Lessons of suicidal Cowra breakout remain unlearned

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

At around 2 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 5, 1944, 1,104 Japanese soldiers and sailors armed only with knives, forks and a few baseball bats poured out of their huts at the Cowra prisoner-of-war camp 300 km west of Sydney in the Australian state of New South Wales. Charging through a hail of machine-gun fire, they stormed the gates — driven by the Imperial Military Regulation that ordered: “Never live to experience the shame of being taken prisoner.”

With nowhere to go, those who got out ran along farm roads under a full moon and scattered into fields and woodlands — fully expecting they’d be executed if they were recaptured.

The upshot was that 231 Japanese and four Australian soldiers died after every Japanese serviceman agreed to take part in the breakout despite the camp’s easygoing conditions with lots of free time to relax and play baseball, mah-jongg or cards.

As one of the survivors, Teruo Murakami, told me when I met him in Tokyo last year, “We had no doubt about the rule that Imperial Japanese troops must not allow themselves to become prisoners of the enemy. So there was no alternative for us except to die, and we agreed to finish our lives that way. Yet because of a basic human instinct, many of the men — including me — didn’t want to die.”

That chance encounter with the old soldier followed the premiere of “Cowra no Hancho Kaigi” (“Honchos’ Meeting in Cowra”), a smash-hit play by the Rinkogun theater company now being restaged at the Suzunari Theater in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa district.

However, the current reprise is not a repeat, but a “Side A” version — with the “A” standing for Australia as there are five Australian actors alongside the Japanese cast, and the production is being staged in both Japan and Australia. There, in Cowra’s civic center next month, it will be one of the small rural town’s 70th anniversary events to commemorate the breakout, before moving to Canberra and Sydney.

In a recent discussion with The Japan Times and two of the play’s Australian cast, its writer and director, Yoji Sakate, 52 — who founded Tokyo-based Rinkogun in 1983 — explained why he created the “Side A” version, and what he aims to achieve with it.

“The former director of Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art saw our play in Japan in March 2013 and suggested we should do it over there — and he recommended several top Australian actors to work with us,” he said. “That struck me as a great idea because it would give us a chance to engage with Australian people about the Cowra breakout. ”

A part of the play faithfully depicts the relaxed camp life prior to what was the biggest prison break of World War II. To that, though, Sakate has added a fiction story about women students from present-day Fukushima Prefecture visiting Australia to research what happened in order to make a film about it. Then, in the final scenes, he conjures up an imaginary world where the students meet men who, in 1944, chose death in the name of their Emperor and country — but who tell today’s young Japanese it is now up to them, individually, to chart their future and that of Japan.

In our discussion, Matthew Crosby — an Australian cast member who has previously worked in Japan with Tadashi Suzuki’s prestigious Scot theater company, among others — said of the Cowra breakout, “It is a remarkable story, and what I think Sakate’s play really brings out is the strangeness of it. I mean, to an Australian mentality it is … (grasping for words) … inexplicable — you just cannot understand it. I think the Japanese idea of honorable suicide in preference to being taken alive was known by Australian soldiers, but it was seen as being really strange — a distancing thing.”

Then cast member Jane Phegan from the Sydney-based version 1.0 company, added, “I didn’t really struggle with the idea of the suicide mission. Of course it’s so awful to think of those people being indoctrinated to feel that was the only option — but I think this play gives such a clear understanding of why they were driven to do that.

“On another level I also think I can understand the breakout in terms of them being captured and stuck for years without knowing what was going to happen or what was happening in the war except for vague bits of information. The sense of being suspended and waiting is a terrible state to be in, I think. So I can imagine wanting to end that.”

But she also pointed out, “If you think contemporarily, there are suicide bombers sacrificing themselves — it’s not such a different concept or something alien from the past; the idea of fighting for something greater than yourself is presumably why anyone goes to war, because you have to be prepared to die.”

When I visited Rinkogun’s rehearsal studio in residential Setagaya Ward, Crosby and Phegan warmly answered my questions during their lunchtime. Then, after Sakate arrived and sat down at our table, I asked how the collaboration was working out.

“I’ve worked quite a lot in Japan,” Crosby began, “but this is the first time there’s been two days at the start just watching the Japanese cast rehearse. So it became obvious how, when a point or an issue gets raised in a discussion, they allow breath into it, and there’s silence and everyone can go for some time thinking about it. At home, if we do that, we think, ‘Is there something wrong — what’s happened?’ We want to dive into the conversation.”

Sakate then shifted focus, saying he’s staging this play again because of its powerful relevance in both Japan and Australia.

“The hot topic now is (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe’s big ambition to involve Japan in a collective-defense arrangement,” he began, “though the basis of this has fundamentally changed since it was first proposed at the time of the Iraq war in 2003. Then, it was discussed in the framework of United Nations collective-security operations — but the current government wants to press forward outside of the U.N.

“I am seriously worried about this, because the United States and some accommodating European countries have been setting their own rules since then — and that’s really dangerous. So this play isn’t just related to Japan’s situation, but to other places of the world.

“Meanwhile, the (war-renouncing) Article 9 of our Constitution was a check on Japan joining any international drift such as that, but that brake is being removed by the government now.” Phegan — who’s in Japan and working with Japanese actors for the first time — then commented, “Although the vibration or the residue of those two cultures and armies coming together in World War II is still there in Australia in many ways, just as our version 1.0 company in Sydney aims to do, this play raises issues that had been swept away by the media and presents more of a story than you’ll have ever heard.”

To which Crosby added, “The crucial role that theater artists have to play is to give voice to arguments — not just one-sided arguments — and to open up issues for discussion. And I think this play is terrific at doing that.”

“You could also say the play makes you realize that the Japanese at Cowra were really everyday people who were involved in an enormous experience,” Phegan noted, “because if not you could think they were ‘others’ who existed in some parallel dimension we can distance ourselves from.”

With time drawing short before rehearsals resumed, Sakate said: “I would like to say through this play that it’s definitely wrong to have people die as a means of supposedly shaping the country’s identity. The country’s mission should be the opposite — not to kill any of its people or others.

“I would like to have pride in my country as the first and only nation which decided to give up war forever — but that’s falling apart now.”

So next month, when people from Australia and Japan gather in Cowra’s 5-hectare Japanese garden near the cemetery where local people have tended the Japanese graves ever since the war, it is wonderful that — as well as commemorating the breakout’s 70th anniversary — they will be able to savor this play as well. But how will they all regard the ghosts from those days now?

“Cowra no Honcho Kaigi” (“Hanchos’ Meeting in Cowra”) runs till July 20 at the Suzunari Theater near Shimokitazawa Station in Tokyo. It then plays in Kobe and Nagoya before moving to Cowra, Canberra and Sydney till Aug. 10. For details, call 03-3426-6294 or visit rinkogun.com.