It seemed to weigh heavily on him, this bespectacled middle-aged man opposite me. Alternately hunching his shoulders when lapsing into deep thought, and then rising up again when making a vital point, he would continue to talk, at times lowering his voice to a whisper, conscious not to allow his voice to reach the surrounds of others seated nearby. After a conversation would die down he would smile rather sadly, shake his head and then look down and away.
“They do not know,” he said on more than one occasion, looking around at a bunch of young Japanese travellers seated nearby. “They do not believe me.”
We had started talking sometime before, as most of us travelling are inclined to do, about our travel plans, across a table crowded with guidebooks and water bottles in our hotel in Lahore. I had said that I would be going to Iran next, after some more time in Pakistan. He had been to Iran seven years ago, he told me, particularly remembering the hostility he had witnessed in the north towards what Ayatollah Khomeini had brought about in the country, resentful of the fact that the society which Khomeini wanted was not similar to theirs. He was planning to return there on this trip to see the changes, but first he was toying with the idea of going to Afghanistan, a little unsure of the safety situation that would await him.
“They have AK-47s. What can you do?”
I nodded, telling him about the recent news report quoting the Taliban as saying that they would be deliberately targeting foreigners. A little later he leaned towards me.
“We have done some terrible things. But we do not want to say. Why?”
He had earlier been conveying to me a meeting with an old woman he had once had whilst travelling in China, who told of being a seven year old when she was beaten up, during the Nanking Massacre of 1937, when hundreds of thousands were murdered.
“Just seven,” he repeated. “Why?”
Japan has never completely apologised for the atrocities it committed in the twentieth century. Relations with Korea and China, amongst others, are strained in part because of the way in which Japanese textbooks have treated their past actions, or rather, have not, and it is this culture of denial that troubles him so. That Emperor Hirohito was rehabilitated by MacArthur, even if for political reasons, and many were never held responsible for what they did, is unforgivable in his eyes.
“Those responsible should have committed suicide,” he suggested.
He saw the future as quite grim.
“We can never go forward. There will never be any trust between us,” he continued, referring to Japan’s aggrieved neighbours.
The potential threat of nuclear war also bore down on him, with nuclear warheads aimed at Japan from China and North Korea. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still, of course, lives on in Japan, and the thought that Japan can come under attack again is now a constant source of worry; this is understandable, due to recent tests conducted by the Stalinist North Korean regime in the vicinity of Japan’s waters.
But it was the past he wanted to talk about most, recounting discussions he had had with some South Korean’s whilst in that country, as they recalled terrible things afflicted upon their female relatives by the Japanese army.
“I believe them when they tell me what happened. Why did we do this? It is so crazy……There are those who say we are not responsible, we were not there. But it was our country; our country. We must talk about it. Why do we not?”
For him, it is the conservatives in Japan who refuse to accept that Japan’s glorious military and imperialist past (as they see it) is over, that are the internal obstacle for Japan truly moving on. I asked him about the controversy a while back over Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine to pay his respects to Japan’s war dead. The Shinto shrine, built in the 19th century, is home to the souls of millions of war dead. Its significance lies in the belief that once a soldier has been enshrined there, he becomes a national deity who looks over the nation; a guardian angel of sorts. However, it is the inclusion of fourteen convicted class-A war criminals there that has raised the ire of Japan’s neighbours. Koizumi defended his visit, stating that the convicted war criminals were sentenced to death. But this was not good enough for him.
“It should not happen. How can he do this? We honour our dead, but not those people.”
He feared that Japan’s militaristic past was not truly behind it and that his people were too easily influenced by the government, a government that was unwilling to face its problems head on, including its closed political system and its disastrous banking policies, the country mired in debt.
Interestingly, he suggested that the presence of the United States military in Japan should continue. Pointing to a full water bottle nearby that had been under the sun the whole day, he said: “It is like that bottle over there. If you take off the cap, you never know what might be released.”
Before he got up to get some dinner, he concluded, somewhat regretfully,
“Both sides from World War Two have their own version of history. But they never meet. They never agree.”
And then he shuffled away down the stairs, the weight of his country’s past seemingly all on his shoulders, a past he had nothing to do with, but nevertheless still with him, following, like a ghost.