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Of guns and cutlery: Memories of the war, from the Netherlands to Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

To mark the 70th anniversary in 2015 of the end of World War II, Hans Brinckmann, author of “Showa Japan — The Post-war Golden Age and its Troubled Legacy” and other books, wrote an autobiographical essay titled “Of Guns and Cutlery” based on his memories of the Netherlands in wartime and postwar Japan. Its Japanese translation by Hiromi Mizoguchi appeared in Atlas (Atorasu), a Japanese literary magazine, which regularly publishes Mizoguchi’s translations of Brinckmann’s essays. The English original of the essay appears here for the first time.

On a high shelf in my kitchen I keep a small metal box containing forks and spoons made from acrylic glass. It’s been years since I used them, but today I happened to take down the box, and when I opened it, war memories came floating out. Memories of a man I never met.

I went into my library and pulled out the photo album of the 1931 class of graduates of the Faculty of Economics of Keio University in Mita, Tokyo. Why this album? Because it includes photos of my father-in-law, born in 1905 as Makito Shozo, the third son of an old, established family from the city of Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture.

Shozo was sent off to Tokyo to attend Keio. Soon after his graduation, he was adopted by a childless Nagoya land-owning family to marry their adopted daughter, Toshiko. This involved changing his name to Tasuke Yoshida, though family and friends continued to call him Shozo. In 1933 Toshiko gave birth to a daughter, Toyoko, who eventually became my wife. But that’s another story.

Even after his marriage, the book-loving, Anglophile Shozo dreamt of moving to England someday to study literature at Oxford University. Japan’s increasingly aggressive policies made that hope ever more unrealistic.

Shozo was a free thinker who could not identify with Japan’s military adventures, and for a long time he had the right connections to avoid being drafted. However, as the war progressed, more and more previously exempted men were being called up, and one day his draft notice arrived. He reported for duty, but was knocked down and kicked by a sergeant for missing roll call and for failure to shave his head.

He realized prompt action was needed. Being the heir of the rather wealthy Yoshida family, he quickly bought two small factories he had been looking at: a manufacturer of bicycles, including a model for military use, and a small subcontractor for Nakajima Aircraft Co. that manufactured acrylic glass used in bulletproof windows for fighter planes. These two factories were classed as “strategic,” thus exempting him from military service.

Yet Shozo could not escape his fate. One night in early 1945, he was riding home in the pitch dark on one of his own bicycles. As there was no street lighting, he didn’t see the large unmarked hole that had been dug there earlier that day as part of shelter-construction work. He fell into the hole with his bike.

The handlebar lodged into his chest, causing a festering wound. In the absence of antibiotics, it developed into pleurisy and then tuberculosis. He died in August 1946. Opening the box of those spoons and forks, made in his factory from acrylic glass cuttings, brought back those memories.

Perhaps it was Shozo’s fatal fall into that hole that also triggered reminiscences of my own childhood experiences in late 1944 and early 1945, the last winter of the war in the Netherlands. My parents divorced when I was 9, and I lived with my mother and my little sister in Wassenaar, a suburb of The Hague.

After my father’s departure, my mother had spare rooms available, and as she needed the money, she rented them out to a couple introduced by our neighbors. When the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940, they had been on home leave from the Dutch East Indies, where the husband was an inspector of education. The war prevented them from returning to the East, and they were grateful to have found a decent place to live. But his wife was seriously ill, and soon moved to a care home where she died, leaving mother alone with the kind widower. After the war, he never returned to the East, to the delight of all three of us.

But it was still 1944, and food was getting scarce. Sometimes I got on my boy’s bicycle to visit my father in the center of The Hague, where he lived above a stationery store he owned. He supplied us with groceries after the shops had little left to sell.

On one of those trips, through a dangerous zone from where V-2 rockets aimed at London were launched, I had jumped abruptly into a crater left by a previous bomb to avoid being hit in a new bombing attack that was being unleashed just then by diving British fighter planes. It clearly was a spontaneous decision, yet as I peeked over the rim of the crater after the attack, I felt that I had hidden there in the belief that the same place would not be bombed twice.

Then another memory took over. A few days after the end of the war in May 1945, my father and I were watching a desolate column of defeated German officers and men who had been part of the occupation forces pass in front of father’s store. They were being led away in disgrace, on their way back to an uncertain future in Germany.

Among them was a kind soldier, a private in his 40s, who had taken considerable risks by stealthily supplying my father, his family and his workers with food from the stores of the German military occupation to help us get through the terrible famine that had hit the western Netherlands during the war’s last winter. Once part of a controlling army, now a despised loser, he raised his hand in sad farewell as he lumbered past us.

