U.K.-Japan history group aims to keep experiences of war alive

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Former soldiers and prisoners of war, academics, scholars and ordinary members of the public have set up a unique organization in Britain designed to examine the country’s encounter with Japan in World War II.

The history study group hopes to encourage schools in both countries to properly assess aspects of the conflict.

Established in London last month, the Burma Campaign Society is the only nonrecriminatory forum for discussion of war-related issues between the two countries, its founders claim.

The organization hopes to become a forum for young and old in both countries to exchange views and debate historical material about the war. It has already set up a Web site and there are plans for e-mail exchanges between veterans and younger members.

It also hopes to try to incorporate factual material about the war into school curricula. At the group’s inaugural meeting, a number of members expressed concern over a lack of information on the war in schools in both countries and that materials are sometimes unbalanced.

The Burma Campaign Society is born out of the Burma Campaign Fellowship Group, which officially closed last month. The fellowship group, set up in 1991, was designed to promote reconciliation between British and Japanese veterans who fought in Burma, now Myanmar, during World War II.

The veterans decided to close their organization because many are getting old and feel they have achieved reconciliation goals. Over the years, teams of veterans from both countries have exchanged visits, and a joint meeting has been held in Myanmar. Many of those who were in the fellowship group are expected to join the new organization.

Phillida Purvis, who helped set up the new society, said that while living in Japan as a diplomat she was puzzled by why World War II was such a taboo subject.

She said there are already a number of Anglo-Japanese organizations, but promoting understanding about the war is not one of their objectives, and in some cases, talk of the war is specifically avoided.

She said the new group has around 40 members so far, a mix of ages and a rough split between British and Japanese.

Purvis, honorary secretary of the new society, said: “We will take different topics and involve the veterans and historians to lead the discussion, and we will debate the subject and then put some of the information about the discussion on a Web site. We hope that we can have interactive discussions.”

The society’s first meeting will be May 9, when the subject up for discussion will be “Was the Pacific War inevitable?”

Purvis added that she hopes to ensure that the two nations’ encounter in the war be included in the “citizenship” section of Britain’s national curriculum. She added there was also scope for more discussion about the war in Japan with the advent of a new “general studies” section in its curriculum.

Veteran Philip Malins, 82, the new society’s vice chairman, said: “We will concentrate more on the historical aspects of the American-Japan conflict and hope to improve the accuracy of the historical reports. It’s also our hope that the younger generation be taught the true facts about what happened in that conflict. We need to know what happened so that it won’t be repeated again and so that we don’t drift into a position where someone like Hitler comes to power.”

However, he added that the new group will still hold memorials for those who died in Burma and the group is also eager to enlist Myanmars living in Britain.

Ryugo Matsui, an associate professor at the faculty of intercultural communications at Ryukoku University, Shiga Prefecture, said it is important for the younger people in Japan to read the experiences of veterans, available via e-mail.

He said, “I hope that there will be a good response to (the society) in Japan. There’s a big conflict between right and left over the interpretation of the war, but the problem is that both sides lack the information from those with firsthand experience of the war. If you provide such information to the Japanese people . . . I hope that their views will become more balanced.”

Tomoyo Nakao, from Okayama University, said there have been a number of Japanese Internet sites that have spoken of Westerners being “a race apart” and she said it was important to offer a counterbalance.