A freelance photojournalist has recorded the individual histories of 70 survivors of the war at home and abroad to show how they acted during wartime and how their experiences affected the rest of their lives.
“I wanted to record the testimonies of war survivors as they are aging and they sincerely responded to my interviews, apparently because they were aware that their time was running out,” Munesuke Yamamoto, 60, said of his new work, a photo book titled “Engraved Memories as Victims and Victimizers.”
The book carries a photo and testimony from each of the interviewees on a double-page spread.
They live in Japan as well as China, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea. Of the 70, 18 have passed away since being interviewed by Yamamoto.
Among the interviewees, Yasuji Kaneko, born in 1920, talked about an incident in China that he says he “will never be able to forget for as long as I live.”
His commander attempted to rape a woman following a firefight in a Chinese village in 1941. After she fought back, Kaneko said he and the commander threw her into a well, and her little boy jumped in after her, and then he was ordered to drop a hand grenade in.
“Even if I try to justify what I did by saying I was only following orders, the child would say, ‘You did it,’ ” Kaneko said before his death in 2010.
“I don’t want young people to repeat the mistakes we committed. We should never wage war again.”
A former army doctor, Ken Yuasa, who was born in 1916 in Tokyo, revealed he had conducted vivisections on 10 Chinese men in three years. “I was scared doing the first vivisection, but I was calm the second time. The third time, I did it of my own accord.”
Saying he felt he had been brainwashed by the militarism of the time, he said before his death in 2010, “I hope a mindless person like me will never again be created.”
Chisako Sugiyama, born in 1915, sustained serious wounds to her face and left arm in a U.S. air raid on Nagoya in 1945.
She had to undergo surgery to remove her left eye and still suffers pain in her arm, but, as a civilian, she was not eligible for state redress.
“Former soldiers and paramilitary personnel are guaranteed state relief, but we, the civilians, have been excluded from the redress program as we were not employed by the state,” said Sugiyama, who has sought a public medical allowance.
“If the state were required to pay vast sums in equal reparations to soldiers and civilians, it would think twice before sacrificing people like they were disposable tools, as happened during the war,” she said. “Even if my plea is not accepted in my lifetime, I hope someone will convey the message to later generations. I think it will promote anti-war sentiment.”
Sadako Kurihara joined a volunteer corps in Manchuria to serve the nation with the promise that she could return home six months later, but ended up marrying a Japanese man in a group wedding as “a bride of the continent” under a national policy of settlement.
Her husband later served as a soldier, while she remarried a Chinese man to protect her baby when Japan was in full retreat in Manchuria during the final phase of the war.
Kurihara spent the next several decades in China before returning to Japan with her children after her Chinese husband’s death. But while her life was shaped by the state’s actions, she has received little support.
“I am an abandoned person,” Kurihara, born in 1925, said. “The state has done nothing for me.”
The book also includes testimony from Chinese, Filipino and South Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” for Japanese soldiers, and from those who witnessed atrocities committed by the Japanese forces.
Known for his photo reports on ethnic conflicts and democratic movements in other parts of Asia as well as the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Yamamoto, based in Tokyo, started the interviews and the shooting for the book in 2005.
“It was an important lesson for myself to hear what they had to say, as I had only limited awareness of the war,” Yamamoto said. “Many of them were around 90 years old, but they kept talking about their wartime and postwar experiences for six to seven hours.”
Their stories show how people can be both victimizers and victims during war, as military personnel and civilians alike joined hands with the state to wage war while suffering hardships because of the decisions of national leaders, Yamamoto said.
Another interviewee, Ichiro Koyama, said, based on his experience of having stabbed to death a Chinese prisoner tied to a tree during a bayonet training session for new recruits, “We need to make a sincere apology before making peace (with the trampled countries and people).”
The 160-page book, in Japanese only, is priced at ¥4,700 plus tax. For further information, call its publisher, Sairyusha, at 03-3234-5931.