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Shizue Sugano, 60, a relative by marriage to Class-A war criminal Koki Hirota, embarked on her antiwar pilgrimage in 1994.

Her late husband, Takeshi, was the grandson of Hirota, a former prime minister and foreign minister who was hanged as a war criminal in 1948. It was her husband’s death in 1993 that prompted Sugano to begin her pilgrimage.

As her husband suffered from a brain tumor that ultimately took his life, he would often be lost between war and reality, suddenly getting up from bed screaming, “Russian soldiers! Run!” Sugano said she realized how much agony her husband had felt throughout his life, noting his pain was aggravated by being associated with a political leader and subsequent war criminal who had sent soldiers off to their deaths in battle.

“Being on the side that was held responsible, he only married at the age of 62 because he felt that he should not become happy like other people,” she recalled.

After her husband’s death, Sugano began visiting many school principals and heads of prefectures, towns and villages to discuss their war experiences. So far, she said, she has visited 628 prefectural and municipal leaders and 88 school principals.

Many shooed her away when they learned about her link with Hirota. However, her antiwar sentiments were strengthened upon hearing such stories as that of an ex-soldier who said he had no choice but to eat human flesh due to a lack of food, and of a man in Okinawa who killed his mother, little brother and sister as part of a so-called mass-suicide order from the Imperial Japanese Army, which had spread the notion that the Allied Forces would kill all Japanese men and rape the women upon landing.

“Soldiers’ lives were lighter than paper, drafted into the military with a single piece of paper,” Sugano said. “But when they died, they were suddenly enshrined as gods at Yasukuni. I think that’s really strange.”

Sugano is concerned about the current situation, in which Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appears adamant on visiting Yasukuni on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender. For her, it almost seems like he is condoning what happened during the war.

“Koizumi says he wants to visit the shrine because ‘we are here because of those enshrined at Yasukuni.’ It’s all right for him to say such a thing if Japan is a closed country, or if he is just a regular 50-something guy,” she said. “But he’s the prime minister. He should learn not only our pain, but also the pain (of Japan’s Asian neighbors).”

She is worried about the tendency among some to criticize people for being unpatriotic for mentioning the acts Japan committed in Asia during the war. “Why can’t they imagine being in the same shoes as the Koreans and Chinese? I want young people to learn more about the period around 1945.”

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