Tortured POW meets his Japanese tormentor

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

“He is most interested in having contact with you for he has lived with many unanswered questions all these years, questions to which perhaps only you can help him to find the answers.” So wrote Patricia Lomax in a letter sent from her home in England to Takashi Nagase, who at the time lived in Okayama Prefecture.
The letter was sent in 1991, two years after Patricia’s husband, Eric, saw an article about Nagase in The Japan Times.

For decades, Eric Lomax had lived with the gruesome memories of his time as a 21-year-old British prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, where Nagase acted as a military interpreter (he was previously an English major at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo). Lomax and 25,800 other British soldiers (plus 18,000 Australians) formed a portion of the POWs forced to build the Thailand-Burma railway under horrid circumstances. Nagase translated orders, supervised interrogations and was present at the torture sessions inflicted on Lomax for two straight weeks in August 1943.

“The Railway Man” recounts Lomax’s ordeal, and how he encountered the man who haunted his waking moments and poisoned his sleep with nightmares. Director Jonathan Teplitzky, co-screenwriter Andy Paterson and Patricia Lomax (Eric died in 2012 during the film’s post-production) arrived in Tokyo to promote “The Railway Man” in late March — when Japan was in the throes of controversy over both comfort women and Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine (among the other ghosts of WWII that continue to plague the nation).

In an interview with the JT, Mrs. Lomax begins by inquiring about how the Japanese viewed the current situation. “There’s a big difference between apologizing and being fully aware of what happened,” she says. “In the U.K. too, there’s controversy over what should or shouldn’t be taught in schools, and often people grow up not knowing what happened in WWII. That said, it’s always too late for apologies. But to know, to be aware of things, is incredibly important — without knowledge there could be no reconciliation. And Eric would agree that without acknowledgement there is only a grief that never ends.”

Teplitzky added that “The Railway Man” isn’t about apportioning blame, but an observation of what happens when two men — former enemies who share a harrowing past — react to their trauma and ultimately deal with one another, many years after the war. “I agree with Patricia that it’s always too late for apologies,” he says. “But in Australia we apologized to the indigenous population for taking their land and treating them so brutally. It doesn’t change the fact that terrible crimes of racism existed. But the act of apologizing opens a door, and it’s possible to start some form of communication.”

Paterson adds, “As Frank (co-screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce) likes to say, it’s amazing what can happen when you get two people in a room and they start talking.”

Paterson says he hopes the film will raise awareness of WWII and start the debate about war again, because “It’s not over, it never is. Look at the legacy of Iraq — it’s so bad, the British soldiers who’ve come back are too traumatized to talk about it. It was the same in 1945. Human beings are just not equipped to go to war and step back into society just like that.”

Teplitzky said: “We’ve had (veterans) in the U.K. say that after this film they felt heard for the first time. For such a long time, they couldn’t be articulate about what they had experienced, and in that sense, neither could Eric. I said to him when we were first talking about starting this project, ‘You are passing on a story that needs to be told.’ He couldn’t really talk about what happened, but at the same time that made him a great storyteller.”

In making a film like “The Railway Man,” what are the points and pitfalls that a filmmaker must take into consideration? “The first thing that we had to acknowledge, and think about, was that the British government wasn’t innocent of war crimes, either,” says Andy Paterson. “We were in Singapore in 1942 and we lost to the Japanese, but what were we doing there in the first place? We were colonialists and had no right to be there, either.”

“We also had to look long and hard at Nagase himself,” says Teplitzky. “What kind of a man was he and what did he really feel?”

“Through Nagase, we learned how so many Japanese soldiers had no choice but to obey their superiors,” says Mrs. Lomax. “Nagase himself was told in no uncertain terms that if he refused to cooperate, or if he showed any leniency toward the British POWs, there would be consequences for his family back in Japan.”

All three were in agreement that the defining factor of “The Railway Man” was expressed in Eric’s statement to Nagase, when they finally met face-to-face in 1993 — two years after Patricia had first written her letter to Nagase, and 48 years after the end of WWII. “You treated us like animals because we surrendered,” wrote Eric. “You said any Japanese soldier would rather die than surrender. But when your turn came, you didn’t die.” Teplitzky adds, “That’s a powerful accusation. And it’s one of the pieces of knowledge that should have been handed down much sooner.”