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The Interpreter who tormented “The Railway Man”

Takashi Nagase was an interpreter in the Japanese Army in WWⅡ.

(Below right, 1st left: Nagase during the war)

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Nagase was born on the 20th of February 1918.  He was the first son of a well respected doctor.  Back then there was no health service and his father used to treat the poor without charge.  Hoping to become a teacher, Nagase studied English at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.  Three days before the Attack on Pearl Harbor, when he was 23 years old, he was examined for the suitability to join the Japanese Army.  At 158cm tall and weighting 45kg, he was disqualified as a soldier, so he became an interpreter to make use of his special skills.  On the 24th of December of 1941, he was shipped out to the south.

After Java and Saigon, he was assigned to Singapore in January 1943.  His duty was to help ship off the POWs of the Allied Forces to Thailand.  It was his first encounter with them.  They were to be used as laborers for the construction of the notorious “Death Railway”.

The Death Railway

The Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass

In March 1943 Nagase was assigned to Bangkok, and then to Kempeitai at Kanchanaburi Division on the 1st of September 1943.  The Railway was completed on the 25th of October that year, therefore the harsh labour was nearing the last stage when he arrived.  On the 29th of August 1943, a radio assembled by the British POWs had been discovered and Nagase was ordered to interpret the interrogation.  Eric Lomax, the author of “The Railway Man“, was one of the Allied soldiers brought out to be interrogated and tortured.

Periodically, he would be hauled out to face a double act — a shaven-headed NCO, ‘his face full of violence’, and a smaller, ‘almost delicate’ man who spoke English.  The former would do the torturing while the latter did the talking.  ‘I hated the interpreter more than the NCO because it was his voice that gave me no rest.’  (Excerpts from Daily Mail)

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When the film “The Railway Man” was released, I went to see it.  I know it needed dramatic scenes, but I was not too impressed, especially after learning what the real events had been like and what Nagase had done with his life after the war.  Yes – being Japanese, I am probably biased.

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The real reunion between the former enemies seems to have been by far more gentle.

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To my shame, I had not known anything about Nagase until I read the news of the death of Eric Lomax.  I then learned of Nagase’s devotion and activities for atonement and reconciliation.  So when I went to Japan a few years ago, I bought a book written by a Japanese journalist who had been following Nagase for nearly 20 years.

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I have recently read with interest these blog posts below by an Australian journalist who had met and interviewed Nagase.

NAGASE TAKASHI, A SINGULAR JAPANESE

ERIC LOMAX & NAGASE TAKASHI – The Reconciliation Begins

THE MEETING WITH NAGASE

  What is remarkable about Nagase is that he appreciated the guilt of the war crimes committed by the Japanese Army during the war at a very early stage after the war.  As soon as ordinary people were allowed to travel abroad freely in 1964, he flew to Thailand with his wife and visited the cemetery of the Allied Forces’ victims.  It was the beginning of his lifelong effort for atonement, reconciliation and repayment.

In July 1946, Nagase was leaving Thailand on a ship for Japan.  He was one of some 120,000 Japanese soldiers including those from Burma and its surrounding areas.  Just before getting aboard, each one of them was given a mess tin of rice and a scoop of raw sugar.  The sugar was valuable back then. Nagase ate the rice on the deck after leaving the port.  It was really delicious.

Nagase never forgot the kindness shown to the defeated Japanese soldiers by the Thai government and people.  He therefore started to repay the Thai people for their kindness.  He provided children with necessities like shoes, invited students to Japan, arranged for medical services for the elderly and presented students with scholarships.  In 1986 he founded The River Kwai Peace Foundation with the royalties from his books and translation.

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In 1962 he married his wife Yoshiko who became his great supporter.  She accompanied Nagase whenever possible.  She died in 2009, three months after her last visit to Thailand with Nagase.  Although they had no children, the former students they had supported in Thailand still call them “Mum” and “Dad” to this day.

Nagase also was one of the three men who organized and started the annual memorial service at Yokohama War Cemetery in 1995.

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In 1992 he was awarded with the title of the honorary citizen of Kanchanaburi.  In 2002 he was presented with special gratitude by the UK government for his activities to promote reconciliation between the former POWs and former Japanese soldiers.  The UK ambassador to Japan visited Kurashiki City, where the Nagases lived, and presented Nagase with the letter of gratitude.  A warm message of congratulation from Eric Lomax was read out.  Nagase later described that day as the best day in his life.

