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In Which I Grappled with Japan’s Dark History

In Which I Grappled with Japan’s Dark History

It was seven in the morning when I decided to head south of my Airbnb apartment. Clad in full lycra suit, I started with a slow jog to wake myself up. As I was still getting acquainted with this city, I had little idea what to expect down south.

I ran along the embankments of Kamo River, away from the city centre. Quaint wooden houses gave way to factories, dilapidated warehouses and parks in various states of disrepair. Not the kind of things you see when you’re googling images of Kyoto. Like any other city, there are always the good and the bad, even if the common impression of Japan is a land of pruned greeneries and absolute cleanliness. A lone sarariman sat by the river, hunched, head in his lap, dress shoes unworn and placed next to him. I wonder if he’d just found out he’s been fired, or that his wife had just left him. He didn’t seem that chipper.

Past overgrown trees. A van was parked on a rickety bridge over a canal. It’s like finding out that your new partner is not that perfect after all. Deep down inside you know no-one is perfect, but at some point the veil is eventually lifted and you discover the specific ways a person is insane. It either makes them more endearing and the relationship more genuine, or it becomes a complete turn-off.

Some twenty minutes later, I ran past a train station with a recognisable name. And so with a different sort of enthusiasm that rotting wood cannot provide, I followed the directions provided. At a little before eight o’clock, I reached the grounds of a vast shrine. Hardly anyone was about at this time of the day. I looked around to see if I should pay an entrance fee. No sign of it so far. Ran past sporadic tourists with selfie sticks – surprised they still haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth yet. With every set of staircase ascended, my excitement grew.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Torii Gates

Almost without any warning, they appeared within my sight. To say that I was surprised to see the famous red Torii gates looming before me was an understatement. There I was, standing in my lycra suit, looking completely out of place underneath these magnificent vermillion structures. Brilliantly varnished, the surface of the wooden gates reflected golden sunlight of the morning while simultaneously creating shadow plays as they snaked their way up the gentle slope of Mount Inari. 

It is against the backdrop of this surreal serenity that I couldn’t fathom how the Japanese empire was capable of inflicting heinous violence only matched by the Third Reich. The West knew of Pearl Harbour, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. While Germany was incarcerating Jews across Europe, the Japanese Imperial Army swooped across China, Korea and Southeast Asia. Like the tornado of death leaving utter senseless destruction in its path, they killed millions of men, raped equally as many women, and bayoneted more children and elderly than leaving them alive.

A pall of death hung over the yard. Her son was on his knees, the bloody stump of his neck resting on the ground, a stream of fresh blood snaking along the ground; his head, a look of fear frozen on the face, sat perfectly upright in front of his torso. Her husband was gnawing a brick on the path […] A mixture of grey matter and bright red blood from a gaping wound in the back of his head stained the path around him.

Big Breasts and Wide Hips, by Mo Yan

While every country has her own historical biases, simple cross referencing would easily yield a clear picture of Japan’s brutalities during World War II. Having had the privilege of receiving history lessons in both Indonesia and Singapore – both of which were seized from their respective Western colonial masters when Japanese forces swooped down the Malayan peninsula – I was instilled with a less than rosy image of Japan’s wartime records. But one does not truly have the capacity to fully comprehend the gravitas of history – it also didn’t help that the history lessons had to be kept PG-13 – when one was a mere teenager dealing with other pressing issues puberty had to offer. If anything, I had shoved history to the back of my head.

That is, until I moved to China.

With a few more reminders from fictional works by Chinese writer Mo Yan, and Christian Bale’s ‘The Flowers of Nanjing’, I decided to dive deeper into the historical records of Japanese war crimes. To say that I wanted to weep for humanity was an understatement.

By the 1930s, Japan went from an isolationist nation to a power-hungry military force. It took them less than a century to build their might. Out of fear of being subjugated by Western powers like China, Japan decided that they too would learn from the Europeans – specifically the colonial nations who had been gobbling up Africa and Southeast-Asia. To avoid being devoured, one must do the devouring first. None of this was out of the norm at the time. Before World War II, Japan had occupied regions of China and Korea, and their treatment of occupied territories were no harsher than other colonial powers. However, it took a sharp turn for the worse as the world divided itself into Allied and Axis powers. In their pursuit for regional dominance, the Japanese Imperial Army did not spare any effort to flex their capabilities. If the fictional gore of Game of Thrones makes one queasy, I’m afraid reality can in fact be much worse.

Kyoto Ginkakuji

Many months ago, I went to Nanjing and visited the war memorial. While I wasn’t too impressed by the propagandic and emotional tone of the texts (I’m capable of deciding how to feel, thank you very much), the historical evidence of the Nanjing massacre was not easy to swallow. This was corroborated by first-hand accounts of foreigners who were stationed in China and locals who managed to survive.

In order to break down the resistance of Chinese Nationalist army, Japanese troops had to show their enemies what they were capable of. Chinese soldiers who had surrendered were killed immediately. Civilians – men, women, children, the elderly – were rounded up and became target practices for sword fighting and bayonets. Others were burnt or buried alive. Ironically, the Japanese were so brutal in their invasion that a German Nazi helped to establish and headed the Nanjing Safety Zone, protecting thousands of Chinese civilians. Many women suffered fates worse than death. While benign misogyny is ever present in Japanese society, when mixed in with xenophobia, it became the recipe for unreserved violence against Chinese women. Over ten thousand in Nanjing were raped, then mutilated and killed. But at least their ordeal were over fairly quickly.

