Many Pacific War Survivors Still Bitter About Japanese Aggression



Sixty years after World War II ended in Asia, memories are still vivid and raw about Japan's aggression and brutal occupation of many countries in the region. Millions of people died in fighting, from starvation, disease and, what survivors generally describe as, the sheer cruelty of the Japanese.

On the morning of December 8, 1941, Mar Nai Kwong was getting ready to go to work as a torpedo technician at a British navy shipyard in Hong Kong when a loud noise came booming across the harbor.

"I heard at exactly eight o'clock: Vroom, vroom, vroom," he recalls.

Japanese fighter planes swept down Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport, dropped bombs and destroyed the few planes British forces had on the island. The young soldier was shocked.

" I said, wow, this is war. Is it war? It must be war. We knew the Japanese would do something, but not to Hong Kong," recalls Mar Nai Kwong.

Mr. Mar, now 91 years old, joined the Royal Navy in Hong Kong after dropping out of college in 1935. Little did he know at that time that the Japanese already occupying Manchuria would find their way to his doorstep.

In the days following the December 8 attacks, British and Chinese forces fought the Japanese Army advancing from southern China. But it was futile, with no gun ships and no air cover, Hong Kong fell on December 26, 1941.

And so would the rest of Asia. Asia's European and U.S. colonial rulers, their mighty ships and airplanes destroyed by the surprise Japanese attack, were forced to a humiliating retreat from capitals like Manila, Rangoon and Singapore.

For nearly four years, the Japanese occupied much of Asia from parts of China to the Pacific islands. Accounts of those years almost unanimously paint a picture of cruelty. The Japanese sent thousands of captured Allied soldiers to decrepit prisons and labor camps. People were indiscriminately killed, women raped or used as sex slaves.

Japanese forces justified their occupation by promising an "Asia for Asians" to a region then widely controlled by European and American governments. In some places like the Philippines, the Japanese installed a puppet government made up of collaborating local elites. In Burma, independence leader, Aung San, initially sided with the Japanese in the hope of driving the British out of Burma. But the brutality of the occupation failed to convince many.

"No food. Martial law time on the street. If you're careless, you don't realize martial law is on, they open fire without warning. You're dead on the street," said Billy Wong, now 80 years old, remembering Hong Kong during the occupation.

Mr. Wong was imprisoned by the Japanese but he escaped to southern China to join the British resistance movement there as a gunner.

Jack Edwards, retired from the British Army, was in Singapore's Changi prison after the fall of British Malaya and was later sent to labor in the infamous Kinkaseki mine in Formosa, now Taiwan.

Sgt. Edwards recalls how the Japanese led columns of Singapore residents to the sea, their hands tied behind their backs to be executed. He said it fell on the prisoners of war like himself to pick up bodies that had fallen into the water and those that pierced barbed wires, and bury them in mass graves.

"It was during that time that I built up my temper and my hatred of the Japanese of what they were doing. It was ghastly," he said.

On the battlefront, the Allied-led resistance movement fought to prevent Japan's further advance in Asia. But without a large army, naval and air support, the effort was often demoralizing.

Gunner Maximo Cheng fought with the British in Burma. He walked in the treacherous Burmese jungle for days, sometimes without food, and always wary of a Japanese ambush.

"It was monsoon you see. It was very difficult to walk and the mud was about this thick. One day we could walk one, two, three miles and stop.  We walked for seven days, finished our rations and then, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 days no rations," he said.

Brian Farrell, a historian at the National University of Singapore, says the experience was simply unforgettable for many.

"The experience was so traumatic, so searing. The loss of life was so massive and in many cases it involved local representatives who were complicit in this and not just the Japanese," said Mr. Farrell. "And that is psychologically and emotionally difficult to cope with."

Sixty years after the conflict, many survivors are still angry at Japan, specifically at what they say is Japan's lack of atonement for its wartime aggression. Gunner Billy Wong says the Japanese still have to show remorse for the suffering of millions of people during the occupation.

"Up to now, the Japanese people they never say sorry, never apologized about World War II. What have they done to Hong Kong people? Did they treat Hong Kong people like normal human being? Of course not, they treated Hong Kong people like animals," he said.

On August 2, Japan's parliament, noting the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, passed a resolution expressing "deep regret" for the "suffering" caused by Japan's past actions. The resolution lacked the unequivocal apology so many Asians say they want to hear.

Mr. Farrell says Japan's perceived ambivalence towards its imperial past has sometimes strained relations with its neighbors.

"The much celebrated reluctance to condemn, criticize and apologize, the sense that the Japanese either want to forget about it or insists that the slate was wiped clean or argue they are as much victims as everyone else. This, of course, rankles particularly with those who had to endure," said Mr. Farrell.

Japan's neighbors recently protested the use of school textbooks that they say gloss over its imperialist past. And visits by Japanese officials to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead including convicted war criminals, continue to spark outrage from Japan's neighbors.

Sgt. Edwards, who helped prosecute Japanese Army officers for war crimes, says the Yasukuni Shrine should be torn down.

"Great mistake that Yasukuni Shrine," he said. "Biggest mistake that was made at the end of the war. Wasn't bloody well blown up by the Americans. It wouldn't have been there now."

Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, but only after U.S. atomic bombs destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were the first and only nuclear attacks in world history.

Mr. Mar, who has since married a Japanese woman, says Japan did pay a terrible price for its military aggression.

"The Japanese never dare to start any war again. They learned a lesson which they will never forget in a thousand years," he said.

Hundreds of war veterans in Asia, their numbers dwindling because of old age, will gather at different memorials across the region to remember colleagues who fell and to honor the courage of those who survived.

In Hong Kong, no Japanese official has been invited to ceremonies on August 14 - a sign that some war memories still refuse to heal.

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