When Naoko Jin tells former Japanese soldiers that the Filipinos they fought against during World War II are ready to forgive them, they simply don’t believe her.
“They don’t expect to be forgiven,” said Jin. “They don’t think it’s possible that anyone could forgive them.”
For four years, Jin, 31, has ferried video messages back and forth between Japan’s former soldiers and their now-elderly victims in the Philippines — an attempt by her to bridge the gaping chasm in communication left by the violence of war.
She estimates she has interviewed around 70 Japanese and, in the course of five trips to the Philippines, dozens of Filipino nationals, too.
Asked why she started this kind of work, Jin recalled an experience in high school.
“I became friends with a German girl,” she said. “One day she told me that she didn’t want to be thought of as a German. I asked her why and she said because she was ashamed by what the Nazis had done.”
Jin explained that the Japanese education system doesn’t encourage students to see Japan’s history as something directly relevant to their own lives. “We were just made to memorize chronologies,” she said.
Motivated to confront her nation’s wartime history, Jin joined a study tour to the Philippines while she was a student at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo in 2000.
“We toured some of the sites where fighting and massacres had occurred,” she said. “The Filipinos we met said straight out that they didn’t want to meet any Japanese. They asked us why we had come.”
Unperturbed, Jin and her fellow students listened intently to the old Filipinos’ stories.
“They told us so much that I wanted to give them something in return,” Jin explained.
In 2005, she did just that. Jin videotaped messages from former Japanese soldiers who had fought in the Philippines and delivered them to the same old Filipinos who had shared their experiences.
“They were really interested to see the videos,” she remembered. Some said they want to forgive the Japanese, she reported. Others were too upset to talk, and others still were just amazed that the Japanese still remembered the war so well.
“Many of the victims assumed that because Japan’s economy had developed so much, the Japanese had probably become too distracted to even think about the war,” Jin explained.
But her video messages showed the memories were still very much alive.
“Thinking about it now, we were like devils,” explained one former Japanese soldier. “Our commander ordered us: ‘They’re all guerrillas, so capture them all. Kill anyone who looks suspicious’.”
Others went into graphic detail; one described how he demanded food from two women he found hiding in an abandoned village and then raped them when they didn’t respond.
Jin explained that many of the soldiers find it easier to talk now that a lot of time has passed and they are nearing the end of their lives.
“One person said they could talk now for the first time because their commanding officer has died,” she recalled.
Others feel comfortable speaking to a young person.
“Many of them found their own children tended to criticize them for their involvement in the war,” Jin explained. That upset them, she said, because they never regarded their actions as being their own responsibility.
“I feel a lot of anger,” one soldier said. “At the time Japan was a country of militarism. It’s not like anyone became a soldier because they wanted to. I feel angry at those who were making the decisions. But who were they? Who was responsible? I don’t know.”
For their part, the Filipinos who talk to Jin are mostly forgiving. “The Philippines is, after all, a Christian country,” said Jin. But their stories are harrowing nonetheless.
“One soldier tried to take my baby cousin,” says one. “I held on to my cousin, but another put a gun in my side. I let go of the baby. They threw it up in the air and stabbed it with a bayonet.”
Jin’s work, which she does under the auspices of Bridge for Peace, a not-for- profit organization she started five years ago, is funded entirely by donations. She also holds down a day job.
While Jin initially focused on delivering messages back and forth between Japan and the Philippines, she soon began receiving many requests to show her videos at universities and other venues in Japan. Most surprising, she said, was the reaction of Japanese in their 40s and 50s, many of whom said it was the first time they had heard such war stories.
“It’s like, if people in their 50s don’t know about this, who does?” Jin exclaimed.
The lack of knowledge prompted her to redouble her efforts, and she now does two to three screenings a month in Japan in addition to her twice-yearly trips to the Philippines.
Jin said her thoughts are now focused on future generations.
“One day my children might come to me and say, ‘Mom, why didn’t you talk to those soldiers when you had the chance?’ I realized that because I am alive at the same time as them, I have a responsibility to listen to their stories and record them.”