KURASHIKI, Okayama Pref. (Kyodo) A former Japanese military interpreter involved in interrogating World War II prisoners during the construction of the infamous Thai-Burma railway will go to Thailand on Wednesday to urge the government to get the railway’s ruins designated as a World Heritage site.
“I want to make the railway an antiwar symbol in order to remind the Japanese of the need to reflect on their past conduct,” said Takashi Nagase, 87, an English teacher in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture.
Kumiko Hashimoto, the wife of former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, will accompany him. Her husband, whose home district was in Okayama, has supported his long-standing efforts to promote reconciliation between former Allied POWs and Japanese soldiers.
Nagase is scheduled to meet with a member of the Thai Parliament from Kanchanaburi, the western province bordering Myanmar where museums related to the railway and a cemetery for Allied POWs are located. On Feb. 20, he will visit the Tourism Authority of Thailand to lobby for the site’s registration by UNESCO.
Nagase witnessed Japanese troops torture POWs in Kanchanaburi in the last years of World War II. Shortly after the war, he was deployed by the Allies on a mission to search for the bodies of Allied soldiers who perished while building the railroad and confirmed the remains of more than 13,000 POWs.
The notorious train line is known as the “Death Railway.” About 16,000 Allied POWs, including British, Dutch and Australian nationals, as well as 80,000 to 100,000 Asians perished while being forced to build it.
The 415-km railway linking Thailand and Burma, now Myanmar, was completed in October 1943 after about 18 months with a labor force of some 400,000.
Most of it was abandoned after the war, due partly to high maintenance costs. These days the railway operates along a 130-km route in Thailand.
To atone for his wartime activities, Nagase has visited Thailand more than 120 times since 1964. In 1976, he organized a meeting of reconciliation between former Japanese soldiers and Allied POWs. Together, they crossed the railroad bridge over the River Kwai in western Thailand.
He has also engaged in philanthropic work at the local level in Thailand.
“A lot of tourists visit the railway, but I hope there will be more and more people who come to the site to mourn the war dead,” he said.
His campaign is also aimed at issuing a warning to Japanese society, which he perceives as “increasingly heading toward war” again. Nagase said he has been concerned about attempts by some Japanese to whitewash wartime atrocities.
The man who believes the World Heritage designation of the railway is his last mission in life said that since he first unveiled the idea last summer, he has received no objections.
“When I introduced my plan at an annual memorial service to commemorate POWs at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama last August, representatives of Britain and other Allied countries all welcomed the idea,” Nagase said.
He organizes a memorial service every year for Commonwealth soldiers who died in captivity in Japan during World War II. The British government honored him in 2002 for his efforts to reconcile Japan with its former British POWs.
Some Japanese veterans told him that even though they cannot openly campaign for the World Heritage status because they abused the POWs and Asian workers, they would be glad if the railway is recognized.
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