Compared to the suffering that ‘comfort women’ went through, death – even when prefaced by rape – would have been welcomed like a gentle flame in the coldest winter. Across Japanese-occupied territories – three of them I’ve called home; one I was born in, one I grew up in, one I am currently living in – hundreds of thousands of women as young as seventeen were removed from their families and forced to work in Japanese brothels. They were given Japanese names and lost all semblance self-identity. It wasn’t enough for them to resign to their fate. These girls had to feign interest while they were raped day and night by Japanese soldiers, or risk torture and death. Once a week, they were subjected to humiliating physical examinations that involved being raped by the physician – in full view of other soldiers who wished to amuse themselves.

The women cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.

Veteran Japanese soldier Yasuji Kaneko to The Washington Post.

Somewhere in Manchuria, China – now known as Dongbei, or North-east – there is a building called Unit 731. It was once used as a top secret site for the Japanese military to learn about human physiology; built in pursuit of scientific knowledge and medical advancements – which sounded rather noble until the boundaries of ethics and consideration for human lives were removed. Forget health and safety procedures, or even mild electric shocks.

Without any form of anaesthesia – in their full consciousness – civilians and prisoners of war were amputated and bled to death; or dissected by having their organs removed and reattached in odd places – fully alive; or injected with sea water into their blood stream or horse urine into their kidneys. Others would be infected with diseases such as the bubonic plague and anthrax. Many others would be denied food and water in order to find out how long humans can last without sustenance before they die. Syphilis was a particularly cumbersome problem that plagued the troops because of their visits to the brothels, so the doctors needed to come up with a cure. Syphilis carriers would be forced to copulate with each other so that the doctors would have impregnated mothers and babies to carry out their tests on, each one possibly carrying the disease. Babies too became test subjects. None survived.

While men were only used in bacteriological and physiological experiments, women had to endure those in addition to sex experiments and rape at the whims of the staff.

I believed and acted this way because I was convinced of what I was doing. We carried out our duty as instructed by our masters. We did it for the sake of our country. From our filial obligation to our ancestors. On the battlefield, we never really considered the Chinese humans. When you’re winning, the losers look really miserable. We concluded that the Yamato race [i.e., Japanese] was superior.

Uno Shintaro, Japanese Army officer who served in China.

Having normalised genocide across China, the Japanese army no longer had any qualms about mutilating civilians and prisoners of wars across Southeast Asia. Many were forced to work on labour camps under hot blazing sun and humidity of the tropical jungles with very little sustenance. Killing was rampant, to say the least, which involved hacking limbs off first before the bayonet went through the heart, with celebratory photographs taken afterwards. Cannibalism – though not rampant – took on a festive occasion, in which fried human flesh was washed down with sake. Some of the worst massacres and atrocities were carried out right before Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan in 1945. As if sensing their imminent defeat, the soldiers projected their hopelessness and humiliation onto the defenceless, shedding what was left of their humanity.

Kyoto Inari Mountain Bamboo Grove

I returned later in the afternoon to Fushimi Inari shrine, out of my spandex suit and into Issey Miyake’s pleats which felt more appropriate in this sacred grounds dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. Within a span of two hours, throngs of tourists have descended, which made me grateful that I had accidentally stumbled into this place at a far quieter time. Halfway up the climb I took a detour up a small staircase, not knowing where it led to. Past another small shrine, forests, bamboo groves, fox carvings – phone signal getting weaker until I was completely cut away from communications network – accompanied only by peace and silence, I arrived at a secluded spot that overlooked Kyoto. One couldn’t help but to fall in love with this city. From its historical palaces and shrines, to the preservation of kimonos, traditional cooking style, tea ceremonies and even confectionaries, Kyoto is a wonderful place to get a glimpse of old Japan. Though not a vegan, this is also where I discovered the joy of going meatless, eggless, and dairy-less. If one avoids the downtown area and Instagrammable spots, it is easy to find one’s personal quiet spot to think, read and write.

Stardust Cafe Kyoto
Vegan cake from Stardust Cafe

No matter how much I love this country as a source of inspiration and travel destination, I am also aware of its dark history. One may argue that Germany was equally cruel, but what made their history tolerable is their willingness to admit and atone. Japan, on the other hand, still flip flops on official apologies, its leaders have been hesitant in acknowledging the full extent of the country’s wrongdoings, and barely a full account was written in Japan’s history lessons. Unlike the Germans who have come to accept their ancestors’ wrongdoings and are fully aware of them, Japan has not learnt to do so. Germany has built a Holocaust Memorial to commemorate the deaths of fallen Jews. Japan, on the other hand, had included military leaders who gave the orders to slaughter millions of civilians in the Yasukuni war shrine. Much like the characters in Murakami’s novels, it is easier to shuffle forward than to risk friction. Life goes on. The dark past is swept under the rug while on the surface everything is fantastically rosy.

There are two sides to every coin in every facet of existence. While it’s tempting to simply ignore the undesirable aspects of any entity, having an awareness of both the good and the bad makes a relationship with a person, culture, or belief more genuine. It helps us avoid being delusional about the subject we have fallen in love with. And it doesn’t get any truer in this case, in which I have accepted the ways a society can be mad, while maintaining respect for the good things it has cultivated throughout the course of history.

Bibliography and further reading:

Comprehensive list of Japanese war crimes in World War II
Unit 371, a summary
Sex Crimes Propagated at Unit 731 During the Pacific War
The International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone: An Introduction

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