by Laura Hillenbrand

A Story of an American POW of the Japanese:
Meaning for Japan

Kinue Tokudome

“Culmination of my seven-year journey into ‘forgiveness’”, that is how Ms. Laura Hillenbrand describes her book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. This is a book about the experience of B-24 bombardier Louis Zamperini who became a POW of the Japanese. As a track runner, he had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

An astonishing 2.7 million copies have been sold since it was first published in November of 2010, and it continues to be ranked high on the New York Times bestseller list. As the book is a popular choice for many libraries and book clubs across the US, the number of actual readers must be many times over. It received glowing reviews with praises like, “dynamic storyteller,” “meticulously researched,” “with cool elegance, but at a thrilling sprinter’s pace.”  It will be made into a movie and a young reader’s edition will soon be published.

The book tells many brutal treatments Zamperini was subjected to, his incredible resilience, his obsession for revenge and his tormented life after the war, and finally his finding God’s love that brought him peace and redemption.

Further, what is unique about this book is the fact that many readers are also touched by the story of author Hillenbrand herself.  When she was a college student, she was struck by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a severe illness that cannot be explained by modern medicine. For the past 25 years, she has been suffering body aches, extreme fatigue, fever, headache, severe vertigo, and even depression. During the seven years she was writing this book, there were times when she could not go out from her house for months or even get out from her bed. It seems that readers are seeing another story of “Unbroken” within the author who completed this masterpiece while going through her own struggles.                                                                            
    (Author Laura Hillenbrand)
May 1943, an eleven-man crew of Green Hornet was ordered to search for survivors of a missing bomber and they took off from Hawaii. But their own plane encountered an engine problem and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Three survivors of the crash drifted on a life raft confronted with thirst, hunger, shark attacks, and strafing from an enemy airplane. Losing one person, Zamperini and the pilot drifted two thousand miles in 47 days before reaching to the Marshall Islands, where they were captured by the Japanese forces.  

They were shipped to Japan and held at the Japanese Imperial Navy’s interrogation center in Ofuna.  Zamperini was later transferred to Omori POW camp in the Tokyo Bay and Naoetsu POW camp.  At both camps, a sadistic guard named Watanabe (he was called “the Bird” by POWs) singled out Zamperini and abused him relentlessly. Once, Watanabe swung his belt with a heavy brass buckle and whipped Zamperini’s temple repeatedly while another time he had more than one hundred POWs punch Zamperini’s face with maximum force. A weakened Zamperini was ordered by Watanabe to hold a six-feet-long heavy wooden beam over his head. He was forced to stand in that position for thirty-seven minutes.

Having survived the war, Zamperini came home in California and married. But he could not forget the numerous acts of abuse inflicted by Watanabe and was tormented by nightmares every night. He drank heavily and became consumed by his desire to go back to Japan to kill Watanabe. His wife declared her decision to divorce him, but suggested that they go listen to a sermon performed by a young evangelist named Billy Graham. Zamperini refused to go first, but gave in at his wife’s persistence. There, he found the Lord.    

From that night forward, Zamperini forgave Watanabe and regained peace in his heart. In 1950, he traveled to Japan to bring the message of forgiveness to his former prison guards who were now serving times as war criminals in Sugamo Prison.  He was told that Watanabe had died (actually he had escaped and was alive). For decades that followed, he operated a camp for delinquent youth.

 Mr. Zamperini (right) visiting Sugamo Prison (Photo courtesy of Mr. Zamperini)

When returned to Japan during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics to carry the torch through the city of Naoetsu, he wanted to meet Watanabe and tell him that he had forgiven everything. But Watanabe, although he had been interviewed by an American TV station  previous year, refused to meet with Zamperini. Hillenbrand added that Watanabe died in 2003.

Interview with Author Hillenbrand

-- What is remarkably absent in most readers’ reaction is ill feeling towards Japan, in spite of many graphic descriptions of the horrific abuse Mr. Zamperini was subjected to at the hands of the Japanese. What do you think is the reason for that?

Unbroken has been read by millions of Americans, and I’ve received thousands of letters, emails and other correspondence from readers. Almost none of them have expressed ill-feeling towards Japan. I think there are several reasons for this.

World War II was long ago, well before the birth of most people living today. In the decades since, America and Japan have forged a lasting friendship, and that is the context in which Americans view Japan. Readers understand that the story involves Japanese people of a previous generation, mostly gone now; the story doesn’t affect the goodwill they feel toward the Japan of today.

I think the way in which I presented this story also affects the way my readers feel. I was very careful not to depict the Japanese people as a single homogenous unit. I presented them as distinct individuals, some good, some bad. There are many stories in this book of Japanese POW camp guards mistreating POWs, but there are also many stories of kind, generous, compassionate Japanese, both military and civilian, who went out of their way to be good to POWs. So my readers’ reactions, whether positive or negative, are directed not toward the Japanese people as a group, but toward the specific individuals in the book.

I think the biggest reason why the book has not inspired ill-feeling against Japan is that Japanese war crimes are not the book’s theme or main subject. This is a story of survival, resilience and persistence, and the extraordinary power of forgiveness, as exemplified by one man, Mr. Zamperini. The emotion my readers express, more than anything else, is a sense of being uplifted and deeply inspired.

-- When a book about Japan’s WWII history, especially one dealing with its war crimes, became a bestseller in the US, the first reaction from some Japanese people often is to question the accuracy of the content.  Many reviewers in the US praised your thorough research. Can you describe how you went about researching for this book? 

It is an understatement to say that I am a driven researcher. I spent seven years on this book because I was researching so obsessively, trying to find every source there was and cross-checking every fact against other sources to be sure my reporting was accurate and fair. In the back of the book, I listed every source for every fact, so anyone who doubted an account could verify it.

