General | WEEK 3

Ghosts of Cowra breakout haunt Japan to this day

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Prisoner A: ” ‘Never live to experience the shame of being taken prisoner by the enemy’ … that’s what the Imperial Japanese Military Regulations say, hence there must be no prisoners. So what’s happening here now are the dreams of ghosts” — from “Cowra no Hancho Kaigi” (“Honchos’ Meeting in Cowra”).

Last week in Tokyo’s bohemian Shimokitazawa quarter, I never expected to encounter one of those “ghosts.” Yet there he was at the Suzunari Theater, one of the few survivors of a breakout by Japanese troops from a POW camp in Australia that featured in a play whose premiere I attended there the night before.

The opening night of the new work from the renowned Tokyo-based Rinkogun theater company had ended with long and loud applause for the cast of 38 Japanese and American actors, much to the delight of the play’s writer/director, Yoji Sakate, 51.

As wonderful as that had been, though, as I waited for Sakate in the theater’s lobby the next day, I was well-nigh bowled over when a smallish, sprightly old gent suddenly appeared, smiling, by my side, pointed to a poster for the play, and said: “I was in the Cowra breakout.”

Now aged 92, Teruo Murakami, who had come from distant Tottori Prefecture to see the play, told me he was sent to the Cowra camp 300 km west of Sydney in New South Wales a few months before the breakout by 1,104 Japanese captives on Aug. 5, 1944.

After seeing service from Korea to China to Rabaul in New Britain (in present-day Papua New Guinea), this nonagenarian recounted being captured by U.S. soldiers there.

“When I was taken to Cowra, I never imagined I would ever see Japan again,” he said. “And actually, when I finally got home my family said a ghost had returned from the war.”

At the camp, Murakami said he’d lived a rather heavenly life, for the most part killing time playing mah-jongg with his hut-mates using pieces they’d fashioned themselves. “Others played games with cards they’d made and some played baseball with bats they carved,” he recounted, seeing in his mind’s eye episodes I’d only watched being acted out on stage.

But if life at Cowra was so easy-going, why did all the prisoners decide to stage their near-suicidal breakout together? It’s this question, above all, that mystifies many beyond these shores. So I asked Murakami for his explanation.

“The prisoners didn’t know how the war was actually going,” he began. “But we had no doubt about the rule that Imperial Japanese troops must not allow themselves to become prisoners of the enemy. So there was no alternative for us except to die, and we agreed to finish our lives that way. Yet because of a basic human instinct, many of the men — including me — didn’t want to die.”

But when the time came, Murakami was fated to find he’d run down a track to a dead end, where he jumped into a ditch as bullets flew around. Soon, Australian soldiers came and took him back to his fire-damaged hut, where he fully expected to be executed for trying to escape. To his astonishment, though, he was set to work cleaning up the mess.

Since then, Murakami has revisited Cowra several times with other survivors, and now he gives lectures to young Japanese, just as he’d talked at length with the play’s cast during their preparations

Sakate — who is currently president of the Japan Playwrights Association — said he’d resolved to write a play about the Cowra breakout after visiting the Japanese war cemetery there seven years ago.

Certainly, he wanted to analyze why those men did what they did. But he was determined not to simply create an “all-male historical drama,” as he also wanted to explore Cowra’s resonance with today’s Japan. To do so, he seamlessly wove in a play within the play, involving present-day students making a film about the breakout.

Nonetheless, in terms of the true-life drama at Cowra — in which 231 Japanese and four Australians died due to what an official report in Australia would call “Japanese zealotry” — Sakate observes: “First, the soldiers has been brainwashed to believe that only a shameful coward with no right to exist would ever surrender in wartime. Even their families often couldn’t accept defeated troops returning home, and they were often treated like fearful ghosts and driven away.

“But there is also the typical docility of Japanese, and their willingness to unquestioningly accept the orders of group leaders.”

Enter the other main theme Sakate links to Cowra: the strong parallels he sees between it and nuclear power policy in Japan following the disaster that began in March 2011.

“It’s obvious that people living close to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant would be better to move away,” he said. “But there is a tacit rule in Japanese society not to get involved with others’ business — even by urging people in the radiation zones to leave.”

Yet with tragic echoes of events at Cowra, the July 2012 report of the government-instituted Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission stated that the crisis was “made in Japan” — specifically, “in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture; our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism and our insularity.”

But Satoshi Kamata, 74, the freelance journalist who founded today’s leading anti-nuclear campaign, Sayonara Nuclear Power Plants, isn’t happy with such a generalized, culture-based analysis.

“Japan’s groupism surely played a part,” he concedes, “but what about all Japan’s nuclear specialists, engineers, intellectuals and scientists who didn’t do their jobs properly? It was also their corruption that made the disaster; they just got into bed with big firms to profit from promoting the nuclear industry. And sadly, that could happen anywhere in the world.”

Nonetheless, it’s that cultural “groupism” leading to a lack of sufficient concern about the nuclear power crisis — or any of the many other crises the nation faces — that most exercises Sakate.

“In my play I have the young filmmakers commenting sarcastically that the Japanese government will one day start conscripting people to work at the stricken Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant,” he said. “And do you know, I think Japanese would go because they’d say they can’t refuse even such a crazy order — just as the Cowra POWs sacrificed their lives.

“Japanese tend to be blind to what they don’t want to see,” he observed. “So, if someone presents their dream scenario — even though it might be rubbish or they are simply lying — most people will just follow because it seems more difficult to step out of line.

“The recent election landslide by the Liberal Democratic Party (which was in opposition at the time of the nuclear disaster) is a perfect example of that, as it clearly illustrates how Japanese people generally long to depend on someone or something rather than take responsibility themselves about the future course of the country. This has not changed at all since the wartime, and Okinawa in particular has suffered from this country’s leaders’ psychological dependence on the United States.

“So the root of all Japan’s disasters,” Sakate concluded, “isn’t simply the nation’s mentality or its people’s DNA, but foolishness, because the society encourages people not to think for themselves at all, though it is obviously an individual’s duty to do so.”

The journalist Kamata points out that, “Those holding non-majority opinions will certainly lose money and benefits, while if someone questions their boss’ opinion, they will lose their job — or at least have their salary cut.”

Kamata also notes that “Japanese have never learned how to debate the best course of action — and it’s through debate that majority and minority views get combined for the overall good. Changing school education is a key to this and, crucially, to creating a new type of society distinct from our dependent democracy at many many levels.”

In his play, Sakate covers similar ground, as when one of his students’ teachers grumbles: “People must be a leader for themselves. They have to take their own responsibility as their own leader.”

Quite what the old soldier Murakami thought of that he kept to himself. He was also distinctly reticent when asked what the war had all been about, saying only: “I don’t know; I can’t say anything.” Perhaps he’s still seeking an answer almost 69 years after that suicidal banzai charge at Cowra.

Nonetheless, he would likely salute those dead POWs who end Sakate’s powerful work by pleading through time and space for today’s young people to take proper care of Japan’s future.

“Cowra no Hancho Kaigi (Honchos’ Meeting in Cowra)” runs till March 24. For more details, call (03) 3426-6294 or visit

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