Although being born and raised in a small logging town in Canada, I have had a connection to Asia since my early 20s when I first travelled there. After an advanced degree in London I headed to Tokyo where serendipity lead me to a satisfying corporate life serving foreign capitalised technology and pharmaceutical companies in the Asia-Pacific. Outside of two years in Silicon Valley I ended up spending 25 years in the Asia Pacific region – almost my entire adult life.
I devoted my free time to hiking, diving, climbing and generally trying to get to every site of historical interest. With time and inclination I was able to connect the sometimes circuitous flights and jungle paths to end up at some obscure battle sites. Some of these such as Okinawa, I was able to take the whole family along. Some in the nether reaches of Palawan in the Philippines, Yap, Anguar or the outer Chuuk islands I was able to get there only with a small backpack, compass directions and old battle maps. On Anguar I found the original Japanese village with Torii gate still standing, shrouded in jungle vines. The lighthouse above the town still shattered beyond recognition by US shellfire but with the Japanese bath – that oh so wonderful cultural habit – still presevered with glimmering painted tiles at the bottom of the tower now covered in jungle.
In other areas the challenges were less geographical and more as a result of history and national consciousness, a forgetfulness of the past. In mainland China remnants of some battle sites have been erased as rampant material development and war on history itself has obliterated sites. Others have been turned into something like Disneyland attractions where nationalist themes obscure the nuances of history and the lessons we can learn from it. Some places of the worst battles are totally reclaimed by the forest as in Guadalcanal, the more obscure places on Moen in the Truk Islands, or the abandoned lighthouse on Anguar… to be seen in American newsreels being strafed by carrier pilots, now lying cleaved by jungle vines, overgrown and shattered on a hilltop.
If you know where to look, there are places of serenity, interpretive moments where one is able to look back and peer through the sash of a violent history. Peleliu is an island with an area of 5 square miles and 13,000 dead. Few tourists make the journey to stay on Peleliu. Most live on dive boats off the shore and come in for a few brief hours and leave. On Peleliu I was able to wander into the jungle and find positions that had not been visited since WWII, with remants of the fighting, in some cases even the remnants of people, still on site. I saw the Army memorial on Bloody-Nose Ridge with its path grown shut and cement crumbling (now since refurbished I have been told). On this island I spent almost a week crawling around cutting my shoes on limestone. I spent the entire day wandering positions and at night camping on the beaches. Eventually heat, perpetual dehydration and morbid nightmares drove me from the small village of 200 people that clings like a vestigal testament of life giving capability on an island so encapsulated in the remnants of death. An island in the middle of nowhere, no one cared about it, that only recieved significance relative to other pieces of land during the war. Once the tide of war passed Peleliu reverted to obscurity. Other places were less obscure.
Hong Kong has much of its old colonial buildings in place. The central mountains of Hong Kong island and its trails tell of a desperate battle of British forces surrounded by the Japanese with no hope of rescue. In Hengyang China, I found a tombstone punctured by a bullet fired by one side in the ferocious battle there in 1944. Notable in my inquiries (in 1998 and 2011) among the locals at that time, no one seemed to know that a battle had ever occurred. This situation has since been remedied with the installation of a very graphic depiction of the the idealised last moments of the defenders, reduced to throwing rocks at the Japanese before being butchered. The average punter now has at least this representation to remind them – in the same way that some in the UK and Commonwealth have statues and plaques on street corners to let them know there was a was major war sometime in the last century – though when the war occured and exactly how many wars there may have been, and who was on who’s side may remain obscure to most.
I returned to Canada, at least part time in 2011 and more or less full time in 2013. I still remain committed to the Japanese language and all its nuances and try to maintain my hand in as much physical challenges my body can still take – including body slams on the Judo mat (we’ll see how long that can continue…). I am engaged in trying to climb some of the more obscure peaks on Vancouver Island and I still have a strong connection with Asia and Japan and China in particular. I still try to get to the battle sites whenever possible and Burma and China again loom large on the horizon.
This blog is an attempt to fill a hole in a very small way in the lack of translations of Japanese sources on key battles in the Asia-Pacific and, as the Japanese say, the Greater East Asia War.
I do not take specific political stances on issues. I do not vary much from traditional interpretations of history. Truth statements we make about most of this period are well known and documented by experts in their respective fields. I am not a fan of mono-causal theories of events in history. Life experiences teach us that events happen usually for a variety of reasons with a number of factors in play at any time, some dominant, some operating at levels almost imperceptible yet able to influence events under special circumstances. I have no time for those who indulge in relativist and vast conspiratorial ideas of history. Life show us that things almost always go wrong, that mistakes are more common than willful purpose, and that any secret between three or more people will almost always be revealed sooner than later. While everyone’s view of the war is different we usually know what happened and can judge, and yes, morally judge based upon interpretations of this period.
Analysis of the war is changing however and themes not considered dominant are emerging to form new perspectives. The role of China and cultural imperatives are now looked at with new understanding. Economics and Imperialism, long dominant, now have to contend with other factors in the heads of the people on the ground who actually made the decisions to make war. In many cases making money was far from their minds. Specific battles and events can also be “fleshed out” : motivations of a commander may become more well known, actions of a particular unit better understood in the context of battle. Lastly, the battle identity of the Japanese soldier, who remains still, after 75 years, largely an enigma to most western minds will be better understood in a blog detailing his thinking, presenting him in way less muddled with western preconceptions.
Honesty is an essential element of the study of history and considered reflection key to breaking down the stereotypical interpretation of the Japanese soldier as a mindless robot. We must be able to re-evaluate what happened and draw conclusions on the basis of evidential analysis. Our understanding of the Japanese soldier is usually not sympathetic as some popular rightist forces in Japan would have us believe, but understanding the world from the viewpoint of the Japanese soldier is important for a greater understanding of this war and its enduring consequences. While we may disagree with many of the precepts motivating his actions in war we cannot deny essential traits not uncharacteristic of soldiers in western allied armies.
If you share similar interests please feel free to contact me and we can discuss this labour of love.
Rodney James Szasz