While channel surfing the other night, I came across a news report showing a Japanese woman, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing in August 1945, saying she would never go to America. To this day, even though her country has become the world’s second richest nation with U.S. assistance, she hates the Americans.
But while many Japanese understandably have bitter memories of World War II, many of us throughout Asia, whose countries the Japanese occupied during that war, have our own searing memories.
When the Japanese call for an American apology for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it revives in me the anguish of the war — the anguish I experienced as a young man, the anguish I want to forget, but cannot. War is terrible, vengeance does nothing, but when the past is taken out of context it doesn’t do anyone any good.
I was 17, a student in Manila, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941. That same day, the airfield in Manila and other military installations in the Philippines were also bombed. Schools were immediately closed and I returned to my hometown, Rosales, about 30 miles from Lingayen, where, within the same month, the Japanese landed. Soon after they came to Rosales.
In the first month of occupation, the Japanese behaved correctly — you could say they were even cordial. Then, two months into the occupation, the sentries started slapping people for no apparent reason. Soon after, stories about the Death March following the U.S. surrender of Bataan drifted to us.
In July 1942, I went to the prison camp at Capas to look for a cousin, Raymundo Alberto, who had not returned from Bataan. All of the horror stories we had heard were confirmed on that trip — I saw hundreds of Filipino prisoners sick and dying. My cousin was not there.
During the occupation, food, medicine, clothing, and other basic necessities like soap and matches, became very scarce. I sometimes went to Manila to bring rice to my relatives there.
On one such trip I was stopped in Moncada, in Tarlac Province. My half sack of rice was confiscated by the Japanese and I was beaten up.
I was in Manila during the first American air raid in September 1944. By that November, people in the city were starving; some were forced to eat rats.
My mother, a cousin and I returned to Rosales — we walked all the way, passing empty towns. In the daytime, the skies were full of American planes flying so low we could see the pilots. At night, the Japanese marched — we could hear them as we camped in the abandoned houses along the highway.
We reached Rosales after a week and shortly after, the Americans landed in Lingayen. I immediately joined the U.S. Army as a civilian medical technician.
Since our unit was with the combat engineers, we were often the first to reach liberated towns and villages. We would be met by grateful and starving Filipinos as we offered gifts of fresh eggs and live chickens.
Manila was liberated in March 1945 and I received permission to visit the city to see relatives. There had been heavy fighting — the city was devastated. It seems as if it were only yesterday that I beheld the ruins and smelled the carrion in Ermita-Malate, where the Japanese massacred thousands. It has been said that Manila, next to Warsaw, was the most devastated city in World War II. I found my relatives; luckily they were unharmed.
Being in the U.S. Army, I thought I would take part in the coming invasion of Japan — and I relished the thought. But that August, when atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war came to an end. There was much rejoicing all over the Philippines and, even more so, among the GI’s.
When I first visited Japan in the early 1950s, the country was still poor. Streetcars still rumbled in the streets of Tokyo, and there were no skyscrapers.
I was uneasy meeting with the Japanese and thought I would never be able to have a social relationship with them. Since then, however, I have made Japanese friends, including the late novelist Hirabayashi Taiko, who was imprisoned with her husband by the wartime government, for their opposition to the war. I also made friends with my translator Matsuyo Yamamoto, the late Yoshiko Wakayama of the Toyota Foundation, the art gallery owners Reiko and Akira Kanda, and so many others.
Some 20 years ago, my wife and I were in Kawazaki near Tokyo for a writers’ conference. In the first plenary session, a delegate from Calcutta started excoriating the U.S. for incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was incensed, I stood from the floor and shouted, “Mr. Singh, your country was never occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army!”
That weekend, the entire foreign delegation was invited to Kyoto; only my wife and I were excluded from the trip.
Five years ago, I visited the Yasukuni shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including some who were war criminals. My wife and I drifted into the shrine’s museum and came across exhibits that were blatant propaganda.
Outside, six Japanese war veterans, wearing their old uniforms, stood together. As the facility closed for the day, they grouped in formation, and the sound of their military commands hurtled me back to the past.
Deep within me, I know I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to my country. I pray, too, that the world is one day rid of atomic weapons and that my grandchildren will never know the bone-deep pain, fear, hunger and sorrow engendered by war.
F. Sionil Jose, author of the novel is Sherds.