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Book Review of "Our Messages: From Japanese Citizens to the People of the World"

Edited and Written By The National Association of the War Bereaved Families for Peace, Supervised by Saito Tadatoshi, "Our Messages: From Japanese Citizens to the People of the World." Preface, 181 bilingual pages, (1999: Nashinoki-sha).
Reviewed by Victor Fic, Tokyo

Lovers of peace have long said that the pen is mightier than the sword. This book, in which ordinary Japanese implore the world to hear their anguished words about war and peace, encourages one to think that maybe the human voice can be louder than the canon. The book is published by the National Association of the War Bereaved Families for Peace.

Thirteen of its members wrote short essays that incorporate four major themes: their family's personal loss during the war, belated recognition of their nation's crimes, the need for atonement, and the importance of spreading the message of peace. While a few of the contributors are eloquent, most write conversationally, and in the first person singular; therefore, the essays sound as if the writers are standing in front of us, confessing, regretting, imploring.

Takemitsu Ogawa states near the start that, ". . .only the bereaved who know the depth of grudge [sic], lamentation and loneliness, can sympathize with the greater pain of the wounded hearts of the bereaved of the maltreated [nations] and . . . bring about the solidarity with Asia and the world." Japanese who lost loved ones in the war often retreat into the shell of self-pity, a small space that leaves no room for non-Japanese. In contrast, Ogawa remarkably insists that a pained heart can derive from its very suffering the nobleness and courage to understand the pain of the Other. Ogawa does not say where he is from.

Gripping imagery enlivens the essay by Ishizaki Kiki of Zushi City, Kanagawa when she addresses the theme of loss. Her husband Kazuhiko drowned, aged twenty-eight, after a submarine torpedoed his ship. "With the ship heeling over more and more, only death cries echoed in the pitch darkness, and the passengers vanished into the ocean in anguish . .. . I feel forsaken and my mind stops working. And my wish that he were here now in the hand of God brings me back to the serene reality." Unfortunately, she will be wishing forever, since he lies at the bottom of the Taiwan Strait forever.

Asato Kanae of Kitanakagushuku Village, Okinawa, is poignant both for what she does and does not say about loss. She recollects how she and her terrified family fled enemy shelling; while in a cemetery, a poisonous snake bit her. Eventually, they took refuge in a cave. The carbon monoxide was so overwhelming that candles would not burn. A lunatic spoke nonsense while someone blabbed on endlessly about food. Her baby died quietly in her arms in the cold and dark. Her sister-in-law told her to bury it in the dirt quickly because they might die soon as well.

Then Asato adds, "I lost my [nine] family members one after another. I will omit to write down the tragedy I experienced in the cave as I would not be able to describe it here." When she insists that she wants to be a witness for peace, one can fault her for not being thorough. Better yet, one can insist that sometimes, a painful silence is loquacious.

Motomura Harumi of Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, addresses the theme of confession and atonement not with Japanese-style ambiguities, but bluntly. First, he provides a picture of his older brother Mototoshi reclining under a tree before he was killed at Guadalcanal in 1942, aged thirty. Harumi then states that "unless I turned the axis of my action as a victim of the war to the sense of having been an assailant, I would have no right to join the movement of bereaved families who sincerely wish for peace." These candid words are not heard often enough in Japan, where too many "pacifists" loudly accuse others and quietly exonerate themselves.

Mizoguchi Tadashi, also of Hamamatsu, carries the theme of self-accusation and atonement to a startling conclusion. His older brother Shigesaku, pictured smiling while holding a horse, died aged thirty-two at sea off Taiwan. Tadashi also fought. But he judges that, "It is inexcusable to say that [we were] manipulated. I am guilty. My crime deserves death." How ironic that while the Japanese right wing insists that Tojo and other war criminals deserved life, Tadashi condemns himself. Whether one agrees with his penalty or not, clearly he is a man with a strong conscience and sense of justice.

The theme of inspiration is best handled by Oshiro Isao of Tomigusuku Village, Okinawa. While in a cave in 1961, he heard a dull thud under his feet that sounded like an old tree; in truth, Oshiro had stepped into the hardened ashes of the dead. Again, the scene is described movingly: "At first sight, I recognized them as a family. While I was looking closely there, a small cup tumbled in front of the ashes. The family must have taken poison as they determined to die all together when they were driven into a corner." He adds the tear-inducing line that that the only happiness they had left was the knowledge that "the family could all die together.

Small ashes were on big ones. Children were held by their parents." He concludes that "The war dead cannot explain their agony, rage, sorrow, wretchedness and hope", but the living can understand their wishes. Isao swore to the ashes that he would work for peace. This evocative communicator then wrote a poem which concludes, "The Rising Sun Flag made of flowers on the altar/Smell bloody."

Their commitment to peace led the above to write this educational and inspiring book; one hopes others will follow. However, one regrets that many of the contributors conflate peace with a selfish one-country pacifism. For instance, Ishizaki notes Japan's increasingly large international profile and worries that she hears "the sound of soldiers' boots marching toward invasion." She and the others spurned both the Cold War defense pact with America, and now involvement in U.N. peacekeeping operations.

In truth, the pact reassured Asia about Japan while also helping the West to contain the U.S.S.R. As for the U.N., is it aggressive? If Japan merely writes checks and rolls bandages for its allies, it will hypocritically benefit from the hard and dirty work of others while lecturing them about morality. Surely, the essayists are all too good as people to idealize such parisitism?

The book is further marred by spells of unclear writing. It needs a circumspect editor who can strengthen the ambiguous or awkward sentences without the over-editing that would homogenize the different styles.

Nonetheless, the book is worth reading so one can learn from the gripping, true tales in words "spoken" by those left behind, the survivors who must sometimes look sadly at the front door, hoping that their lost loved one will open it looking the way he did when he left for ever. These tales are made more intimate and tragic by photographs of the brothers, fathers and husbands who are now sorrowfully regarded as both war victims and war criminals by their families. It is refreshing and reassuring to see that some Japanese know they must first repent before they preach.

One is also comforted that within Japan, humanists like Ogawa speak about the power of the heart in a way that requires a translator for the words, but not for the spirit.