In 2005 he was awarded by Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the three major Japanese newspapers, with Yomiuri International Cooperation Award.  Outside JEATH War Museum stands Nagase’s statue.  It was founded in 2006 by the former students he had supported.  In his lifetime Nagase visited Thailand 135 times.

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Takashi Nagase died in a hospital in June 2011, at the age of 93.  He had longed for the infamous railway to become a World Heritage site.  I totally agree with him.  LEST WE FORGET.  Why not!?

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Eric Lomax died the following year, in October 2012, at the same age as Nagase.

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Eric Lomax was incredible to forgive his former tormentor, after having experienced near-fatal brutality so many times.  I do not think I could ever forgive this myself.

In my opinion Takashi Nagase was also incredible, in his own right.  “It was just such bad times.  As an individual I had no other option.  Bad things happen during the war.”  By excusing himself, he could have sealed his past and got on with the port-war life, enjoying the economic prosperity Japan has since achieved, just like the majority of former Japanese soldiers who had a sense of guilt did.  I would have done so too.   But he did not.  He chose to devote his second life to make up for the wrongdoing in his past.

I was therefore dissatisfied that Nagase’s portrayal in the film seemed quite shallow.  Lomax was able to forgive, because Nagase was what he was.  It was, however, Eric Lomax’s film, of course.  So it had to be that way.  Then I wished that someone would make a film about Nagase.

Now I am happy to announce that it has come true!

Rainbow Over The River Kwai

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This is a feature-length documentary film, directed by Yasuhiro Mitsuda.  Mitsuda is a journalist at Nagase’s local TV network who followed Nagase’s activities for nearly 20 years and penned the book I have mentioned earlier which was published in February 2011, just before Nagase’s death.  The film is going to be shown for four weeks at a cinema in Tokyo.  Mitsuda hopes to make  Thai and English versions to be shown around the world.  I will eagerly wait for its release in the UK.

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It has been reported that The River Kwai Peace Foundation has been struggling to survive in recent years.  It has been run with Nagase’s assets and donation by Japanese people, but since Nagase’s death, the donation fund has been running dry.  Mitsuda has taken on the management of the foundation after Nagase’s death and is hoping that this new film will inspire people to donate.  I will certainly donate on my next visit to Japan.  (I tried to donate at a local bank, but was told that £25 will be charged for the transfer.)  This year’s ceremony to hand Thai students the scholarship takes place tomorrow, on the 20th of August.  If this foundation came to an end, it would be the second disgrace for the Japanese.  I sincerely hope that it will be avoided.

As Nagase claimed in harsh words, I do not think that the Japanese government has done a good job after the war.  When I was a schoolgirl, I remember being taught that Japan had “advanced” into the neighbouring South-eastern Asian countries, whereas it was clearly “invasion”.  Growing up, I gradually learned that the nearby countries did not seem to like Japan very much and that many of the former POWs of the Japanese Army still held intense fury and hatred against the Japanese.  No wonder why Japan has been, and still is, disliked by some countries, as Japan has not been teaching its own children the correct history.  I hope that nowadays the textbooks are using the right words.

The necklace Patti Lomax is wearing in the picture below was a present from Mrs. Yoshiko Nagase.

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It is such a pity that the reunion between Lomax and Nagase did not happen earlier, to save Lomax from decades of anguish.  I wish he had been released from the excruciating nightmare and flashbacks much earlier.  Still – better late than never.

Isn’t it ironic and poignant that both Lomax and Nagase were condemned by some of their fellow countrymen.  Lomax because he forgave his former tormentor and enemy.  Nagase because he publicly admitted Japan’s war crime and devoted himself to atonement.  Some people treated them as “traitors”.  Everyone has the right to come to terms with their terrible past in their own way and to claim what they believe.  As long as their claims do not preach hate in any way at all, and as long as they do not force others to share the same view, it should be preserved and respected.

Had I been Mr. Lomax, I do not think I could have ever forgiven.  Had I been Mr. Nagase, I do not think I could have done what he did.

I therefore pay these two gentlemen my total, unconditional respect.

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Incidentally, I would like to write a bit about Osamu Komai, the son of Mitsuo Komai who tortured five (or six?) POWs including Eric Lomax and killed two of them.

