“It cost three cigarettes if you wanted someone to break your arm for you. So you could have a few days off.” The shaky voice of an American POW from a World War II Japanese internment camp.
The audience listened with rapt attention, hoping to know, hoping to reconcile the Japan of then with the Japan of now. These young Americans were looking for the pieces of the puzzle that linked the everyday life they enjoyed in modern Tokyo — the bars, the friendships, the opportunity to work and study — with the harshness of these camps. The starvation. The forced labor. The outright cruelty.
Nobody mentioned these things, an awkward attempt to protect the POWs who had made this emotional trip back to the place of their interment, or a desire not to know. Not to rehash. Not to dampen the enthusiasm of today.
A young American student helped by running the single microphone between the POWs. She gave it to another man who cackled into it: “I tried to break my foot under a tramcar, but I was wearing those darn army-issue steel-toe boots. I still managed to get a couple of days off.” Then, respectfully, “Darn well-made those British shoes were.”
A chuckle of relief from the audience, a lighthearted joke to hide the real question on everybody’s mind: Just how bad was the work that you would intentionally injure yourself to get a few days off? Nobody asked.
At the start of the night, the compere had opened the floor to questions from the audience, which consisted of roughly 100 young Americans studying in Japan, with a smattering of older Japanese men and women throughout. The compere had stood, in a moment of discomfort, as the audience looked down at their feet, bereft of questions.
What did you ask a panel of POWs? All those things that everybody wanted to know but there were no social norms for asking. Questions that had laid buried for years, questions that politeness taught you it was better not to ask.
“Why do you do these tours?” somebody finally asked. “What do you get out of it?” The first POW muttered something about how it was interesting to come back and see this place after so long. A standard answer, as if that was what he thought people expected to hear.
The next guy stretched out his arm, feeble but determined. “It’s so I can talk.” His voice rose with passion. “For 70 years we have been quiet, keeping all this inside. When we returned to America after the war, they told us, ‘Go and enjoy your lives, get married, have children, get a job. And never, never talk about the things you have seen.’ So we did. And it’s all still inside, in our chests. Now it’s time to get it out, to give ourselves some relief before we die.”
“What was it like to settle back home?” asked someone else in the audience, everyone waving their hands now with questions they thought might be appropriate to ask.
The panel wriggled a bit at this question. So much to say, so many years and years of difficulties. Misunderstandings. Silence when there should have been opportunities to speak.
“Everybody seemed so caught up worrying about insignificant little things. We didn’t fit in. Couldn’t fit in. They couldn’t understand us and we couldn’t understand them.”
One of the men, who gave an impression of physical strength despite his advanced age, took the microphone. “I went to the doctor after I got back. I’d had some bad stomachaches and figured I had worms, which I told the doctor. Well, he was annoyed and asked me where I got my degree. I didn’t want to argue, but figured that through certain life experiences I was pretty sure of my diagnosis, so to prove it I coughed one up for him.” There was a twinkle in his eyes as he related this anecdote, no doubt with the disgusted expression on the suburban doctor’s face still etched in his memory.
Another young American stood to ask his question. He was young, handsome, not much older than these men had been when captured by the Japanese. With great respect he began a passionate speech: “I, we, are all extremely grateful to you and to all that you suffered for us, for subsequent generations. As a serviceman, I can’t imagine the hardships you went through, even on your return home. We, today’s servicemen, have benefited from the things we learned from your generation, from the health services that have been established, for both physical and mental care.” After lengthy expressions of gratitude, he went on to ask them about any benefits they received.
“I didn’t know about compensation or anything until about five years ago,” says one of the old men, a relic of a generation when suffering was truly done in silence.
“I work for Veterans Affairs,” said another. “I tell those young soldiers these days to get everything they can. Write down every injury. They say to me, ‘Oh, but someone else might need it more than me,’ and I tell them they’re stupid. Who deserves it more, you and your wife and kids, or some other guy? In the camps, I starved other prisoners to death by trading their food for cigarettes. They died of hunger, smoking their cigarettes. But I lived. I’m not proud of that fact, but I’m alive.” The POW was adamant, young eyes in his aged face challenging the audience to argue otherwise, challenging them to question the lengths they themselves would have gone to to survive.
Someone else wanted to know how they managed to live while seeing so many people around them die. “Of course we felt guilty,” a POW said, then displaying again that unwavering desire to live, the strength of mind that had kept them alive into their 80s and 90s: “It’s better to be alive with survivor’s guilt than dead.” Firm in his mind.
The POWs told a few short tales of Japanese kindness at the audience’s request, for the young people that wanted to prove that this was the same Japan. They told of food being smuggled in for them, of people who suffered beatings trying to help them. It’s the officers, the officers, never the common folk, guilt heaped on those who are long gone.
One man used the word “Japs” and the eyebrows of the audience rose in silence, but who would dare to challenge this man? Who, in fact, had the right to tell him what he should call his oppressors? Having been brought up under Western propaganda where the “Nips,” the “yellow peril” were trying to take over the world, he may have considered his expression polite.
A girl told of her feelings of guilt when admitting her Japanese major to her friend’s grandfather, a World War II veteran. It’s the gap that embarrasses her — the Japanese enemy that is now her field of interest, her life, her second language. The audience all want to know the same thing: “What do you see here now, what do you think about being here now?” They want to hear tales of how nice everyone is, how different everything is, how the world is now such a better place.
A POW with dark sunglasses wrapped around his eyes grins at everyone. “Oh, it’s wonderful. The ladies . . .” he murmurs, with a lechery defying his age. “The ladies are just so beautiful.” The audience laughed and tried to bridge the gap that they felt via the blatant lust of a 90-year-old man — an effort that, no doubt for some, failed.
But the men have had their chance to speak. In relative freedom they have spoken to an audience that, after nearly 70 long and silent years, was open and eager to hear what they had to say. And across the gap of years, of generations and worlds of differences, there has been a transfer of knowledge. An attempt to understand.
Bronwyn Duke attended an event organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at Temple University, Japan Campus, in Tokyo last month at which seven American WWII prisoners of war held by the Japanese spoke. Send your comments and story ideas to email@example.com