WALTER HAMILTON. ‘Fighting Monsters’

Dec 31, 2016

Australians, Americans and Japanese have been ‘fighting monsters’––the monsters of war remembrance––since 1945. A high-profile visit to Pearl Harbor during the week seemed to suggest another monster was being laid to rest. But while that piece of theatre left much to be desired, especially in its aftermath, another recent attempt, away from the spotlight, gives us reason to hope. 

When the Japanese Government first announced that Shinzo Abe was going to Pearl Harbor, it claimed it would be the first visit by a serving prime minister. Claiming a new precedent went ahead of the articulation of a specific purpose. Then it was discovered that at least three other Japanese leaders already had been to the site of the December 1941 attack. So, absent the historical element, did any fresh resolve lie behind the trip?

The message Abe delivered, that ‘we [who did he mean by ‘we’: Japan, Japan and America, or the whole world?] must never repeat the horrors of war’ was, quite frankly, a platitude. It left the conversation hanging, just as Barack Obama did in Hiroshima earlier in the year when he expressed a desire for nuclear disarmament, without offering to eliminate the United States’ own arsenal. The bookends of Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor––the 2016 version, which included matching hugs of a carefully-chosen veteran at each venue––ended up largely as photographic emblems of reconciliation between two nations that effectively ‘reconciled’ more than 60 years ago when they signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

So, to rephrase the question, was there a purpose not immediately apparent?

Subsequent events suggest to me there was.

Accompanying Abe in Hawaii was the hawkish Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, who is a well-known denier of Japanese wartime atrocities; indeed, she is someone who thinks the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was purely a defensive measure. She kept these thoughts to herself while Abe was scattering petals into the lagoon; but, immediately upon her return to Tokyo, Inada set off to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine ‘to console the spirits’ of Japan’s war dead.

To my mind, this was a deliberate move to assert an equivalency between the secular memorial site she and Abe had just visited in Pearl Harbor––the USS Arizona monument––and the Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s fallen, including convicted war criminals executed by the Allied powers. Yasukuni, to rightists like Inada and Abe, is nothing more or less than the kind of place every nation maintains for the purpose of remembrance. When Abe paid respects at the USS Arizona monument, I suggest, he was participating in a strategy to polish and affirm the status of Yasukuni Shrine.

The hidden purpose of the visit is revealed.

There are three principal reasons why Yasukuni is not a legitimate war memorial site for Japan. 1) It is a Shinto facility, which means that an official visit by a government minister (i.e. when she signs the visitors’ book using her ministerial title) is a breach of the constitutional separation of church and state; 2) It is strongly associated with a revisionist view of history that absolves Japan of war responsibility (even Emperor Hirohito stopped going there after the war criminals were enshrined); 3) It is an aggressive symbol of Japan’s militarist past that deeply offends neighbouring countries.

As I contemplate the latest evidence of a Japan that refuses to learn, I am reminded of an unusual book I read recently: the product of a painful, decades-long struggle by one individual Australian to truly understand and learn from the Pacific War. Richard Wallace Braithwaite completed Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy not long before he died this year. It deserves a wide readership.

After capturing Singapore in early 1942, the Japanese military began transferring POWs to other venues such as Sandakan in northern Borneo. By early 1945, there were about 2,400 Australian and British POWs alive in the prison camp there. Only six of them would survive the war. Dick Braithwaite’s father, also known as Dick, was one of them.

The title Fighting Monsters (taken from a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche) at first glance might seem to refer to the Japanese. The real ‘monsters’ of this book, however, are the unresolved feelings of guilt and anguish that afflicted the few survivors, spreading harm to their families and friends back home. They were ‘men of secrets, and severely damaged psychologically’, writes Braithwaite, who had a ‘poor relationship’ with his grumpy father tortured by his demons right up to his death in 1986: ‘I grew up in the shadow of a large atrocity.’

There might be slicker narratives available on the subject of the Sandakan tragedy but none more heartfelt. What sets the book apart from other accounts of the death marches is that it has a deeper purpose than just to relate a story: it is an act of exorcism and a commitment to really know the past, free of hate, self-justification and victor/victim propaganda. It is the kind of act which Prime Minister Abe might have attempted at Pearl Harbor had he been so inclined.

Dick Braithwaite, the POW survivor, made two unpublished efforts, in the 1940s and 1970s, to tell the story of those who perished alongside him: he felt he owed it to them. ‘On his deathbed…he passed the mantle on to me.’ His son’s first attempt in the 1990s petered out. In 2000 he took leave from his job at the CSIRO to finish the manuscript only to realize he had turned out just ‘another anti-Japanese diatribe’.

He started again. Taking advice from two Marist priests, Fathers Tony and Paul Glynn, both with knowledge of Japan, he came to see the project ‘as part of a healing process’: that it must go deeper and broader to understand the ‘atrocity’ from all sides. Many years of further research and interviews, in Japan, Borneo and Australia, brought forth Fighting Monsters.

Braithwaite arrived at a position of trust in which he appreciated Japanese expressions of remorse for the war. He was glad when Abe specifically mentioned Sandakan during his address to the Australian Parliament in 2014: ‘It now rightly sits at the apex of Australia’s war hurt and that is recognized by Japan. On the other hand, Australians tend to have a tin ear when the Japanese make apologies…’

I suspect Braithwaite might put me in the ‘tin ear’ category if he could read this blog.

Yet, like him, I have thought long about these issues, and I hope I have always kept an eye and an ear open for signs of progress. The greatest measure of progress has been the general diminishing of anti-Japanese feeling in Australia, especially over the past two decades, and his book makes a valuable contribution to that. At the people-to-people level, there is greater trust and good feeling (though less as a result of a better form of war remembrance than the inevitable war forgetfulness). At the governmental level in Japan, however, I see evidence of backsliding. Abe and his brethren are still ‘fighting monsters’––the monsters of Japan’s past misdeeds that they refuse to honestly confront.

‘Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy’ by Richard Wallace Braithwaite is published by Australian Scholarly (Melbourne, 2016).

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.

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