Lovers of peace have long said that the pen is mightier than the sword. This book, in which ordinary Japanese implore the world to hear their anguished words about war and peace, encourages one to think that maybe the human voice can be louder than the cannon as well. The book is published by the National Association of the War Bereaved Families for Peace.
Thirteen of its members wrote short essays that incorporate four major themes: their family's personal loss during the war, belated recognition of their nation's crimes, the need for atonement, and the importance of spreading the message of peace. While a few of the contributors are eloquent, most write conversationally and in the first person singular; therefore, the essays sound as if the writers are standing in front of us, confessing, regretting, imploring.
Takemitsu Ogawa states near the start that, "only the bereaved who know the depth of grudge [sic], lamentation, and loneliness, can sympathize with the greater pain of the wounded hearts of the bereaved of the maltreated [nations] and . . . bring about solidarity with Asia and the world."
Japanese who lost loved ones in the war often retreat into the shell of self-pity, a small space that leaves no room for non-Japanese. In contrast, Ogawa remarkably insists that a pained heart can derive from its very suffering the nobility and courage to understand the pain of the Other. Gripping imagery enlivens the essay by Ishizaki Kiki of Zushi City, Kanagawa when she addresses the theme of loss. Her husband Kazuhiko drowned, aged twenty-eight, after a submarine torpedoed his ship. "I feel forsaken and my mind stops working. And my wish that he were here now in the hand of God brings me back to serene reality." Unfortunately, she will be wishing forever, since he lies at the bottom of the Taiwan Strait.
Asato Kanae of Kitanakagushuku Village, Okinawa, is poignant both for what she does and does not say about loss. She recollects how she and her terrified family fled enemy shelling; while in a cemetery, a poisonous snake bit her. Eventually, they took refuge in a cave. The carbon dioxide was so overwhelming that candles would not burn. A lunatic spoke nonsense while someone blabbed on endlessly about food. Her baby died quietly in her arms in the cold and dark. Her sister-in-law told her to bury it in the dirt quickly because they might die soon as well.
Asato adds, "I lost my [nine] family members one after another. I will omit to write down the tragedy I experienced in the cave as I would not be able to describe it here." When she insists that she wants to be a witness for peace, one can fault her for not being thorough. Better yet, one can insist that sometimes a painful silence is loquacious.
Motomura Harumi of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, addresses the theme of confession and atonement not with Japanese-style ambiguities, but bluntly. First, he provides a picture of his older brother Mototoshi reclining under a tree before he was killed at Guadalcanal in 1942. Harumi then states that "unless I turned the axis of my action as a victim of the war to the sense of having been an assailant, I would have no right to join the movement of bereaved families who sincerely wish for peace." These candid words are not heard often enough in Japan, where too many "pacifists" loudly accuse others and exonerate themselves.
Mizoguchi Tadashi, also of Hamamatsu, carries the theme of self-accusation and atonement to a startling conclusion. His older brother Shigesaku, pictured smiling while holding a horse, died aged thirty-two at sea off Taiwan. Tadashi also fought. But he judges that, "It is inexcusable to say that [we were] manipulated. I am guilty. My crime deserves death." Ironically, while the Japanese right wing insists that Tojo and other war criminals deserved life, Tadashi condemns himself. Whether one agrees with his penalty or not, clearly he is a man with a strong conscience and sense of justice.
The theme of inspiration is best handled by Oshiro Isao of Tomigusuku Village, Okinawa. While in a cave in 1961, he heard a dull thud under his feet that sounded like an old tree; in truth, Oshiro had stepped into the hardened ashes of the dead. Again, the scene is described movingly: "I recognized them as a family. While I was looking closely, a small cup tumbled in front of the ashes. The family must have taken poison as they determined to die all together when they were driven into a corner." He adds the tear-inducing line that that the only happiness they had left was the knowledge that "the family could all die together." Small ashes were piled on big ones. Children were held by their parents. Isao swore to the ashes that he would work for peace. He then wrote a poem which concludes, "The Rising Sun Flag made of flowers on the altar/Smell bloody."
Their commitment to peace led all of the above to write this educational and inspiring book; one hopes others will follow. However, many of the contributors conflate peace with one-country pacifism. For instance, Ishizaki notes Japan's increasingly large international profile and worries that she hears "the sound of soldiers' boots marching toward invasion." She and the others spurn both the Cold War defence pact with America, and involvement in UN peacekeeping operations. If Japan merely writes checks and rolls bandages for its allies, it will benefit from their hard and dirty work while lecturing them about morality. Surely, the essayists are all too good as people to idealize such parasitism.
The book is marred by spells of unclear writing. Nonetheless, it is worth reading so one can learn from the gripping, true tales in words "spoken" by those left behind. These tales are made more tragic by photographs of the brothers, fathers and husbands who are now regarded as both war victims and war criminals by their families. It is reassuring to see that some Japanese know they must first repent before they preach.
One is also comforted that within Japan, humanists like Ogawa speak about the power of the heart in a way that requires a translator for the words, but not for the spirit.
Reviewed by Victor Fic, a Canadian journalist working in Japan.