Japanese cruelty in WWII nothing to sweep under carpet

Updated: 2014-01-30 11:13

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA)

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The outrage over the Japanese prime minister's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine - a memorial honoring, among others, 14 Class A war criminals convicted in the Allied "Tokyo Trials" tribunal after World War II - will not go away.

In a keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, Shinzo Abe took advantage of the forum to try and explain away his visit as a "major misunderstanding", since the shrine not only honors war criminals but also all of Japan's war dead from World War II and previous wars as well. It was those fallen soldiers he was honoring, he said.

His explanation doesn't really work. Anyone having any doubts about how justified the sustained outcry is has only to pick up a book called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

It's the story of Louie Zamperini, an Italian American kid who was something of a hell-raiser growing up in a small town in California in the 1920s. In between staging pranks and lifting food from markets, he discovered an incredible gift for running, which got him on the US Olympic team going to Berlin in 1936, where he crossed paths with Hitler (and stole a Nazi flag). When the war broke out he ended up as a bombardier on a B-24 in the South Pacific, where he survived getting shot at, but his luck ran out when his airplane crashed into the ocean during a search mission.

Zamperini and two crew mates survived the crash and - not to give too much of the electrifying story away - drifted on a raft for 47 days (a record for survival at sea), fighting off sharks, eating uncooked birds, drinking rain water and more than once sensing the end at hand.

The worst part of their bad luck was that the current was taking them West, deeper into Japanese territory. A typhoon pounds and dunks them, a Great White shark shows up, but then they spot an island and are taken prisoner by Japanese soldiers.

Japanese cruelty in WWII nothing to sweep under carpet

That's when things really got bad. Zamperini landed in two of the most notoriously cruel and vicious camps in the Japanese system - Naoetsu and Omori - and fell under the sadistic control of an overseer corporal known by the POWs simply as "The Bird", but whose real name was Mutsuhiro Watanabe.

The Bird, for some reason, had a thing for Zamperini - probably because he was a world famous runner and one of a handful talked about as a contender for breaking the four-minute-mile or maybe because no matter how much he got beaten, he didn't break. But the Bird, who seemed to get a perverse enjoyment out of beating prisoners, visited his most brutal and repeated beatings on Zamperini, who, by the end of the war, was near death from the mistreatment.

Zamperini survived and went home and began to recover, but it was rough, rough going, falling into alcohol and giving into obsessive rages where he decided he had to go back to Japan and hunt down The Bird and kill him if he was to ever get any release from his nightmares.

Watanabe, for his part, did not have an easy time of it either. He was top of the most wanted list and was hunted down all over Japan, hiding in caves, changing his name, appearing like a ghost now and then to his terrified mother who wanted him to turn himself in.

It's not the place of this journal to spoil this marvelous story for anyone who wants to pick it up and read it for themselves. (The author is the same one who wrote the best-seller Seabiscuit, which became a hit movie. This story would make a riveting movie too.)

But the most lasting impression this reader is left with is the ghastly and appalling atrocities that unrestrained, shameless, fanatical Japanese soldiers got away with. And the lasting scars they left on the unlucky soldiers who fell under their boot. As the writer puts it, "There was no right way to peace; each man had to find his own path"

There is little doubt that if The Bird had been caught and tried he would have been convicted and put on the list of Class A war criminals. The idea that anyone of his ilk would hold a place of honor in any people's collective memory is understandably distressing to any of those poor souls looking for peace.

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.

(China Daily USA 01/30/2014 page2)