I graduated. My mother died from sickness at the age of 48 when I was a 16-year-old high school student.

I quit high school and started to work, but at the encouragement of my teachers went back to school and graduated after spending an extra year in school. I was lucky to have good friends and enjoyed school life in spite of the tough times I was going through. They have remained good friends to this day.

Yet I encountered the old problem again when I tried to find employment. Teachers would advise me, “You don’t have parents. Do not ever mention that your father was a war criminal.” So the word “war criminal” that I was beginning to forget came back and would not leave this time. It was particularly difficult because by then I fully understood what it meant.

It was after I started working that I felt most lonely. I found a job in Funabashi city in Chiba prefecture, but the loneliness of having no family intensified. I escaped to drinking and when drunk I was consumed by bitter feelings, “This is such a wicked world. Why did we lose the war? I wish I had fought to win the war. It was because we lost the war that I have to suffer so much.” In those days, I was attracted to the Japanese Self Defense Force and wanted to join it. Looking back, I was young and self-centered and did not care about other people at all. Those were the days when I played around and remembered my father less frequently. 

Then my new life started. My wife, Sachiko, and I met through an arrangement. Our daughter, Ikuko, soon arrived. I was 30 years old. Having my own family brought back the memory of my father and I often remembered what my mother had said about my father. She used to tell me that my father had liked drinking and smoking and enjoyed wearing a white splashed-pattern summer kimono. I asked my wife to get a white splashed-pattern summer kimono for myself. It was my favorite and I still wear it today. I had a rather privileged early childhood in Osaka and I wanted to overcome the memory of difficult years that came later in my adolescent years. I wanted to have a warm and happy family and built a house for us when I was 38 years old. I was a pillar of our family.

During this period when I was full of energy for life, I read about Mr. Takashi Nagase. I wrote a letter to him and was introduced to a group of veterans of the Thai theater. I participated in a memorial tour to the former Thai-Burma railway site and Singapore in November of 1977. What I remembered most during this trip was to hear one member of the tour group explaining inside the hot Changi prison, “I remember one Japanese soldier, grabbing prison bars from inside the prison, bidding farewell to those of us who could go home, ‘You are lucky to go home. Only I will stay here.’”

When we visited the Japanese Embassy in Singapore, a consul warned us, “I understand your feeling but want you to know that the people in Singapore also have deep wounds resulting from the war. Please watch your behavior at the Japanese cemetery and how you pay respect to your fallen comrades.”  I was beginning to realize the importance of being considerate so as not to hurt feeling of others and their country.

For many years since then, my work would take up most of my time, but I did not forget about my father. I wanted to know why my father was executed and attended a meeting of veterans from the Thai theater that was held in Tokyo. But none of them would talk about my father to me. I said to them, “Those of you who are alive today owe us who lost our fathers an explanation of what really happened in those days.” But I received no response. One person simply told me, “Mr. xxxx was so energetic that he beat British POWs and threaten them with his army sword. We could not do such things and we were even liked by POWs. If he had not been that brutal, he could have been spared from the death sentence.” I was shocked to hear such words. I gradually distanced myself from this group.

I wrote to Diet member Tadashi Itagaki asking if he could look into the matter regarding the trial of my father. He immediately arranged to have me receive the summary of the “indictment” against my father in the “case #2: Beaten to death case” in the British/Singapore war tribunal. I gained some knowledge on the situation, but I came to think more about the British soldiers after reading it. Realization that those British soldiers who were beaten to death had family members who were, like myself, waiting for their loved ones to come home tormented me deeply.

In 1996, I came across in the local newspaper an article with a headline, “Entire record on British prosecution of former Japanese military found in London.” It reported that Professor Hirofumi Hayashi of Kanto-Gakuin University had just unearthed the record. I clipped the article.

In 1999, after retiring from my job, I brought my wife to Singapore, her first overseas trip, where we visited Changi prison and the Japanese cemetery. We then embarked on a memorial tour riding on the Thai Kanchanaburi-Burma railway.   

I remember the article about the trial and wrote a letter to Professor Hayashi. He kindly sent me an excerpt of the original record on my father’s trial. Although I was not good at reading English, I could clearly see in the record the name of my father, KOMAI MITSUO, and the verdict, DEATH BY HANGING. I gently rubbed his name on the paper and cried, “You suffered didn’t you?” The whole thing had happened 55 years earlier but I cried as if I just saw my father.

