Magazine article USA TODAY

A Former POW's Japanese Conundrum

Magazine article USA TODAY

A Former POW's Japanese Conundrum

Article excerpt

JAPANESE STOICISM under stress should not be considered a miracle: in Japan, self-discipline is derived from a common conviction that the goals of the nation precede the well-being of the individual. Japanese unity equals fealty to the tribe, a striving toward a common goal, and, when the historical occasion demands, the sharing of sacrifice. This comes out strongly in times of natural disaster and nuclear catastrophe. It also applies, with a vengeance, to the political enemy as well as the foreign business competitor. It explains the treatment of the dishonored and dishonorable prisoners of war, and the barely tolerated minorities such as the Korean immigrants. The hopes and the ambitions of the Japanese individual play a secondary role.

My preoccupation with Japan started more than half a century ago, a month or two before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The white minority in the Dutch East Indies, among whom I had landed early in the war, had lived a sheltered life for generations. Now, as tensions between Japan and the West increased, the Dutch colonial community--a homogeneous group of expatriates--became nervous about its future. Internal tensions, fueled by apprehension, intensified when the Pacific War erupted. As a 17-year-old living in Java, I was not aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our Army, but I did not share the colonials' complacent (and racist) conviction that the Japanese would be defeated easily. Once I was drafted, I grew increasingly skeptical of our chances to withstand the inevitable invasion.

Even after the war, I continued to have Japan on my mind. My old fury flared up again when I read about the Tokyo War Crimes trials where, I felt, so many leading Japanese officials and military brass escaped harsh punishment.

On Aug. 15, it will have been 68 years since I was liberated from imprisonment as a Japanese POW. My three-and-a-half-year captivity included 11 months as a slave laborer along the River Kwai, on the infamous Thai-Burma "Railway of Death." I watched my friends die of starvation, cholera, beatings, and other horrors.

The war was full of hate. Since then, however, I have had plenty of time to reflect. In the early 1950s, on my first consulting assignment in Tokyo--where I encountered few other Western civilians in the rains of a bombed-out city--I again experienced that old mixture of fear and fascination. Who are these people and what drives them? Why are they sometimes so admirable and, at other times, seem so cruelly alien?

When, in subsequent decades, I became involved in the attempts to manage the growing trade imbalance between Japan and the West, the war grew more distant, but I always felt that there was a serious communications gap. On my business trips to Japan, I never succeeded in engaging my hosts in a discussion about the war. They were friendly and polite, but closed up like clams when asked about their war experiences. Like the chairman of a major advertising agency, for instance, who treated my wife and I to a home-cooked feast of tempura delicacies. Towards the end of the meal, I felt emboldened to ask how the chairman had fared during the war. "Please have another fried chrysanthemum," he said.

These questions again came to the fore with the cataclysmic tsunami and its nuclear aftermath. …

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