Back home in Wassenaar, we were also treated kindly by a German soldier who had been in charge of our garage, requisitioned by the occupation for “storage” purposes. Military trucks arrived at night to deliver or take away bags and boxes, but we never knew what they stored there. Until they released the garage back to us early in 1945, that is. When my mother opened the garage doors she found half a dozen large bags of coal, enough to keep our house warm and the kitchen stove burning for the rest of the winter, she said. Perhaps this was a gesture of thanks to our maid, who had taken pity on the nice, lonely soldier guard, serving him a cup of fake wartime coffee whenever mother wasn’t looking.

Among the most poignant war-related memories to have claimed my attention recently were those from the streets of Kobe in the early 1950s, when I was barely adult and already working in the branch of a Dutch bank: the heartbreaking images of white-robed disabled war veterans begging on street corners for some money and respect.

They presented a painful sight, those legless, armless wrecks with hooks for hands and iron-and-leather contraptions masquerading as legs. Most were still wearing the soldier’s caps in which they had fought — and ignobly lost — the war as they stood there, in clusters of two or three, in the wintry cold, their dolefully white kimonos flapping about their artificial limbs, their lives rendered doubly obsolete by their country’s defeat and their own mutilation. Most of them displayed placards describing the horrors they had been through and pleading for support.

They managed to maintain a kind of bitter, accusing dignity in the face of the embarrassed indifference from the equally beaten but still functioning populace, who scurried past minding their own business, trying hard not to see them, sometimes furtively tossing them a coin.

Some of the crippled veterans sang sorrowful songs, or played an instrument — an accordion perhaps — or used a wind-up gramophone from which emerged incongruous, scratchy military marches. I remember seeing two seriously disabled soldiers on a corner of the sloping shop-lined street, the Sando, leading up to the Kiyoshikojin Temple near Takarazuka. They sat on makeshift stools, clumsily playing some kind of string instrument-in-a-box. I felt sorry for them, tried to smile in powerless sympathy, but could find no other way to express my feelings than by slipping a few coins into their collection box.

Clearly these human wrecks did not form part of the orderly pattern of Japanese city-life that I was becoming to admire. There was a disturbing contradiction in this, which I found baffling. I wondered how a civilized and talented people bravely rising from the ashes of their shattered past could so totally ignore the plight of their wounded veterans. I was told that “the government” should take care of these poor devils, and that in any case their plight “could not be helped.”

Others were sharper in their judgment: The militarists had deceived the nation and lost the war, and it was their fate to end up like this. I was advised not to pay too much attention to people parading their misfortune. It was a Japanese problem over which foreigners should not worry themselves.

I felt indignant. True, the “militarists” had started and lost the war, but these soldiers were as much the victims of their generals and misguided politicians as the millions in the cities who had suffered the carpet bombings and the two atomic conflagrations. They had to be given the support they deserved and so very badly needed.

Still, it didn’t take long before I found myself heeding that sensible advice from sensible Japanese people. Within weeks, I had effectively banned the broken white soldiers from my consciousness. When they loomed into view, I crossed the street. I closed my ears to their plaintive songs. It was not easy at first, but I stood fast. As guilt receded, relief took its place. Since then, I had erased those war images from my mind, because we must leave the past alone and live in the vibrant, demanding now. Right? What is the use of raking up history? To what end?

Yet now, after all these years, the memories are back, prompted by the innocuous act of my opening that small metal box. Once again, I’m confronted by the horrors that mankind, time and again, has inflicted on itself, the consequence of arrogance, greed, or — most often — in the name of religion or racial hatred.

The message is clear: Don’t close your eyes to the past. Awareness of the mistakes and misdeeds by those who went before us — and by those acting the same way right now — will keep us alert to the dangers that surround us and thus hopefully help prevent history from repeating itself.

One way, perhaps the only way, for an individual to do our part is to practice in our own life the principles of fairness and tolerance — to allow scope for the broad spectrum of views and convictions that makes up human society, instead of trying to forcefully convert others to our creed or reaching for a gun at the first sign of discord.

I’ve moved the metal box to a lower shelf, to make it more accessible. From now on I’ll open it often and use its spoons and forks to help me remember. For we must know history to help us handle the present and prepare for the future.

A copy of Atlas No. 32 containing the Japanese version of this article can be ordered from its publisher, Nishida Shoten, by calling 03-3261-4509, sending them an email at nishi-da@f6.dion.ne.jp or visiting their website: www.nishida-shoten.co.jp. Hans Brinckmann on Amazon: www.amazon.com/author/ hans-brinckmann. Brinckmann’s websites: www.habri.jp (Japanese and English) and www.habri.co.uk (English)

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