YOKOHAMA – Overcoming years of conflicting emotions, a 71-year-old Dutchman this year made his first visit to Japan, seeking to retrace the footsteps of his father, who spent his youth in Yokohama and was later interned by the Japanese as a prisoner of war during World War II.
Born in the Dutch East Indies, Edu Van Naerssen’s father, Jan, came to Japan alone to study developed industries. Then 17, he appears in a photograph of the class of 1935 at the now-defunct St. Joseph International School in Yokohama, which opened in 1901.
Jan returned to the Dutch East Indies to work as an electrical engineer when the Pacific War broke out in 1941, 78 years ago. He enlisted in the Dutch army and fought the Imperial Japanese Army but became a POW when the Dutch army was defeated in March 1942.
Although Jan tried to hide the fact that he could speak Japanese, he protested in the language when he saw his comrades being abused.
Later, Jan worked as an interpreter but often found himself caught in the middle by having to convey the Japanese soldiers’ harsh demands to his fellow POWs.
Despite these experiences, Jan never used the derogatory term “Jap” or had any issues buying Japanese products even after he returned to the Netherlands, where strong anti-Japanese sentiment prevailed after the war.
Edu believes his father, who died in 1999, lacked this animosity because he had the chance to interact with well-mannered Japanese before WWII.
Born after the war, Edu had always wanted to visit Yokohama to see where his father spent his youth but was conflicted by negative feelings about his country’s former enemy.
But these feelings softened after he participated in talks arranged by Dialogue Netherlands-Japan-Indonesia, an organization that aims to foster reconciliation and peace-building among the three countries.
Setting foot in Japan for the first time in late September, Edu visited the site of his father’s school, where a condominium complex now stands following its closure in 2000.
Tears filled his eyes as he reminisced about his father and how he was finally able to see Yokohama.
“There are people in other countries who live harboring various feelings toward Japan. I want to touch what’s in their heart and deepen our exchanges,” said Yoshiko Tamura, an English school manager who served as his guide.