Japanese remember - and the tears flow: Veterans of the war in Burma are here in hope of reconciliation but the visit has divided our survivors - 12,400 Britons died in captivity

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The Independent Online
FIFTEEN elderly Japanese men stood to attention outside York Minster last Thursday, and there, as a British bugler sounded the Last Post, two of them began to cry.

It was a moving sight. These were men in their seventies, veterans of the war in Burma, hoping beyond hope that their visit to Britain would help bring about reconciliation with a former enemy that, almost half a century later, still finds it difficult to give them quarter.

Some British veterans, however, have made the effort. At York, 10 of their former enemies were standing alongside the Japanese. They, too, were old men, who had been disowned by their former British and Indian army colleagues for fraternising with Jap. Soldiers who fought against the Japanese don't use the definite or indefinite article or the plural; their enemy was simply Jap, a foe who broke every rule of the Geneva Convention and whom, for the sake of the dead, especially the ones who died in the prison camps, they will never forgive.

The little group of veterans was lined up under the branches of a cherry tree in front of a row of medieval stone arches inscribed with the battles fought by Britain's 2nd Division, which was disbanded by the Government as part of its military reforms earlier this year.

There was Waterloo, Crimea, Egypt, South Africa - and Kohima, the hill station in Assam close to the Burmese border. In 1944, Kohima (and Imphal) witnessed the most ferocious fighting, most of it hand-to-hand, of the Burma campaign. The British inflicted heavy losses, and the victory marked a turning point in the war.

After the Last Post and verses for the dead, the row of Japanese bowed low towards the cross marked Kohima. Beside the memorial were twin wreaths, one of yellow and white chrysanthemums and the other of red poppies. 'We, representing all Japanese veterans, pray here for the bliss of all those who died in the Burma campaign - 1942-1945,' a card said.

When the service ended, Paul de Beer, 75, taken prisoner at Singapore in 1942 and a survivor of the Burma railway, said: 'You can see there is good in all of us.' He had told me the night before that the Japanese could be 'absolutely beastly' and some were 'little bastards', but he did not hold any grudges.

The inspiration for the visit came from two Burma veterans: Gwilym Davies, 71, a former engine driver from Aberystwyth, and Masao Hirakubo, 72, who was once London representative of Japan's huge trading combine, Marubeni, and received the OBE for services to Anglo-Japanese understanding.

In the early 1980s, Mr Davies fell out with colleagues in the Burma Star Association's mid-Wales branch over reconciliation with Japan. He contacted the Japanese embassy which put him in touch with Mr Hirakubo, who had been conducting a one-man campaign with the same objective.

Mr Davies found old soldiers who supported him and established the British Burma Campaign Fellowship Group, which has 40 members. Mr Hirakubo got in touch with the All Burma Veterans Association of Japan and the first exchange was arranged in 1984. The Sasakawa Foundation, a charity set up by a Japanese entrepreneur, provided funds for British veterans to visit Japan in 1989.

Last week's visit to Britain was the first by Japanese under the Sasakawa scheme. Their leader was Shosaku Kameyama, 74, who was injured in the fighting at Kohima. He is a courteous man, slightly ill at ease because he cannot speak English. He was a lieutenant in charge of transportation at Ban Pong in Thailand for Japan's 31 Division 'with the assistance of 30 British PoWs'.

'He was a good man,' said Maurice Franses, president of the fellowship group. 'He saved the lives of several PoWs by having them taken off jobs that would have killed them.'

Alan Elliot, who turned 73 yesterday, can vouch for that. He was one of the 30 British PoWs. Emaciated and close to death, Mr Elliot was moved from a railway construction camp at Kanyu in March 1943 to Ban Pong 80 miles south.

He recalled: 'To our great surprise we were treated well. We had medical supplies, food, and so on. Although four died from their previous experience the rest got considerably better. We always attributed our good treatment to Kameyama.' Their luck lasted until the end of 1943, when Lt Kameyama and his unit moved into Burma and Mr Elliot and his colleagues were sent to another camp to service the railway. He imagined that Mr Kameyama had been killed but they met again in Tokyo in 1990.

The Japanese are in Britain for a fortnight, touring the Lake District, the Scottish Borders, Oxford and London in the company of the men who fought against them. Each night after dinner one of the Japanese makes a speech. It is a plea for understanding and an appeal for peace.

The Englishmen, the Welshmen and the Scotsmen who have joined them on their tour of Britain listen impassively, mumbling about Jap from time to time, but without grudges. It took them a long time to reach this stage and they do not mind telling you they used to feel they could never forgive Jap.

In York it was the turn of Hiroshi Shigezumi, 71. He was on the retreat from Kohima and he evoked the experience simply, briefly, ungrammatically, graphically: 'As you must be aware of the desperate battles in and around Kohima, I do not talk much,' he told his audience. 'It lasted for 60 days and we retreated from Kohima when rainy season had already started. Rain in Assam number one rainfall in the world and is dreadful beyond imagination.

'Under the situation of suffering from malaria and amoebic dysentery, lack of food and no medical to be given to wounded and sick men, lots of comrades died. We now call the road we passed Hakkotsu Kaido, or Bleached Bones Avenue.

'From crossing points of Chindwin river lots of dead body were left unburied, but we could not do anything. Under such abnormal situation our human sensibility was utterly paralysed.

'Half a century has elapsed since the miserable experience and the British and Japanese courageous officers and other ranks who confronted on the battlefield have reached an old age of 70s. We wish we would spend the remaining years for the peace of the world hand in hand.'

It may be a frail hope. Of the 50,000 British taken prisoner by the Japanese, 12,400 died in captivity, mainly from starvation, disease, exhaustion and ill-treatment.

'I will never forgive or forget,' said Harold Payne, president of the Far East Prisoners of War Association, who was not among the party in York. He refuses to have a Japanese product in his house. For him, this latest visit is simply an attempt by Japanese veterans to clear their conscience before they die.

(Photograph omitted)