Below:  A postcard from Mitsuo to his young son Osamu which reads:  Oh-chan, you must be enjoying going to the playschool that you started this month.  I can picture you walking there in a white flock.  On your way to the playschool, please be careful and do not get hurt as there are cars and motorbikes around.  When you don’t feel well, tell your Mum or Nanny immediately.  Do not endure in silence.  I dreamed of you last night, which made me so happy.  Say hello to everyone.  Good-bye.  The 5th of April (1943)

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Mitsuo Komai was executed in Singapore on the 14th of March 1946.  He was 41 years old.  Osamu remembered that his mother was crying day after day.  His mother and all other grown-up relations kept quiet about how and why Mitsuo died.  The word “War Criminal” became a taboo.  As he grew older, he started to notice people whispering behind his back that he was the son of a war criminal.  His mother died of illness at the age of 46, when Osamu was 16.

After managing to get a job, he married and had his first child when he was 30 years old.  Having his own family made him ponder about his own father.  Having been parted from his father at such a young age, he had no recollection of his father, so he reminisced about what his mother had told him about his father.

Below left:  Mitsuo Komai (centre in back row), his wife Yaeko (to his left), 3-year-old Osamu (on his mother’s lap), his elder brother and sister in the front row on the eve of Mitsuo’s departure to join the Army  /  Below right:  Mitsuo Komai during the war with a photograph of Osamu and his sister

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The older he grew, the keener he became to find out why his father had been executed.  He joined the association of former Japanese soldiers, but nobody gave him a clear answer.  Eventually he obtained the summary of his father’s trial after pleading with an MP for help.  Initially he could not believe what was written.  Then he thought of the soldiers his father had killed.  The thought that they must have had families and people eagerly waiting for their return in the UK deeply saddened and disturbed him.

Learning through Takashi Nagase that Eric Lomax whom his father had tortured and nearly killed was still alive in the UK and that Nagase and Lomax had become friends, Osamu wished to apologise to Lomax in person.  Their meeting came true in the summer of 2006 when Osamu flew to Scotland to meet Lomax.

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Osamu has since been talking openly about his background and personal accounts, in order to promote peace.  At a talk event in relation to the film “Lore“, he reported that Lomax’s first comment on meeting with him was “Thank you for coming all this way”.  Seeing him, Lomax said that he resembled his father.  Lomax also said that it was a shock that the son of the man whom his testimony had sent to the gallows came all the way to offer him a sincere apology.  Lomax apologised to Osamu for making his family unhappy.  At parting, Lomax told Osamu that they should all stop grieving over the past which no one could ever change, and live every moment fully for the future instead.

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Osamu appreciated that there were people who had suffered much greater sorrow than his, and that the families of the dead POWs missed their loved ones as much as Osamu missed his father.

“I wish that no one else will ever suffer such a tragedy again.  What can we do to maintain peace?  We must all do what we can, in order not to let the war break out again.  War destroys everything.  Humans are destroyed both physically and psychologically.  We must talk to the younger generation.  Once we forget, terrible things could happen.”

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I myself was born in 1962 and grew up in a small sleepy town on the western edge of vast Tokyo.  Tachikawa was the nearest city good for shopping with department stores.  The north exit of Tachikawa Station has changed dramatically over decades.

Below left: The north side of Tachikawa Station now  /  Below right: Some 20 years ago

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The construction and opening of the station building which houses a department store (the building on the left in the pictures above) in 1982, when I was 20 years old, was epoch-making.

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Until then, Tachikawa Station used to be a single-story, wooden building.

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When I was a child, my parents took my brother and myself to Tachikawa from time to time by train.  It was exciting to see a much bigger town with so many various big shops.  There, walking on the pavement, I remember seeing injured veterans.  They wore a simple white kimono.  There was almost always one playing a sad tune with an accordion.  Those who had lost a limb either sat or remained on all fours…threes, with their heads bowed low.

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That scene made me sad and afraid, but at the same time made me curious of what it really was like where the limb ended.  When I asked my father what sort of people they were, he said that they had been injured in the war.  Looking sad and sympathetic, he also said that they should not have to beg for money, as they were receiving the veteran’s pension.  Now I can understand that he was trying to convince himself when saying so, wanting to believe that injured veterans were being well looked after, as his elder brother could well have been one of them.

My late father was 14 years old when the war ended, so he was saved from being called up.  His elder brother, however, was sent to the South Asia and lost his young life there.  Not a single memento, let alone a piece of remains, was returned.  Decades later when the former Emperor was dying and his condition was the top news every day, my father muttered:  “I do not feel sorry for him, because it was his name in which my brother was taken away, never to return…..”

For the Japanese, this month – August – is a month to reflect on the past.  Partly because of the traditional Bon Festival, and partly because of the National Memorial Service for War Dead.  I hope Japanese people have been well reflecting on the past and pledging to preserve, at any cost,  Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution.

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