From past to present…


Book review, from Tokyo – A century has passed since the end of the first great war. Some say the peace treaty gave the world a short 30-year hiatus before the next one, one that was also fought in Asia. Hundred years seem a short time in our shared history, but how many real-life accounts actually remain? Published 70 years after the end of WWII, 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015(Wakamono kara wakamono he no tegami 19452015, lit. Letters from youths to youths 19452015) affords us this luxury. But be prepared.

“19452015″ contains 15 accounts and reflections of the war by 15 men and women, mostly around their 20s in 1945. Young men sent to frontlines across Asia, one tasked to conduct biochemical tests, a field nurse who subverted a medic’s order, a teacher sent inland with school children to avoid bombings in the city, an ethnic Korean who lost his family name before getting conscripted, one lured by the promise of Manchukuo and left behind in China, survivors of the a-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One portrait photo precedes each account – this is my story.

We can read facts from history, but the 15 letters shine light on those lives and their inner journeys –

How they were trained to kill, to see the enemy, to follow orders. How their compatriots fell like flies to disease, weakened by malnutrition. How their misery continued even after surrender, facing stigma as returners, as Okinawans. How they found salvation, finding lessons for humanity, remembering their will to live, not just survive, and as survivors, to continue telling their stories.

Reading leaves much to imagination, and the words painted uncomfortable images. My first reading left me numb, even nauseous. Just try substituting the third person (they, their) for the first person (I, my/our) for the paragraph above that starts “How they…”

Thankfully, those stories were spaced by reflections and letters from 15 youths writing back, each again with a photo. Thoughtful responses expressed gratefulness for sharing, filled with hope and dedication to a future of peace and no war. What shocked was the gap in perspectives – the chasm between today and those personal accounts seemed too far to bridge. But that is only natural, since the backdrop that colours our view of life, and with that our readings, are drastically different.

“19452015″ brings readers actual accounts of 1945 alongside attempts to frame the 2015 view of the last world war after 70 years. It paves a journey to understanding life in that tumultuous period of Japanese and world history, but more importantly, poses questions on humanity and life, whether in war or peacetime.

When the book was first published in 2015, more than half of the survivors had already passed on. But their stories remain and are set to reach English readers as an e-book, partly funded by an online campaign that will soon close comfortably past its original target.

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Aside 1: I remember first reading this on the train last year, when North Korea fired ICBMs in Tokyo’s direction. A nearby salaryman snidely remarked to his colleague, “We’ll just fire back, huh?” before alighting at Shinjuku station.

Aside 2: Recently, I’ve noticed more flybys by Chinooks and Black Hawks. Once a whole squadron(??) flew North over Kanpachi, a major ring road in Tokyo. Never have I seen such scenes before in this city that I’ve lived for more than ten years. It felt more like Yamato, in neighbouring Kanagawa.

Aside 3: Earlier today, my phone buzzed. A Yahoo! Japan news flash – The filling of Henoko bay has begun.
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Title: 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015
Text by Naomi Kitagawa and Motomi Murota, photos by Yuriko Ochiai
Publisher: Korocolor Publishers, 2015

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