KAWAGOE, Saitama Pref. – A resource center focusing on Japan’s wartime aggression in China and other parts of Asia has opened in Saitama Prefecture, exhibiting documents in which some 300 Japanese veterans confess to atrocities.
Most of the confessions, to crimes such as murdering and raping civilians, were made under the auspices of the peace group Chukiren, formed in 1957 by about 1,100 repatriated Japanese who had been imprisoned in China after the end of World War II as war criminals.
“This center will be the most powerful weapon to show the truth of the war,” said Fumiko Niki, 80, head of the Chukiren peace memorial museum in the city of Kawagoe and a longtime supporter of the group.
Chukiren, a Japanese abbreviation for a phrase meaning network of repatriates from China, was dissolved in 2002 because its members were aging. But its activities were taken over by a new, younger group headed by Niki, which launched the center. People in their 20s and 30s have joined her.
The center, in a 180-sq.-meter space converted from a warehouse, houses about 23,000 books along with video footage and photos related to war, peace and other issues, according to center officials.
The books were mainly donated from Chukiren members and the late Masami Yamazumi, a former president of Tokyo Metropolitan University and critic of Japan’s education system.
The launch of the center comes at a time when Chukiren members are increasingly concerned over Japan’s current situation, including moves to revise the pacifist Constitution and the basic postwar education law with the aim of teaching patriotism in the classroom.
“Primarily, 1,000 Chukiren members were talking in public about the reality of the aggression. And we have to admit that raising the Japanese people’s awareness as victimizers more than 60 years after the war has not been enough,” said Tetsuro Takahashi, 85, former Chukiren secretary general.
Chukiren’s unique activity of “testifying to the acts of aggression” can be traced back to the members’ experience of being detained in China’s Fushun and Taiyuan prisons, the former from 1950.
Surprisingly treated with leniency by Chinese prison staff, including being provided with medical treatment and Japanese meals, about 1,100 former Japanese Imperial Army soldiers and officers of the puppet regime in Manchuria underwent a re-education process, confessing to their “sinful acts” and reflecting on them.
Only 45 were indicted and convicted in 1956 at military tribunals held in China. None were sentenced to death. All, including those convicted, were able to return to Japan by 1964.
More than 5,000 pages of copies of handwritten testimony by the prisoners are also presented at the newly opened center, provided through the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, Niki said.
Tsuyoshi Ebato, a former soldier held in Fushun, said the confession process he underwent in the prison was “a miracle” that made him realize the graveness of his crime. He recalled how he had ordered new recruits to bayonet captured Chinese tied to stakes as part of training, including a boy who clutched his knees and begged for life.
Ebato, 93, has talked about his experiences on about 10 occasions this year at the invitation of college students, citizens’ groups and teacher unions. This is double the number of such opportunities he had the previous year. They “probably thought I don’t have much time left,” he said.
As the number of Chukiren members still alive, believed to be about 100, is rapidly decreasing, the group headed by Niki has stepped up efforts to find war veterans who will cooperate in talking about their experiences to preserve the memories of war.
Hisao Kubotera, 86, from Hadano, Kanagawa Prefecture, a Chukiren member who responded to the group’s call, gave a lecture in October.
Health problems, including an ulcer, had made him reluctant to go out to speak, but recent moves by the government that he fears are leading Japan to make the same mistakes as it did in the prewar days have spurred him to talk about his experiences in detail.
“I thought a terrible thing is going to happen when I saw the government moving toward revising the Constitution and eyeing passing an amendment to the Fundamental Law of Education in the ongoing Diet session,” Kubotera said.
“I believe these moves will be a large obstacle in facing Asian countries that suffered greatly (in the war).”
Kubotera was born the first of 10 children in a farming family and joined the war in China in 1942. He said he is still haunted by the memory of shooting a boy, around 14 or 15, who was hiding with his mother in a hollow, at the order of his squad leader in Shandong Province.
“I pulled the trigger immediately, like a machine. . . . We were taught that the superior’s order was the same as that of the Emperor. I didn’t even hesitate.” he said. “But I felt as if I was killing my little brother. My heart was thumping, and I was surprised that I even had to do such a thing in war.
“Other soldiers kind of sneered at me and said, ‘Oh, my, Kubotera killed a child!’ But they also killed others, even though it may not have been a child,” he said.
As the days passed, the memories of killing the boy faded, until he was imprisoned in Fushun. Kubotera said it still took a few years until he was able to confess in prison.
“All people who went to the war, directly or indirectly, took part in a massacre,” he said. “Japanese people talk about the sufferings of atomic bomb attacks and air raids, but we need to understand them from the context of Japan’s war of aggression.”
Welcoming the opening of the center, Kubotera expressed willingness to keep on relating his experiences of war.
“In my local area, there are few people willing to listen to what I say, labeling me a communist. I’m also sad that many who have been to the war remain silent,” he said. “But I should keep on talking. . . . I think this will be our long, long fight to preserve peace.”