Japan's Ground Zero

Once a long way from here in a quiet country church in England I reported on a Japanese film crew making a documentary about the regiment from Norfolk that fought in the Far East in World War Two.

There was one veteran who showed up at the church who wouldn't cross the aisle to meet the crew. In fact he wouldn't even talk to them.

He told me how his comrades had died agonizing deaths amidst the heat and flies along the Burma railway. He told me how they fell to the ground, their ribs sticking out of their emaciated bodies, only to be beaten mercilessly by their Japanese captors.

Later he was shipped to the mainland of Japan in a prison ship where the prisoners of war were stacked like pieces of meat in a festering hold, in a dirty great hole bored down through the middle of the ship, amid sewage and the dead and dying.

In comparison the salt mine in Japan seemed easier. The biggest threat to his life was the daily bombings by American planes.

The veterans' words went to the heart of the strange place Japan occupies in our minds and hearts. How could a people outwardly so passive and gentle, endulge in acts of such cruelty?

Yet if you watch Clint Eastwood's excellent movie Postcards from Iwo Jima, it's apparent there was something else going on  here, the Bushido Code of honor going back to the Samurai days that death was nobler than defeat. As America retook countless islands, the Japanese soldiers would commit suicide en masse; often woman and children would throw themselves off cliffs rather than surrender.

Today Japan is unrecognizable from the nation that burned from the millions of bombs that fell on it during the war. The unassuming Japanese dedication to whatever they took was channelled into creating an economic miracle.

Even though the nation has been hit badly by the recession, Tokyo remains a vision of the city of the future, with as little poverty as there is space; a frenetic city where the virtual and real worlds are often hard to untangle.

The tragedy that has befallen Japan over the last week is as unfathomable as it is catastrophic. Before the earthquake people were going about their unremarkable lives in suburban Japan, watching the fields and neat houses flit by on the bullet train. Shortly afterwards the bullet train was no more, buried under the rubble brought in by a dirty tide that swept these quiet regions back a few centuries in the face of a few minutes.

In terms of their magnitude the events in Japan are as cathartic as the volcano that destroyed Pompeii or the eruption of Thera off Greece that blasted the middle out of an island and appears to have led to the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete.

In the midst of tragedy the Japanese have retained their dignity. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami may have reduced this part of Japan to a wasteland but we have seen quiet forbearance and none of the anarchy seen in Haiti after last year's earthquake.

And there's a sad and ironic postscript that the nation used as a test bed for our most destructive weapon in 1945, should suffer the ill effects of the same technology when it was used for a constructive purpose.

I hope if that veteran in the far away church meets some people from Japan again he will find the time to forgive. The old hatreds and feuds seem very distant now and the works and strifes of man, very puny compared to the terrible enormity of nature.


  1. I'm still shaken by what happened in Japan. I feel so awful for those people in that country. I can't even fathom what they are going through right now.

    Beautiful post.

  2. My grand dad was in the Navy in the Pacific during WW2 and felt the same way as that old vet that you described. I can't say that I condone my grandfathers beliefs and I can't accept them either. He walked in the path not I.

    This was a very good post by the way.

  3. What a beautifully written post. My heart goes out to all the victims of Japan's devastating disasters. I must agree with Oilfield Trash re: the veterans of WWII. My grandfather, who has one of the biggest and most generous hearts, served in that war and has similar beliefs.

  4. David- You found the words, and they completely captured me. Really well done post. And the postscript is true - I couldn't help but think of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and how the Japanese are once again faced with years of devastating loss at the hands of their own nuclear technology. Strifes are indeed puny.

  5. One of the best posts I've read recently. Yes, the war left terrible wounds and scars and I hope that time has healed some of that. We cannot condemn the new generations for the horrors of the old. The Holocaust, The Bataan March, the firebombing of Dresden, the Blitz...the list goes on and on. Not everyone knows that in the USA the gov't rounded up many of Japanese descent and confined them to internment camps; they took only what they could carry, and most lost jobs, homes, and possessions. Some, while interned, had sons serving in the US Armed Forces.
    Nature has proven itself the great leveler, and when it strikes, it pays no mind to colour, culture or country. Hopefully we can respond in kind and all work together to at least alleviate some of the suffering in this world.

  6. This is an incredible post. I have stayed away from commenting on the situation in Japan on my blog as I just did not feel I had anything of worth to contribute. This post definitely does though. As other's have said before me this is absolutely one of the best posts I have read in recent days. Very thought provoking.

  7. And I agree - very well-written indeed.

    Our country and our people too suffered at the hands of the Japanese. But war is war, there's no such thing as a nice one. If we view humanity as a single entity and that all blood is red, and pain is pain in whatever language or nationality, then we may forgive and move on.

    A group of bloggers have put together a Relief Fund in Write Hope. I've helped spread the word in my latest post.

    Thanks David.

  8. I concur, David. This is excellent. Your writing is informative and heartfelt, and that's a huge challenge when tackling such a devastating situation. Thank you for this post.

  9. I'm with the ex-servicemen. My dad almost came up against them and there is no doubt the Japs were brutes. 'No mercy and trust none of them' was the watchword.
    The fact that Japan, unlike Germany, made no form of repentance is what makes the suffering linger.

    Too many today feel for those who were under the atom bombs and no little of the suffering of troops in the fields. History is quickly forgotten when you wish to forget.

    The earthquake has been devastating, but worse is the failure to meet the needs of those who escaped. That has been a surprise.

  10. Thankyou David, you have found the words to express so many conflicting aspects to the devastation from the past and present.

  11. Well said. It is overwhelming to me thinking of all that has happened in Japan. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions.

  12. Glad you liked the post Jennifer. You are too kind Oilfield. I knew older people who wouldn't talk to you for driving a Japanese car. Cheers Empress, well it would be hard to get over that. thanks Jayne, you are too kind. thanks ever so much for the informative comments Li. Cheers Frog, I owe you one. thanx Ryan. Glad you liked it Robyn, I have the best blog followers ever for sure. I know, Adullmite but it was also unfortunate the way the US let Hirohito stay on. Thank you Sue, it's hard to fathom Daisy.


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