Confession—My Life and the Crimes of the Assailant  

Yoshiji Watanabe              

Japan was engaged in the war of invasion and committed crimes as the assailant, in which a lot of innocent people were humiliated and brutally murdered. There are also survivors who are even now continually suffering from the deep scars they had unreasonably received by the Japanese.

In front of the former Allied POWs like Dr. Lester Tenney, what an inexcusable creature I am. “POWs were subhuman.” Believing this, guards who had been indoctrinated with the fanatic ideas of WWII Japanese militarism brutally wounded the POW’s human dignities. Not only did the Japanese commit the crimes during the war, but through not having recognized them, they still keep committing the same crimes.

It reminds me once again that I should face the crimes, and live with them as my own responsibility. That must be the way of compensation and regret that I should live as a Japanese person. Once again I think of the “crimes” of my family.

Crimes and Punishment

I was born in 1947 in a family of four: my parents, an elder brother and I. We were poor and my parents didn’t get along well, so our everyday life was gloomy and tense. In my 20’s, however, I kept telling myself that I would have a hopeful future if I lived with a positive attitude. I was participating in activities like the anti-Vietnam War movement, but my heart was always been unsatisfied and intimidated, and I had constant fear and anxiety.

One day in 1989, as I was watching TV, I heard a middle-aged woman plead, “The war has never ended for me.” This remark stirred the darkness and sins, which had deposited in my heart and had been suppressed.

My father became an officer of the Manchukuo Army in 1933. He volunteered from Japan to be professional military personnel of Manchukuo. After the Kwantung Army invaded the northeastern part of China in 1931, they announced the foundation of Manchukuo on February 18, 1932. In those days he was the only Japanese commander of around 120 hired Chinese soldiers. They moved from place to place, fighting and capturing Chinese suspects of “anti-Japan” ideology, and killing them. Most of them must have been poor but innocent ordinary citizens and villagers. Then he served as as an administrative official of Manchukuo. In 1945, he was again summoned to be an officer of the Kwantung Army.

Eventually, one week before the surrender of Japan, on August 9, 1945, the day the USSR joined WWII, the officers and their families of the Kwantung Army, including my father, secretly started fleeing to Japan by train, just by themselves, mingled in the darkness of night. One after another they exploded the bridges and railway bridges they had crossed.  My family safely reached Japan as early as September 2.

Around 220,000 Japanese peasants of “Pioneers of Manchuria and Mongolia”, who had been stationed, so to speak, in place of the soldiers of the Kwantung Army in distant areas of Manchuria, were abandoned by the Army. [The number of registered pioneers was 270,000. 47,000 of them had been conscripted, so there remained around 223,000. P436  History of the Manchuria and Mongolia Pioneers. Pub. 1968] These Japanese civilians waited for trains that would never come, then were driven to undertake the “Escape March of Hell” to Harbin. As a result, a lot of them ended up committing mass suicides, killed by the USSR Army or Chinese bandits, or starved to death. Those who managed to survive under protection of Chinese people are called the “Remaining Japanese Women and Orphans in China. [Note: “200,000 Japanese citizens died in Manchuria after Japanese surrender, including 90,000 peasants, among whom 10,000 committed mass suicides. They were women, young children and the elderly, whose leaders had all been conscripted by the Kwantung Army. Mass Suicides—Abandoned Japanese peasants cultivating Manchuria by Tatsuhiko Sakamoto: Iwanami Pub. Tokyo March 2000 ]

After the war, my father was barred from public service for three years as a Class C war criminal. One of the photos the GHQ confiscated showed an execution scene of Chinese POWs, carried out by the order given by my father.

As one of the spearheads of the invasion of China, my father committed crimes of assault, killing and hurting a number of Chinese people. As I reflect back, since my earliest childhood I always had a vague notion that my birth itself had been sinful. “Our family live with some awful sins, because of which we would never be happy, or rather we should not be happy.” I always felt like that about the situation of my family.

In my primary school days, my father had nightmares and suddenly awoke at night. He would jump and sit up, sweating heavily, eyes tense in horror, which revealed a mask of a devil. Whenever I saw him like this my heart was frozen. I was afraid of him. My parents didn’t get along each other. In our family, we never had relaxed moments of talking and laughing together. As soon as we started arguing about trivial matters, my father used to overturn the dining table, throw dishes in anger, beat my mother. Sometimes he even dragged her around by the hair. I could do nothing during his violence outbursts except wait till his anger subdued, with my body and soul tightly closed.

Every time she suffered from the violence of her husband, my mother gradually lost confidence in herself. She started saying, “I’m an animal. I’ll be an animal.” Her physical health got affected and she came to spend half the day in bed. I was a junior high school student by that time. My mother abandoned doing house chores, so I helped as best as I could. After I graduated from university, I went to Tokyo as if to escape from the gloomy and heavy life with my parents, and….my mother committed suicide thirteen years later.

