As a child, filmmaker Jan Thompson wondered why her father would not talk about his experiences as a World War II veteran. She was angry when she finally learned about his suffering as a prisoner of war of Japan, and then started to speak up for him and his comrades.
It took Thompson, a three-time Emmy-award-winning documentary director, 22 years to tell their survival stories in the 2013 film “Never the Same,” and just as long for her to find a measure of peace. With that change of heart, she is now embarking on a new film project that explores reconciliation between descendants of those on both sides of the war.
The project has connected her with Hidetoshi Tojo, the great-grandson of wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, who was executed as a war criminal and is seen as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.
Reconciliation can take generations of time on both sides, based on her experience.
“When you are talking about reconciliation, everyone thinks that it can happen to the first generation, and it can’t, it won’t, and it doesn’t,” she said in a recent interview in Tokyo. Comparing it to a ripple effect from the pebble thrown into the water, she said: “I think our audience is going to be surprised how far these ripples go and I hope that, as a result of that, then our audience is going to understand what a war can do.”
Although her father never verbally expressed anger toward Japan, he never bought Japanese products.
Thompson, a professor of visual media at Southern Illinois University, began contacting Tojo and others, she said, after reading an Associated Press article about the offspring of Japanese war criminals.
“I would not have thought that there was a man still feeling pain so many generations away,” she said. “Mr. Tojo, he is four generations down and he is still feeling (it) a little bit.”
In an interview in August, the younger Tojo recounted childhood experiences of prejudice, including being called by his great-grandfather’s name instead of his own. His father had trouble finding a job, and once tried to kill himself.
Seeking to surmount past enmity, Tojo contacted Clifton Daniel, a grandson of former President Harry Truman, who is remembered in Japan for ordering the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have exchanged emails and hope to meet.
“Reaching full reconciliation all at once would be difficult. But I’m sure we can build understanding, if we can respect each other, and that would be a first step,” Tojo, a 43-year-old entrepreneur, said after the interview.
Thompson, 58, stressed the importance of facing history accurately, “no matter how painful it is.”
Some 132,000 Allied troops were taken prisoner across Asia during World War II, including more than 30,000 in Japan, historians say. Nearly one-third died in captivity — a death rate several times higher than for prisoners held by Germany and Italy.
In 1942, Robert Thompson was among the Allied prisoners transported by “hell ships” from the Philippines to Japanese POW camps. On one of three ships that carried him, only a few hundred of the 1,600 prisoners survived. As a medic, Thompson treated many of the POWs.
He avoided speaking of the experience, even after his daughter found his POW badge in a suitcase left behind by her grandmother when she died.
But he did attend POW reunions, and in 1991, Jan Thompson asked to accompany him to one gathering. There, she heard stories she had never heard before, and felt inspired to share their stories.
Her father broke his silence and described his experiences in the film, including watching many of his countrymen starve to death. He died at age 92 in 2012, a year before the film was released across the U.S.
Thompson’s own resentment of her father’s suffering during the war only began to thaw several years ago.
“(For) 22 years I was building anger in me, because my father wouldn’t talk about it, and he never showed any anger toward Japan,” she said. “But as I would learn more about what had happened to him, I definitely got angry, like a volcano.”
Thompson said that when she visited Japan with a delegation of former POWs invited through a Japanese government program in 2010, she came “with a chip on my shoulder.” But .she was touched by an encounter with a Japanese reporter who wept and apologized because her own grandfather had been a wartime prison official.
“It absolutely threw me that here is somebody down two generations away had this type of pain, had this type of shame, which really shouldn’t be there,” she said. “It kind of opened up my eyes about what might be happening here in Japan.”
She aims to finish her new film in 18 months, as she wants aging victims from the wartime generation to watch it.
Thompson, who also heads a nonprofit veterans’ group, American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor Memorial Society, accompanied nine former POWs this week to Japan at the invitation of Japan’s Foreign Ministry under a reconciliation program that started five years ago. Japan has similar programs with Australia and Britain.
Many former POWs still feel resentment over the violent, brutal treatment from their Japanese captors. And 70 years after its defeat, Japan still faces pressure from neighboring nations to clearly acknowledge and atone for its wartime atrocities and invasions.
On the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s 1945 surrender, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe voiced his own apology. In July, Mitsubishi Materials Corp. offered an unprecedented apology for using about 900 American prisoners during World War II as slave labor at its mines in Japan.
Some of the former POWs say their feelings were tempered by compassion for the suffering of ordinary Japanese during and after the war.
During his visit this week, Army veteran Clifford Warren, 91, of Shepherd, Texas, said that his miseries in captivity at the Kamioka mine in central Japan faded “on the spot” when he saw badly injured Japanese atomic bombing survivors.
“It was so pitiful,” Warren said, urging all nations to follow Japan’s example of renouncing war. “We first should bring down and not use that type of a weapon on human beings.”