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War criminal’s son and British ‘railway man’ bridge war’s painful divide

by Roger Pulvers

Second Of Two Parts

In September 1943, eight British officers were tortured by their Japanese captors at the prisoner-of-war camp in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. The camp, and a nearby bridge over the Kwai River, were later the setting for director David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” about the ordeals undergone by tens of thousands of POWs forced to build the Thai-Burma Railway.

One of those officers was Lt. Eric Lomax. Then 24, he was a Signal Corps engineer from Edinburgh who had been captured when Britain’s “impregnable fortress” of Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942. He was eventually transported to Thailand, where he ended up at the camp in Kanchanaburi.

While at the camp, Lt. Lomax conspired with fellow prisoners to hide a radio. In addition, he drew a map that, if sent to Allied troops fighting the Japanese, could have provided valuable intelligence. The existence of the radio and the map was discovered by the dreaded Kempeitai (Military Police Corps) stationed at the camp.

It is a miracle that he survived the torture, which included hours of beatings, simulated drownings and exposure to the elements. In fact, two fellow officers failed to survive their “interrogations.”

After the war, six Japanese soldiers who took part in this were tried in Singapore — including Capt. Mitsuo Komai. He was found guilty on all charges and hanged in the then-British colony on March 14, 1946.

On a recent trip to Morioka in Iwate Prefecture, I met Capt. Komai’s son, Osamu, who is now 74. He told me the story of his father, whom he last saw at age 4, but of whom he has no memory.

“My father’s trial and execution had an enormous effect on the life of my family after the war,” he said. “My mother never spoke of my father’s fate, and I had no idea what my father had done until I was in high school. Apparently, my mother had been telling my teachers in primary and middle school, ‘Osamu’s father was executed as a war criminal so there is no knowing what he might get up to. If he does anything, please beat him.’ When I was finally told this by a high school teacher, I was in shock.”

Years passed in which Komai continued to pay dearly for his father’s transgressions. Companies he applied to for employment failed him at interview when they learned about them. He and his family were treated like common criminals by officialdom — despite this being the country that sent his father to war in the first place.

It was only after many years that he set out to discover more about his father — the only one of the six codefendants at the military tribunal in Singapore to plead guilty.

At least he had taken responsibility for his actions, and had not attempted to hide behind the excuse of “just following orders,” or resorted to the blatant postwar blame-shifting that characterized the conduct of virtually all Japanese, military and civilian, accused of war crimes.

In addition, he had paid the ultimate price. How many fathers of the people who were condemning Osamu and his family were also guilty of brutality during the war? And how many got off scot free by slyly deflecting guilt onto others?

Osamu then heard of a book titled “The Railway Man.” It was published in 1995 by Eric Lomax and tells the story of his wartime experiences, including his detention in the POW camp and his torture at the hands of his captors. Osamu vowed then to meet Lomax and apologize for the actions of his father.

Former Lt. Lomax, now 92, had himself come to terms with his bitter memories when he met Takashi Nagase, the man who had interpreted for him and his captors during sessions of torture. Nagase, who returned to Japan to become a teacher of English, spent more than half a lifetime atoning for his guilt and striving to make amends with former victims of Japanese torture. When Nagase finally met Lomax in 1993, he apologized over and over again.

“After our meeting, I felt I’d come to some kind of peace and resolution,” said Lomax at the time. “Forgiveness is possible when someone is ready to accept forgiveness. At some time, the hating has to stop.”

It was through Nagase’s good offices that Osamu made contact with his father’s victim. It wasn’t so easy, however, for Lomax to meet the son of his torturer face to face. It took six years before he would accede to do it.

For the encounter, Osamu traveled to Lomax’s home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town in England, just across the river from Scotland. They met there on June 30, 2007.

“He stared at my face in silence,” said Osamu. “He told me it was very hard for him to understand why the son of the man who tortured him had come to apologize. I told him that I had suffered all my life for my father’s crimes and that, as a Japanese, I wanted to apologize from the bottom of my heart — and this appeared to move him to understand.”

“What his father did had become an obsession with him which had built up over 50 years,” Lomax told the Berwick Advertiser newspaper on July 4, 2007. “Continuing to hate gets you nowhere. It just damages you as an individual. You have to put things in their place, otherwise your whole life is dominated by hatefulness and you are the one to continue to suffer.”

Nagase, the former interpreter, passed away at age 92 in June 2011. Komai has kept in contact with Lomax, who says, “We have remained friends ever since.”

A film version of “The Railway Man” is currently in pre-production in England, Thailand and Australia. The character of Lomax as an old man is being played by Colin Firth and, as a young man, by Jeremy Irvine. Rachel Weisz was to play Lomax’s wife, Patti, but she was recently replaced by Nicole Kidman.

“(This story) is really like what it means to be home (after the war),” Firth said about “The Railway Man” movie.

While the scenes at the camp, with all their horrific impact, and incidents surrounding the building of the Thai-Burma Railway and the infamous bridge over the Kwai River will be recreated in the film, its message is to be one of reconciliation and the unbreakable bond between victim and victimizer.

Capt. Komai wrote a postcard to his wife during the war with two lines written in katakana: “Last night I dreamed of little Osamu and I was so happy.”

Katakana is the script that prewar children learned first. Perhaps he thought his little boy would be able to read his words.

Osamu Komai’s personal mettle — in confronting the persecution dealt him after the war and in gathering the courage to meet the man his father tortured — speaks of Japan’s often underreported drive to redress the crimes of an earlier generation.

It is personal encounters such as the one between Osamu Komai and Eric Lomax that allow us to believe in the words, “The war is finally over.”