I have to admit that my knowledge of the Second World War in Europe is limited to what I know from high school history class, some novels and movies. I can name some of the famous battles and tell you that the all Japanese American 442nd fought in Italy, but my ignorance is pretty shocking. So I have started reading the Rick Atkinson Liberation Trilogy starting with “An Army at Dawn” about North Africa.
But it seems that I am not the only one with a need to know some history. Sunday’s New York Times had a long story about young Japanese students going to Guadalcanal to look for remains and learn history.
Using a trowel to dig into the shadowy floor of the rain forest, pausing only to wipe away sweat and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Atsushi Maeda holds up what he has traveled so far, to this South Pacific island, to find: a human bone, turned orange-brown with age.
Mr. Maeda, 21, was looking for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers at the site of one of World War II’s most ferocious battles. Others have done this work before him, mostly aging veterans or bereaved relatives. But he was with a group of mostly university students and young professionals, nearly all of them under 40 and without a direct connection to the soldiers killed here.
As I understand it, the Japanese talk even less about WWII than Americans. I had two uncles who were in Japan with the American occupying forces but it wasn’t until a few years before they both died that I knew anything about what they actually did. Ostensibly translators, they worked in support roles for the American army – mostly in supply. My uncles didn’t talk much about the war because, like many vets, they were raised to accept the experience and move on. In Japan, however, it has been almost national policy not to talk about the war they lost.
As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there has been a surge in interest among young Japanese about the disastrous war that their nation has long tried to forget.
It is a phenomenon that crosses political lines, encompassing progressives who preach the futility of war as well as conservatives who question the historical record of Japan’s wartime atrocities. What these young people have in common is an urgent sense that they learned too little about the war, both from school, where classes focus on earlier Japanese history, and from tight-lipped family members, who prefer not to revisit a painful time remains strong in Japan.
I found it interesting that most of the Japanese students are several generations younger than I am but that we are both driven by the need to know more. 200 pages into Atkinson’s story of North Africa, I keep reading about familiar names: Tunis, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Algeria – names of places that have been romanticized but where hundreds died. North Africa is where there is an on-going struggle for democracy complicated by terrorism and tribalism. (Think Benghazi) We American invaders during WWII didn’t understand the local population or make a lot of effort to do so. A mistake we still make today.
Kankoh Sakitsu, 42, the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo who organizes expeditions to Guadalcanal, has seen interest among young people grow after his first trip here in 2008. Since then, he has arranged three other journeys for groups of Japanese, including this one in September.
Mr. Sakitsu originally went to Guadalcanal to pray at the battle sites out of a sense of contrition because he feels Japanese Buddhism failed to oppose the war in the 1930s and 1940s, and so shares responsibility for it.
The story ends with a note of caution from a Japanese Guadalcanal veteran.
Mr. Sakitsu, the leader, said the September group was special because it was joined for the first time by one of the last surviving Japanese veterans from the battle, Junshiro Kanaizumi. Mr. Kanaizumi, 95, was an army engineer who helped build roads in the jungle. Now bent and frail with age, shuffling to the edge of the jungle with the help of a walking stick, Mr. Kanaizumi wore the same khaki jumpsuit with a Japanese flag on one shoulder as the other members.
Peering into one of the leaf-wrapped bundles, Mr. Kanaizumi said it was possible he once knew the man now reduced to a pile of crumbling bones.
“I hope they learn the miserable reality of war,” he said. “Once I am gone, who will be around to tell them that the only lesson from war is to never do it again?”
I think when I finish reading about Europe, I’ll have to move to the Pacific theater.
Photograph: US Navy/Getty Images