26th in a series
Before and during the war, Japanese believed the Emperor was a living god. They also believed they were fighting for him and dying on the battlefield was honorable.
Christians were often the targets of discrimination during the era of Emperor worship, largely because they were judged as not regarding the monarch’s divinity as absolute. Some people may have even viewed Christians as followers of an enemy religion. During the war, however, Christian churches obeyed authorities and were controlled by the military government.
Ryozo Watabe, 86, is highly critical of Japanese churches for giving in to what he now sees as a government that misled the people into wars of aggression. A devout Christian, Watabe followed his faith and refused to kill as a soldier.
And though he never took anyone’s life, Watabe is still in agony. He says he has no words to express how much he regrets not being able to stop others from killing.
“As a Christian, the answer was clear. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ But I couldn’t say that to others,” Watabe said.
To this day, he is filled with remorse that he lived in fear rather than faith during the war.
Watabe was a 21-year-old economics student at Chuo University in Tokyo when he was drafted in January 1944. He was among the university students who were forced after 1943 to give up their studies and make up for the shortage in soldiers.
Watabe said he didn’t consider refusing the mandatory service, not because it would have been futile but because, as he put it, the Bible says everyone must submit to the governing authorities.
“But I was determined to refuse (to do certain things) without reservation, if I faced a situation where I should do so based on my faith,” Watabe said.
There were a few people around Watabe who advised him to follow orders if he wanted to avoid getting into trouble in the military.
Growing up in the town of Oguni, Yamagata Prefecture, Watabe developed his religious beliefs under the influence of his father, Yaichiro, a dedicated Christian and disciple of Kanzo Uchimura, an important figure in Japan’s Christian community in the early 1900s. The rural area had very few other Christians.
Watabe said he grew up in an environment where it was natural that his father welcomed his nanny to the table for meals with the family, teaching him that discrimination was not the way of their God. In those days, it was common for masters and servants to eat separately.
Before Watabe’s departure to China in January 1944, his father begged him to come home alive because the war was not worth dying for. On the night before his departure, “my father also told me to always pray to God,” Watabe said.
While Watabe was in China, his father was seized by the special police because of his Christian beliefs. His mother and sisters meanwhile suffered unfair distribution of food and supplies, he said.
Once staff officers learned of Watabe’s religious beliefs, he was blacklisted. “In the military, they had a term for those who were considered at risk of disobeying the regime — ‘tagged’ — and I became one of them,” he said.
Watabe was assigned to a brigade based in Hebei Province in northern China. He was in a group of 49 new recruits who were trained for combat.
In April that year Watabe faced his first test. One morning, a senior soldier announced that as part of the recruits’ training and to test their nerve, they were going to bayonet Chinese Eighth Route Army prisoners of war.
Watabe said he could only pray to God for guidance.
Later, when the first POW was brought to the execution site, an officer instructed the trainees to thrust their bayonets upward when they stabbed, and demonstrated the technique. Watabe said he couldn’t believe the horrific sight.
The recruits were ordered to follow suit. Watabe recalled how the first one shook as he ran to bayonet the Chinese victim. The soldier’s first attempt failed, or at least it wasn’t the way the officer had shown them. The commander shouted at him and ordered to do it again. And he did.
“No one had killed others before this. Murder was a crime that resulted in a life sentence or the death penalty, but now it was an act of service to the Emperor,” he said. “I just feel that there were actually few people who could accept that without much hesitation.”
But one after another, the recruits took turns executing the POWs. Watabe’s turn was approaching.
Right before his turn came, Watabe said he heard the voice of God: “Put on Christ. It is a sin not to follow God’s teaching. Refuse the slaughter with your life.”
Watabe later heard that the human body can feel pain when one is under extreme pressure, but he believes it was God talking to him. And on hearing his voice, Watabe did not move.
The commander came to him and asked: “Are you telling me that you refused to kill the POW because of your faith?” To this, he replied “Yes, sir!”
Several hardened troops cursed Watabe and spat on him. One seized him by the collar. The ranking officer stopped them and ordered the training to resume. He said Watabe would be punished later.
Watabe said he was not court-martialed or locked up. Nor was he condemned. Instead, he was subjected to torture. It began at night a few days later and it came in many variations.
Ranking officers would take any occasion to beat him, using gaiters, boots and belt buckles. They also kicked and punched him. On other occasions, he was made to hold a wash basin with a hole over his head and bear the water dripping from it in the cold weather.
Sometimes when one soldier failed to follow orders, all of the recruits had to face each other and slap the other. Watabe said that because his platoon had 15 soldiers, he was always the odd man out and had to face a hardened veteran who would use any tool at hand to beat him.
“I thought it was happening to me because my faith was not strong enough,” Watabe said.
On one such occasion, Watabe passed out. When he came to, a medic talked to him. “He told me that I was a fool, and I should just shut my eyes and stab (the POW) and that would be the end of it,” Watabe said. “These words still give me the shivers.”
Standing out as a rebel, Watabe was assigned several times to other duties. He thinks the officers didn’t want a troublemaker under their command. In the end, he became one of the unit’s two communications soldiers. Watabe was trained in Morse code and became good at it. He feels luck was on his side as this assignment helped him survive.
Despite avoiding direct combat, however, the two years he spent in the military forced him to witness many atrocities.
Of all the horrific sights, Watabe said the memory of taking a village with around 500 households still haunts him. The combat lasted six days, and Watabe estimates that around 500 out of the 800 Japanese soldiers taking part were killed or severely wounded. All of the villagers were killed.
During the operation, Watabe helped treat wounded soldiers with the medics. He saw soldiers turning ferocious as the combat became severe. But the image that haunts him to this day is the execution of a young Chinese woman and her small child.
“I just cannot forget the innocent look in the eyes of the baby. I don’t think he knew what was happening,” Watabe said. “At that moment, I should have shouted not to kill them, or stood in front of the baby and the mother and be killed with them. That’s what a man with faith should have done. But I closed my eyes.”
Watabe said he is ashamed he was intimidated by something other than God, believing this means his faith wavered.
He secretly kept a diary in the form of tanka. Soldiers were strictly prohibited from keeping diaries and their belongings were inspected, but Watabe wrote his poems in a small notebook when he was in the latrine. Luckily, it was never found.
After the war, Watabe worked as an official at the Board of Audit. He kept quiet about his experiences until about 15 years ago, when his granddaughter sat on his lap and innocently asked him whether war was scary.
In 1994, Watabe published “Chiisana Teikou” (“Small Resistance”), a compilation of around 600 of his wartime tanka. Each describes what he saw or felt as he lived through the ordeal.
Since then, Watabe has given numerous speeches and has written about his experiences and thoughts on the war in the hope that young people will not repeat the same mistake.
He repeatedly said that the fact he could not try to stop others from killing was not simply out of fear of being persecuted, but because he also could not stand up to authority, a quality he feels is typical of Japanese. And he feels people need to overcome this.
“It’s easy for a person to blindly follow the decision of a government or a nation, but that decision is not always right,” Watabe said. “Even though one may end up disobeying orders, each person must establish a strong ‘self’ and act according to their conscience. This could be anguishing, but in the long run that’s the only key to happiness.”
In this occasional series, we interview firsthand witnesses of Japan’s march to war and its crushing defeat who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.
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