For around three years before his passing away, my father became very considerate about my mother. He received all the burden of house chores himself, and he lived quietly as if he was making repentance to her of his past deeds. One day he made an abrupt remark to me, “You leave to Dad all the care of Mom. “ It was out of blue and I had never expected to hear such words from him, so I was shocked. And I realized my arrogance. I used to think, “Only I could save my mother.” I had to admit my own lack of consideration and my own sins as an assailant.

However, my father passed away one year before my mother’s suicide without regretting his role in the war of invasion. I married my wife, and for some time just like my father I treated my wife violently. I was trying to dodge and hide my weakness and self-defensive instincts. Cowardice controlled me, and hatred and destructive desire easily took me over. I kept committing sins.

Journey to China

In 1991, my wife and I went to Manchuria in northeastern China. We visited the town where my parents had lived, and other places where traces of the harsh Japanese invasion are still visible.

In Harbin, I saw a photo of a Japanese Kwantung Army officer, who was laughing with his sword held high in his hands. At his feet were the heads of several Chinese young men, beheaded and carefully displayed! Each of the young men was staring at me. I couldn’t even fidget a bit. Their stares surrounded me so closely as if they were going to grab me by reaching out of the photo. And the officer of the photo doubled with the image of my father.

A Japanese officer is arrogantly standing, and laughing. Beheaded Chinese young men’s heads displayed in order at his feet!! The extreme revelation of the Japanese Army in its momentary pleasure of madness, and corruption. The extremity of it. It was in this extremity where my family had lived our life after the war. I was born in it and grew up in it. I wanted to flee from it, and I abandoned my parents, which was my own dark sin.

My father ordered, “Behead them!” All the dozen young men look at me simultaneously. I hear their voices….

We are alive. We live forever. Look at my face, my neck. Come here in front of me and breathe while I gaze at you. If you want to express condolence, depict me as I am, and preserve it in eternity.

If you want to comfort me, make a skeleton of me and show it to thousands of people. Make a glass wall to preserve me forever. That’s my grave, and you must show it to the Japanese who killed me, to the family of the man. You are the family! You finally came. You have come over…..Oh! I’m glad you came at last. Oh, I’m so glad that my heart is melting into nothingness.

Now, you listen to me carefully. Let my body, my soul live in your love as Japanese, at the risk of your life. My head without my limbs, my body, you have to let them live in the everyday life of yours.

 You have to reveal the cowardice of your race, human cowardice under the sun. We are alive. We live in eternity.”

The origin of the mad moments and corruption of the Japanese Army is washed away in dark red blood, forever, in the light of the Cross, in the merciful hands of Buddha, and with human conscience.

However wealthy Japanese might be, they will never be happy as long as the grudges and anger exist among peoples of China, other Asian countries, and the Allied POWs. If there are any Japanese who are happy now, it is just an illusion.


As an actor, I wrote a play titled “Reunion”, in which I confess my own family’s life as assailants, through a man’s painful reunion with his first wife, a war-displaced Japanese who made an official short visit to Japan from China, which the governments started to arrange since 1973. The man in the play has remarried and runs a small factory. In the past twelve years, my wife and I have performed the play all over Japan, China, the US and Canada. 120,000 came and saw our stage performance, which was supported by a lot of people, especially the Chinese people who now live in these countries.

"Reunion" Program for the 2001 US Tour

Let me quote from my wife’s essay in the program of “Reunion” in 2005.

“My husband inherited hatred from his father, and he struggled against himself, in fear of losing himself under his father’s love to him. Through risking his life in overcoming self-love, he finally acquired and faced his  identity. Twelve years ago, my husband renewed his awareness and recognition by meeting and talking with people of China in Manchuria. We learned our own sins of being ashamed of his father as a war criminal, and his mother, who killed herself. Now we embrace his late parents, and by exposing them, we know of the possibility of our life together with them. Newly born life of our own exists there. We learned this, not by words, but through the support of a lot of people and our audiences.

I believe the cruelty of the War Experience as Assailants lies in the fact that, through the following generations of family, there is no liberation from the memories of killing and tormenting. No one of the family can obtain secure identity of himself or herself, but everyone has to live with a sense of betrayal towards humanity.

My husband could overcome the difficulty thanks to the encouragement given by a huge number of people and his own effort for life. He, who had refused to have a child, said to me, “Now I want to have our child.” It’s too late for us, but we could give birth to our child, “Reunion”. We wish as many people as possible would come and see the play. Though we are not perfect, we’ll do our best.”

                                                  -- Kazuko Yokoi, actress and wife of Yoshiji Watanabe

Ms. Yokoi with her husband on the stage of "Reunion"

Our new play will begin this autumn and has expanded to the theme of the Nanjing Massacre, and we’ve just finished the first edition of it.

With My Father

I tried to find my own life by not becoming happy. That has been punishment for me as a son of a war criminal, and it was my own war experiences.

Dear Father, if the effort I’ve done is not enough and you are still going to be judged in the next life, I want to be tried with you. No, if we are going to live another incarnated life, with all the crimes and punishments engraved in my heart, I’d like to repeat life of repentance as many times as possible.