On March 11, I went to Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, to deliver an address at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the awful tsunami it caused, which inflicted terrible destruction and loss of life along some 400 km of the Tohoku region’s Pacific coast.
There, I met a remarkable man, though his narrative was unrelated to the tens of thousands of tragedies being commemorated that day. Nonetheless, I was deeply moved, and retell his story here, aided by materials I’ve been able to obtain subsequently.
Seventy-four-year-old Osamu Komai approached me an hour before my speech. He had with him a bag of books, documents and other items — including an original program of the 1983 film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (“Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu”), which lists me as assistant to its director, Nagisa Oshima.
Handing me the program, he said: “It was the portrait of Capt. Yonoi, played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, that started to bring back the story of my father that has obsessed me all my life. That’s why I came here today to see you.”
His father, he explained, was Mitsuo Komai, who was born in the Tohoku city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 28, 1904. However, from age 3, Mitsuo was raised in Morioka by an uncle who owned a shoe store. As a youth he loved literature, and when he married it was to his high school sweetheart, Yaeko, who shared his passion for the written word.
In 1929, Mitsuo got a job in Osaka with the transportation company Kokusai Tsuun, which in 1937 changed its name to Nihon Tsuun, or Nittsu — now a huge international communications firm.
But in 1932, Mitsuo volunteered for the army and left the company. The year before, Japanese troops had invaded China, and by 1932 the puppet state of Manchukuo was established. The young office worker must have felt a patriotic call to arms, although after being trained for a year and reaching the rank of second lieutenant, he returned to civilian life.
On Feb. 26, 1939, however, Komai reenlisted and was sent to present-day North Korea — before again returning to civilian life, and his family, in 1941. As a reservist, though, he was called to arms in 1942 — and when he left then, it would be the last time that 4-year-old Osamu would see his father.
“I don’t remember what he looked like,” he said to me last month in Morioka. “I have never even dreamed once of his face.”
His father was sent to the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) in 1943, and from there to Thailand where, with the rank of captain, he was made second in command of the prisoner-of-war camp in Kanchanaburi.
In the meantime, Yaeko was making preparations to evacuate from Osaka to her hometown of Morioka with her three little children, one of whom was Osamu, who had been born in Kyoto in 1937. (The Komais lost their eldest child, Hideko, when she was 4.)
It was an incident at the POW camp in September 1943 that changed Capt. Komai’s life — and those of his family in Japan after the war.
At that time, the Japanese military was overseeing the construction of a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon — the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. More than 100,000 of the 240,000 Asian and Allied prisoners used as virtual slaves died as a result of disease and merciless treatment. The POW camp in Kanchanaburi was near a railway bridge. A fictionalized recreation of the story of the bridge’s construction formed the basis of 1957’s multi-Oscar-winning British film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” directed by David Lean.
According to evidence presented to a postwar war crimes trial, members of the especially feared Kempeitai (Military Police Corps) in the camp discovered that some British prisoners had a radio and a map. They had taken the radio apart and dispersed the parts among a number of prisoners. Some of these parts had been discovered by guards, but the prisoners laughed them off as “lucky charms” and were allowed to keep them. Batteries, in packages labeled “canary seeds,” were smuggled into the camp.
When the existence of the radio and map became known to the Japanese officers at the camp, the ringleaders were hauled in and interrogated. In all, eight British officers were beaten and tortured. Capt. Komai, having been ordered by his superior officer to take charge of the investigation, actively participated in this.
Normally, prisoners deemed to have been behind such a plot would have faced a military tribunal, and the Japanese armed services had elaborate procedures for such trials, even in the field. Those procedures were not followed.
After four hours of torture, two officers, Capt. Jack Hawley and Lt. Stanley Armitage, died. Another, Lt. Eric Lomax, who drew the map, escaped death, but only with severe bruising and two broken arms.
As I write this, I have before me a photocopy of documents from the Military Court for the Trial of War Criminals conducted in Singapore in 1946. These list all the crimes the six Japanese soldiers — one of them Capt. Mitsuo Komai — allegedly committed at Kanchanaburi in September 1943, for which they were tried in that military court.
Did Capt. Komai, Osamu’s father, know that what he was doing constituted a war crime; or was he only acting out of a perverse sense of patriotic duty in making the British soldiers pay for the crime, punishable by death, of spying?
I also have a copy of a postcard — the last one he sent to his wife, Yaeko — dated March 27, 1945, and postmarked from somewhere in Kyushu. Writing there, Capt. Komai worries that his children will not remember what he looks like, and he assures his wife that she should not worry about him.
But the tone of the postcard may suggest that he is far from assured himself as to the progress of the war and what his fate will be. Nonetheless, from Kyushu he returned to the front.
After the war, Capt. Komai was arrested and held in Singapore’s Changi Prison, which was built in 1936 by the British, and which was where some 3,000 civilians were incarcerated by the Japanese occupiers during the war. (Approximately 50,000 POWs, mainly British and Australian, were also held near the prison, and they too are usually said to have been held at Changi.)
The charge sheet of the military tribunal accuses the six Japanese of inflicting “severe suffering and injuries” on the eight British officers, two of whom “met with their death in custody.”
Of the six Japanese, only Capt. Komai pleaded guilty, and on Feb. 7, 1946, he and his codefendant Sgt.-Maj. Nobuo Iijima, were sentenced to death. The other four were sentenced to between one day and life in prison.
On March 14, at 10:02 a.m., Capt. Komai was hanged. The Imperial War Museum in London has footage, taken by the British Armed Forces Film Unit, of Sgt.-Maj. Iijima being hanged and of Capt. Komai being led up the steps to the gallows.
How the trial and death of his father affected Osamu’s life in postwar Japan; how he strove, late in his life, to atone for his father’s crime; and how this story relates to the theme of a major feature film (starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine) now in pre-production in Britain, Thailand and Australia — these are the subjects of next week’s Counterpoint.