SYDNEY – Australian troops serving alongside Japanese soldiers in East Timor may be a sign of the future, but a Returned and Services League state president will not participate in a visit to Japan for fear of offending former prisoners of war, RSL National President Maj. Gen. Peter Phillips said Friday.
The RSL is a national body for serving and former defense force personnel and their families, with a membership of more than 214,000.
Its national executive, comprising seven state and territorial presidents and a national secretary, will visit Japan in November at the invitation of Tokyo, Phillips told Kyodo News.
Five of the state and territorial presidents will take part in the visit, with New South Wales President Keith Hall declining the invitation and South Australian President John Baily unconfirmed for health reasons, Phillips said.
The NSW branch of the RSL has more than 1,000 members who are former prisoners of war, the majority of whom were interned in Japanese camps, Hall told Kyodo News.
“As the president of the NSW branch, I don’t want to knowingly or willingly offend the membership of the RSL,” he said.
“It is a personal decision,” Hall said. “The survey I did was very much both for and against going, but I know if I decided to go, I would have been supported.”
Phillips made an unpublicized trip in 2000, but it will be the first official RSL visit to Japan.
The RSL has been a vocal objector to Australia’s cooperation with Japan, and strongly criticized its government for sending in 1989 then Gov. Gen. William Hayden to attend Emperor Hirohito’s funeral.
The national executive visit will give the veterans an opportunity to respond to Japanese people who have expressed remorse over World War II, Phillips said.
They will visit Yokohama’s Commonwealth War Cemetery, where 280 Australians are buried in graves administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the city of Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, where many Australians were incarcerated in the Naoetsu POW camp, he said.
The RSL’s concerns about the teaching of World War II history in Japan will be “discreetly raised” with authorities, Phillips said.
“We are concerned the authorities don’t do enough to educate the young about the war,” he said.
“The way history of the war is covered glosses over some events.”
Local authorities have been able to choose from eight official texts of the war and there has been an effort recently by some to ensure an accurate reflection of the event, Phillips said.
The visit may help dispel any lingering feelings of fault, he added.
“We want to get across the view that it’s not right to blame young Japanese for the sins of their fathers. Clearly that’s wrong,” Phillips said, adding that his own father died of illness during the war.
The state presidents had canvassed the opinions of their councils and POW delegations about the visit, he said.
“I’m not aware of any objections,” Phillips said.
“All state presidents have the support of their members. That’s not to say there’s no opposition, but if there is, it’s limited and hasn’t been voiced.”
There are currently more than 800 Australian Defense Force members and many Japanese engineering troops serving with the U.N. peacekeeping force in the newly formed nation of East Timor.
“Right now, Australians are serving alongside Japanese in East Timor,” Phillips said. “This is the future of cooperation we are looking toward.”
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