For nearly every event described in the book, I found multiple sources, including many from Japanese witnesses and documents. For example, I describe an incident in which a POW named William Harris was horrifically beaten by a camp guard named Kitamura. I found several living POWs who witnessed this beating, including Mr. Zamperini. In America’s National Archives, I found sworn affidavits from many other eyewitnesses to this event. Their testimony was remarkably consistent. In addition, I found the sworn testimony of Kitamura himself, which was consistent with the American accounts. Through Harris’ family, I was even able to find the handmade Japanese-English dictionary that had provoked the beating. This is a typical example of the breadth of American and Japanese sources that I used in telling this story, ensuring that my reporting was accurate.

-- You never met Mr. Zamperini when you were writing this book. It was almost one year after the publication of the book that you finally met him. Please describe your friendship with Mr. Zamperini.

Mr. Zamperini and Ms. Hillenbrand finally met in person in 2011.
(Photo courtesy of Ms. Hillenbrand)

Mr. Zamperini and I developed a very close relationship. He was wonderful to work with. He put up with hundreds of hours of interviews. He was invariably honest, quick to correct flattering falsehoods that had been written about him. His memory was astounding. Nearly every time I checked his account against other sources, even when the event in question occurred some 75 years ago, his memory was accurate to the smallest detail. And he was so kind to me. I suffer from a serious chronic illness, and when he learned about it, he mailed me the Purple Heart he had been awarded in the war, telling me I deserved it more than he. I told him I couldn’t accept something so dear to him, but he insisted. We remain dear friends.

-- How did writing this book affect your own life?   

Writing is something I think I was born to do. It’s part of me. I began writing short stories when I was a child, and I’ve never stopped. I love my work, because it enables me to live in the lives of my subjects, experiencing their adventures alongside them, broadening my world so far beyond my place and time.

This book was so special to me. I was fascinated by the sweep of the story, enabling me to learn so much about the Pacific War, military aircraft, Japanese culture, America in the 1940s, the experience of airmen and POWs, and so much else. But on a deeper level, it was an opportunity for me to explore the subject of forgiveness, something so important to a happy life, yet so mysterious and elusive. Writing this book was a wonderful, enlightening journey.

-- I read that you wanted to be a history professor. What do you think “history” should mean to us who live today. Why should we, as individuals and as a nation, learn about the past?

To close yourself off to the past is to close yourself off not only to remarkable, captivating historical stories like that of Mr. Zamperini, but to the wealth of lessons the past offers. Every failure and every success of the past, when explored, yields wisdom that is applicable right now, on great matters like politics and war, and small matters like an individual’s ability to survive hardship, and to forgive.

-- I understand that you have completed a young reader's edition of Unbroken. How did it happen?  And what message do you hope young people will receive from your book?

I’ve been inundated with letters and emails from children’s librarians and teachers who have read the book and want to have an edition tailored to pre-teens and young teenagers. One reason is that in American schools, the focus of study of World War II is the European theater; the Pacific War gets much less attention. Mr. Zamperini’s story, so full of adventure, is naturally appealing to kids, so it gives them an entertaining way to be introduced to this part of World War II. But the bigger reason is that Mr. Zamperini’s life offers a wonderful lesson in the power of persistence. A child who sees how much Mr. Zamperini overcame will, I hope, see much more possibility in his or her own life, and will be less daunted by the obstacles ahead. I hope children are as inspired by Mr. Zamperini as I and my readers have been.

Meaning for Japan

Reflecting on the interviews she did with many former POWs, Hillenbrand wrote an essay for a Christian magazine:

Watching these men struggle to overcome their trauma, I came to believe that a loss of self-worth is central to the experience of being victimized, and may be what makes its pain particularly devastating… Louie became so obsessed with vengeance that his life was consumed by the quest for it. In bitterness, he was as much a captive as he’d been when barbed wire had surrounded him.

This is why forgiveness is so liberating. But how is it found? For Louie, it lay in resurrecting his dignity, seeing himself not as the wretched creature that the Bird had striven to make of him, but as the object of God’s infinite love. His self-respect and sense of power reborn, he finally had the strength to let go of his hatred.

I talked to other former POWs who forgave their captors, and for each, forgiveness seemed to follow a return of dignity.[1]

Currently, another POW story is being made into a film. It is about British POW Eric Lomax who was forced to work at Thai-Burma Death Rail Way. He and his two fellow POWs were caught with a clandestine radio they had kept and severely beaten while interrogated by a Japanese soldier. Two were beaten to death and Lomax was severely injured. The Japanese soldier was tried and executed as a war criminal after the war. A few years ago, the son of this soldier, Mr. Osamu Komai, visited Mr. Lomax and apologized on behalf of his father. Mr. Lomax wrote down a poem
of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and handed it to Mr. Komai.

Look not mournfully into the past.
It comes not back again.
Wisely improve the present.

(Mr. Komai visiting Mr. Lomax, photo courtesy of Mr. Komai)

Meanwhile, Mr. Zamperini sent me his message for this article:

I wish the children of Watanabe well and want them to know that I forgave their father many years ago.

These are the words of former POWs who regained their dignity. Then, how should the Japanese people, with the history of having almost one third of 140,000 Allied POWs of the Japanese perish while in captivity, regain their dignity?  Although it was not what Hillenbrand intended, that is the question her book poses to the Japanese people. Yet, no Japanese publisher has shown any interest in translating and publishing this book while its translation rights have been sold to 23 foreign languages.

  Laura Hillenbrand, “The Power of Forgiveness,” Guideposts, January, 2011.


Kinue Tokudome is the Founder and Director of the bilingual website, US-Japan Dialogue on POWs.

(With Mr. Zamperini, 2003)



* The original Japanese version of this article appeared in Ushio Magazine on August 5, 2012.

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