A centenarian says life became “absolutely absurd” in Japan during World War II, especially as authorities cracked down on political crimes under the Public Order and Police Law.

Former social activist Jiro Nishikawa, 106, was born in a fishing village in Ise, Mie Prefecture, in 1909.

That was the year Hirobumi Ito, a four-time prime minister, was assassinated by a Korean nationalist in Harbin, China, when he was the first resident general of Korea, then subjugated to Japan.

At 13, Nishikawa was sent to a retailer in Osaka as an apprentice. The owner of the shop and his wife were Christians. They took Nishikawa to church and allowed him to study at a night school.

Nishikawa later decided to become a clergyman and studied at the school of divinity at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto.

But Nishikawa abandoned the plan in the wake of the Mukden Incident, an event engineered by Japanese military personnel in 1931 as a pretext for the annexation of Manchuria in northeast China.

Members of the Japanese clergy accepted Japan’s war and acted as puppets of the military to propagate the faith in Manchuria, Nishikawa said. He was expelled from the divinity school when he voiced opposition to the Manchurian missionary work.

He then moved to Tokyo and, despite not rejecting his faith, started working as a staff member at the League of Active Atheists in Japan, a body that belonged to the Federation of Proletarian Cultural Organizations in Japan. It was under close surveillance by the Special Higher Police, in charge of investigating political groups and ideologies deemed to be a threat to public order.

“I joined the league as part of my cultural activities and learned much from a scholar there who had graduated from the school of religion at the University of Tokyo,” Nishikawa said.

The public order law, which was promulgated in 1925 mainly to clamp down on communists, was being toughened by stages at the time as the Japanese military deepened its activities in China.

One evening in January 1934, Nishikawa and his wife were arrested by the Special Higher Police, which suspected the league of being a communist organization.

“I was hit with a club made of cherry wood and burned under the nose with a lit candle many times,” Nishikawa recalled, showing the scars he still bears on his face. For nearly a year he was moved from one interrogation station to another.

Special Higher Police officers were known for harassing female prisoners, Nishikawa said. His wife, though acquitted earlier, “must have had an awful time,” he added.

Nishikawa received a two-year prison term, suspended for three years. He returned to Osaka to go into business but was arrested again for possessing a handout on socialism made by a friend of his. He served two years in prison.

The Kempeitai military police and the Special Higher Police kept a close watch on the public under the public order law, which was abolished in October 1945, and imprisoned people who had questioned Japan’s militarism, Nishikawa said.

Young people “who bore the future of this country were unsparingly sent on suicide missions,” he said.

Life during the war was “absolutely absurd and screwed up.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.