When my oppressor knelt in awe

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 20 August 2005, pp. 14-15

The month of August always reminds me of the last days of World War II. Japan surrended on the 15 August exactly sixty years ago, but news about this life giving event only reached us, inmates of Camp VI at Ambarawa, Indonesia, two weeks later.
Japan’s surrender proved truly life giving for me. It happened in the nick of time. I was ten years old. With my mother and three brothers I had endured four years of near starvation in less than ideal conditions while my father, unkown to us, had been shipped to Thailand to work on the railway of River Kwai fame. People were dying all around us. I myself was down with severe haemorrhaging dysentry. If the war had lasted another month I would not have survived, as the camp  doctor later confided to my mother.
I am writing these recollections with peace and reconciliation in mind which alone can prevent wars in the long run. But I cannot refrain from passing a remark on the atom bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, measures that helped to terminate the war and saved my life. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently mourned the hundreds of thousands who were killed in those doomed cities and called for an end to nuclear conflict. Wonderful. Why did he not acknowledge that Japan had been the aggressor and  that a protraction of the war would have cost millions more lives including among the Japanese themselves? Force is needed at times to curb  violence, which takes me back to the camp.
Our Japanese and Korean guards treated us with brutality. No surprise perhaps since a handful of them had to keep thousands of women and children in check. It was a formula that led many POWs to hate the Japanese for life, each and everyone of them. I escaped that fate through a number of spiritual experiences one of which I would like to share.
It happened a year earlier in the Mangubumen Camp, Surakarta. By way of concession, a priest from a nearby men’s camp was allowed to say Mass for Catholics twice a year. I had received first communion just before we had been herded into captivity and the eucharist meant a lot to me, as it still does today.
Imagine the large crowd of us, sitting on the dusty ground or standing barefoot in dense semi-circles under tall Tjemara trees next to the camp’s reeking rubbish dump. Facing us stood the rough wooden table that served as the altar. The priest recited his prayers in Latin. Next to the altar, seated on a comfortable chair, sat Colonel Sakai, our camp commander, his samurai sword plainly visible as it dangled by a long chain from his belt.
A bell was rung. Consecration. We all knelt down. I looked at our Japanese oppressor. To my utter surprise he rose from the chair and he too knelt down, his glittering sword lying flat in the dust next to him.
You will appreciate my surprise better if you know that this same man, just a few weeks earlier, had displayed all the traits of unmitigated Japanese fury. The whole camp had been summoned to stand in the noonday sun to listen to one of his harangues. The Dutch interpreter, who was standing next to him, made a mistake. He slapped her across her face and she, acting on impulse I am sure, struck back. This, of course, constituted an unforgivable offence: the male emblem of imperial authority being publicly humiliated by a female of a disgraced and defeated nation.
The scene that followed defies description. He undid his belt and beat her time and again. She sank to the ground, unconscious. He ordered a bucket of water to be poured over her. When she straggled to her feet, he belted her again till she collapsed, this time for good. She succumbed to her injuries soon after. While the beating was going on, we shouted, cried, wept – soldiers right and left pointing their guns at us. I remember my trembling all over with fear and anger, imprinting a trauma of fear and a hatred of bullying that have never left me.
This was the same man who knelt down with us and bowed his head at the consecration. The event moved me deeply on a human and spiritual level in a way I find hard to put into words. The paradox of a ‘pious brute’ perplexed me. I suddenly grasped, somehow, that Sakai too was human, frail, groping for God as much as we were. It created a bond with him. Under his mask of cruelty lay a reverence for the divine I shared with him. While remaining a dangerous oppressor, he had humbled himself before the mystery of the universe and so acknowledged himself a seeker in need of God.
I have learnt much more about the Japanese since then, through personal Japanese friends and through reading. What I perceived intuitively as a child, I can now rationalise to some extent. Our guards were formed by their masculine culture, banzai military indoctrination and unquestioning loyalty to the emperor. The brutes who terrorised us probably loved their wives and children tenderly. They were the victims of a tyranny of mind control which institutions, whether social, political or religious, all too easily slide into.
Violence needs to be checked with a strong hand, as our daily experience proves. Untruth needs to be exposed. We may not tolerate bullying of any kind. But true peace and reconciliation between people can only come about, I feel, by understanding individuals as they are: mixtures of evil and good. What we need is empathy, not black-and-white condemnations. The popes who burnt heretics, incredibly, believed it was God’s will. Suicide bombers, though appallingly misguided, commit themselves to a generous act of self sacrifice. The people who populate our globe are walking paradoxes who, like ourselves, are courageous cowards, blind teachers of partial truths, filled with misconceptions no less than fired by high ideals. I have often wondered if this is how Jesus saw people? He ate and drank with tax collectors even though they took bribes. He admired the cunning of the unjust steward. He praised a prostitute for ‘having shown much love’. He invited the repentant thief to join him in paradise.
All this has practical consequences. Peace, whether in society or in the church, starts with a love of people, even a love of our adversaries, candidly commending what is good in them. Could this be one implication of that seemingly unachievable challenge:  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly?” (Luke 7,27)