Since I could not read English, I asked my acquaintance to translate the record. I found out that of those who my father beat severely, Lieutenant Lomax was seriously injured and Lieutenants Hawley and Armitage died as a result. Knowing the actual names of these British soldiers after 55 years profoundly affected me. Without realizing, I was bowing and apologizing from bottom of my heart. I forwarded the entire record to Mr. Nagase.

I learned from the reply from Mr.Nagase that Mr. Lomax was now a friend of his and was well in England. I wrote to Mr. Nagase, “I would like to meet Mr. Lomax and apologize on behalf of my father.” Since then I have been thinking that I want to apologize even if it were not accepted. If Mr. Lomax refused to see me, I would go to England and visit the British War memorial on the Whitehall Street in London to offer my apology.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had recently in participating in the annual memorial service at the British Commonwealth War cemetery in Yokohama. In a small way, I could express my sincere apology that was inside my heart. I regret one thing though. I wish I could have said, “I am deeply sorry” to the British attaché, Colonel James Boyd, who was attending the memorial with representatives of other countries. But alas, I could not speak English.

These days, I really want to see my father. Never once have I seen him in my dream. It makes me sad. I am finally beginning to understand that the British bereaved family feels the same way as I do. It may be too late, but I still want to express my sincere feelings.     

I know there are other people who are stricken by even deeper grief than mine. I want us to be the last group of people who go through this suffering and sorrow.

I want the world to be a peaceful place without ever repeating the same mistake. What can I do to maintain this peace? Each person must play his/her role in preventing another war from being started. A war destroys everything. Human beings will be destroyed physically and mentally.    

It is my earnest hope as someone who lived through a war that I pass my story on to today’s young people. It would be disastrous if they don’t remember. I want them to listen to my story carefully and pass it on to their next generation. This is my message to my grandchildren.

Lastly, I would like to pray for every victim of every war ever fought in the world.

----Half a century having passed with Father always on my mind:
     Reading his old letter still brings a lump to my throat----

Letter from my father

April 5, 1943

My dearest Osamu,

I know you must be so happy to start kindergarten this April. I can easily imagine that you attend school happily everyday, wearing a white kindergarten uniform. Please stay healthy. And watch out for cars and motorcycles on your way to school so you won’t get hurt. When you don’t feel well, you should tell your mother or grandmother. I insist. I was very happy last night because you appeared in my dream, my dear Osamu. Please do not forget to place the water and flowers for your late brother. Send my regards to everyone. Good-bye.

Mitsuo Komai 
                                                                                               
(Posted on Jan. 23, 2005)


Dear Osamu Komai,

Please permit me to respond to your recent web posting.  Both you and I lost fathers in WWII. The loss defined us to some degree in our raising and growth over those intervening years of long ago. We were both naturally confused from the resulting family changes and by the different dynamics which affected our early and then later years. Both of us have gone on to manage our family lives within our countries on either side of the Pacific Ocean.  I suggest to you that we each can best be measured and defined by who we are as individuals, by our character development and by our relationships with those around us, our family, our peers in our business areas, our choice of friends and those with whom we come into contact. We are not measured, in any true and meaningful sense by any  accusations which in your case was made against your father in World War II. Whether the accusations are true or not true does not define who you are. From your words I know you to be a person of strong character who wants to know the truth of events and seeks understanding among others. I respect you for that.

Though you and I both lost our fathers during the time when our two countries were at war against each other I do not, and will not, measure my feelings for Japan, or for you, by those war years. Often it is said that he who wins can rule. That works in elections, but not in life. It is the true character of a person when they reach out in friendship. I reach out to you and wish you well as you walk the difficult journey of tracing and understanding your father’s steps. The path is not easy. The emotions dig deeply and may hurt deeply and there are those who might want you to personally feel stigma for events of the past. I do not. But, seeking knowledge and by your trying to understand the painful events of your father’s difficult past you will understand yourself more. You then will be a more complete father to your children and husband to your wife. You will have better understanding which you have sought, and perhaps still seeking, and by your contact with others establishing bridges of friendship—so important in the world today. Your father and my father would have enjoyed knowing each other in friendship and I am enjoying reading your words and thereby knowing you.

I wish you well, my friend.

Duane Heisinger
Son of Samuel Lawrence Heisinger who died
In WWII as a Japanese Prisoner of War

Captain Heisinger's essay,  Father Found-a son's search for his dead father

*Captain Heisinger passed away on May 1, 2006.


Postscript

In July of 2007, Mr. Koami visited Mr. Lomax at his home in England.

 Recent article on Mr. Lomax and Mr. Komai