Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

WW2 Relevance

|   3 November 2011

Duty, honour, sacrifice.

Allied POWs celebrate their liberation after imprisonment in Japan.

One of the great challenges for any historian is to imagine what it was like to live in the past. Not so much coming to terms with the obvious changes, like living with no internet and no Greek debt crisis, but trying to understand the different way people expressed themselves and the different belief systems they held dear.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in part because of posting the testimony of Peter Lee on the site for subscribers this week. He was one of the most impressive people I ever met. Upright, dignified, self-effacing, he described the horror of his own captivity in Borneo during the war. Japanese guards beat him, and his fellow prisoners, and fed them on near-starvation rations. Yet Peter Lee told me that he felt the important thing was not to hate his captors but instead to focus energy on helping his fellow POWs. ‘In those sort of circumstances,’ he said, ‘keep your mind and body occupied as much as you can and don’t mope about and never feel sorry for yourself.’ In other words, he said: ‘in the old British phrase, you have to grin and bear it.’

I thought as he told me this steadfast philosophy how much it was a product not just of his own individual thinking but of a whole belief system that many members of his class, at the time, subscribed to. Indeed, his view that the way to deal with terrible problems in one’s life is to ‘grin and bear it’ is something that others like him from that time had expressed to me before.

Many veterans tried, after the war, to live the rest of their lives according to this ‘never feel sorry for yourself’ mantra. I remember a few years ago a relative of mine – who like Peter Lee had been a British officer during the war and who came from a similar background – was dying of a horrible wasting disease over a period of about 18 months. I was astonished at his bravery. He never fell apart and never moaned about his fate. I told him that I was in awe of his courage. He looked at me like I had said something distasteful. ‘I don’t think it is necessary to say that kind of thing,’ he replied.

How could these people behave with such dignity and self-sacrifice? To what extent was this stoical attitude a product of their own genetic make-up and to what extent a product of their upbringing, social class and the time they happened to be born into?

And if it was a result of when and where they happened to be born, to what extent should we give them credit for their impressive way of living?

Like so many important questions – easy to ask and hard to answer.

WW2 Relevance

|   9 July 2011

Secrets of Japanese history

Why did the Japanese behave as they did in WW2?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan lately. In part it has been a purely selfish interest – the book I wrote some years ago on the Japanese in World War II, called ‘Horror in the East’ has at last been published in paperback. But revisiting this subject has also made me think about the origins of Japanese National Identity, and in particular the effect of geography on the Japanese.


WW2 People

|   7 March 2011

Bombing Japan

Tokyo, after the American fire-bombing in March 1945.

We’ve just added onto the site for subscribers the testimony of Paul Montgomery who was a member of a B29 bomber crew during the war against Japan.

I’ll never forget meeting Paul Montgomery nearly a dozen years ago on his farm in the flat lands of Oklahoma. He was one of  the nicest people I ever met on my travels. Kind, forthright and compassionate. Yet he had helped take part in the killing of more people than probably anyone else I ever encountered.


WW2 Relevance

|   9 February 2011

How nice are Doctors?

How easily can Doctors be corrupted?

We’ve just added onto the site for subscribers the testimony of Ken Yuasa who was a military doctor serving in the Japanese Imperial Army in China during the war. He describes in horrifying detail the medical experiments which Japanese doctors conducted on innocent Chinese civilians. He witnessed, for example, two Chinese men being shot and then operated on – without any anaesthetic – in an attempt to take out the bullets under ‘field conditions’.

But the corruption of doctors didn’t just occur in Japan during WW2. In the Soviet Union and Germany doctors also threw away any compassionate principles they may have possessed and did the bidding of their masters. And they not only ‘followed orders’ – in many cases they relished the new opportunities for ‘research’ that these totalitarian regimes offered. At Auschwitz, for instance, Dr Mengele pursued his own research into genetics by torturing children, and Dr Clauberg performed hideous experiments on women in order to develop new methods of sterilization.

And what’s important to understand is that few of these doctors showed any signs of their capacity to commit these crimes before the opportunity was offered to them. Almost certainly, if the regimes concerned had not given them the chance to do these things then they would have remained ‘normal’ doctors.

As I wrote in ‘Their Darkest Hour’, ‘we like to think that doctors are somehow different from the rest of us; that they are selflessly devoted to our care; that the Hippocratic oath they swore ‘not to harm anyone’ actually means something. But what the history of doctors like Ken Yuasa demonstrates is how easily large numbers of them in Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union were corrupted.’

WW2 Anniversary

|   12 August 2010

Remembering Hiroshima

Hiroshima today – with the memorial dome on the left of the photo.

It was the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, and I have just returned from a troubling visit to the city.

Here’s why it was troubling. The focus of the commemoration was on the terrible suffering of the people of Hiroshima as a result of the attack – and that, I guess, is as it should be. But the whole atmosphere of the event – not to say the tone and layout of the hugely popular museum in the ‘Peace Park’ close to the epicentre of the explosion – was utterly condemnatory. The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima is not exactly described as ‘a war crime’ in the official Japanese literature, but a visit to the Hiroshima museum certainly gave me the impression that this was what the Japanese authorities want people to think it was. This sense that the Japanese were ultimately ‘victims’ of the war was something which a Japanese academic explicitly expressed to me some years ago. ‘There were two horrendous crimes of WW2,’ he said. ‘The Holocaust and Hiroshima’.

Really? Is that how we should remember Hiroshima?