Yesterday the news broke that the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is considering watering down the 1995 apology over Japan’s wartime past.
My father was a Japanese Prisoner of War in Java with all the horrors that entailed. He, along with thousands of others, was subjected to the most horrific torture. Torture which included being staked out in the midday sun with a glass of water just out of reach, to routine beatings and operations without anaesthetic. Some prisoners told stories of being forced to drink pints of water, being tied to the ground and then having gleeful guards jump on their stomachs.
My father spoke of the terror when the Kempetei (the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo) would arrive at the camp and order ten men outside to dig their own graves. Nobody knew who would be called next-all they could do was listen to the shots being fired and the thud as the men fell.
Prisoners were starved and the camps were rife with cholera and dysentery. My father spoke of eating anything he could find including frogs, spiders and snakes. When the Americans finally liberated Java, they were faced with a vision from hell, as they were greeted by thousands of skeletal men with sunken eyes and broken bodies. Many could not cope with “normal” life on return to the UK and simply dropped dead. Many others, like my father, who survived, often never recovered psychologically.
My father’s experiences damaged him for his whole life. He lost his Catholic faith and indeed his faith in the whole of mankind. He was prone to long bouts of deep depression and terrifying nightmares which had a tremendous impact on our family and particularly my mother. For her part my father was not the husband she had fallen in love with four years earlier. She often spoke of her fear he would wake from one of his nightmares and strangle her.
It took years and years to get the Japanese to even recognise that they played a part in the ill treatment and torture of prisoners of war (they were not subject to the Geneva Convention as Germany were). Although many of the more brutal guards were brought to trial and hanged, an apology seemed never to be on Japan’s radar. When it did come it was too late for my father-he died fifteen years ago. However, there are still survivors of those hell camps for whom it would be a terrible insult to hear Japan reneging on its statement.
It took a very long time for Japan to come to terms with the part it played in World War II and manage to say sorry. Even now some Japanese, just like Holocaust deniers, still believe that accounts of Japan’s wartime atrocities were lies or gross exaggerations. They believe it is time for Japan to become proud of itself once more.
On the other side liberal defenders of Japan’s Constitution say the country should never forget how it invaded Southeast Asia and the disaster that arrived in its wake. I am pretty sure that if my father was alive he would be quite certain on which side of the fence he would sit.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of all those prisoners in the Far East. I feel strongly we should not forget the horrendous experiences they went through and that the Japanese should face up to their responsibilities for their past actions.