Tokyo: I had lunch with a friend of a friend, Harry Sasaki. He is a well-preserved man in his late sixties, with an erect posture, silvery hair and a gentle manner. I wouldn’t have guessed he was a war criminal.

Christina told me he was the most unlikely war criminal she knew, and I laughed. When I met him I knew what she meant. He spoke with a perfect American accent. He wore a dark brown tweed jacket, dark grey trousers, a thick cotton shirt and a wool tie. We sat down for lunch in a room at the top of the Imperial Hotel, overlooking the Imperial Palace, and he ordered a couple of beers and asked after Christina. He said he was looking forward to seeing her when she was next in Tokyo. I could see that he wondered how much Christina had told me about him.

‘I hear you were a convicted war criminal’ didn’t sound right. ‘Would you like to talk about some of your war experiences in the Philippines?’ didn’t sound much better. I wasn’t sure what to say. War crimes aren’t the easiest topic of conversation with a convicted war criminal. Not five minutes into a first meeting.

I explained that I was in Japan on business, and he relaxed a bit. I asked him how he had acquired such good American pronunciation. He smiled and began his story. His father had a small silk business in Niigata in the late 1920s. When the silk market collapsed, he decided to sell up and take his wife and two sons to a new life in America. Harry was eight years old and his younger brother was three.

‘In every way it was a whole new world for me,’ he said. After the mountains of Niigata he found California to be big and strange and exciting. The people were friendly and Harry was soon speaking English at school, although at home his parents spoke Japanese. His father worked in a canning factory. His mother stayed and continued her previous way of life: she cooked Japanese food, made Japanese pickles and kept the old festivals. The boys were expected to observe the traditions of their homeland.

By the time Harry went to high school he was bilingual in English and Japanese. After graduating he decided to visit Japan and took a ship to Yokohama. It was 1939. He returned to the village where he was born. ‘I was coming home.’ Harry smiled, then frowned. ‘It started so beautiful and ended so ugly.’ Like snow, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the war or Japan or himself.

I said I thought it was difficult to judge the actions of war in peace because war and peace are different worlds. He suddenly looked very old and tired and said that he lived with the memory of the war every day. It wasn’t exactly a confession but I thought I understood what he was saying. ‘It’s not possible to judge the past,’ he said, ‘but people remember.’ I was about to ask him which people when; as if he heard what I was thinking, he said, ‘I remember.’

A few months before, he was in a bookshop and saw a book about the war in the Philippines written by his commanding officer. He read a few pages and realized it was all lies. As he told me this his expression reminded me of the face of a demon guardian at the gate of a temple. ‘Whatever happened during the war, it’s wrong to lie about the past,’ he said. ‘It’s shameful.’ We agreed that people who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. The waiter came and asked if we wanted sandwiches.

While we waited for our order to arrive, Harry told me about his time in prison. The food was better than anything he’d had during the war – sometimes there was so much he couldn’t eat all of it. Meanwhile, outside the prison, people in Japan were starving. He got on well with the American guards and was put in charge of the prison library. He decided to read the Bible. When he was growing up in the States the only English books he read were the ones his teachers told him to read: facts and figures. If he read for pleasure, he read Japanese books which his father recommended. I asked him why he chose to read the Bible and he smiled. ‘Because I was feeling bad and I remembered people in the States calling it “the good book”. Reading it didn’t make me feel any better, but it helped me understand a lot of things about the Americans and the British.’

After he finished the Bible he made a reading plan for the thirty years of his sentence. He kept to it methodically and read his way through the complete works of Shakespeare and Dickens and several other authors, before he was released, his sentence shortened to ten years. I thought of him sitting in his cell, making his way through Dombey and Son and The Pickwick Papers.

Did it occur to him that he might have been a traitor to America? Did he search in desperation for some way to return to life as it was before everything went wrong? Had he simply adopted the taboos, shibboleths and customs of the conquerors? I wanted to ask him, but the sandwiches arrived and instead we talked more about food, about Kobe beef, Texas beef and clam chowder.

I looked for a sign, something in his eyes or face which might explain why he was tried and found guilty of war crimes. I saw nothing. He didn’t defend the past; he didn’t deny it; he seemed to accept it. If he felt guilt he showed no sign of it. He had spent time in prison and had been released. He had paid his dues and he was a free man.

He told me that he worries about his wife who suffers from arthritis and that he’s proud of his son who works for one of the big securities companies. He enjoys his work in the travel business and likes going to the United States. ‘It’s a great place to visit,’ he joked, ‘but I wouldn’t want to live there.’ We finished our meal and Harry insisted on paying. As we shook hands and said goodbye to each other in the hotel lobby, Harry said he hoped we’d meet again. ‘Any friend of Christina’s is a friend of mine.’

I thanked him and said I hoped we’d meet soon. He turned to walk away. I glanced behind me at an electronic map of the world, covering the wall of the lobby, that showed the different times in the major cities. It was two o’clock in the afternoon in Tokyo, six in the morning in London and ten the night before in Los Angeles. I turned back and looked for Harry Sasaki. There were several men like him in the lobby, wearing raincoats, with silvery hair. But no Harry.

 

2

The following Friday I saw Harry again. We arranged to meet outside the station at Shibuya, by the statue of Sachiko, at one o’clock. The sun was shining and the crowds outside the station were dressed in summer colours. I joined a group of people standing by the statue. I carried a newspaper but I didn’t read it.

It was almost one and I began to worry that Harry might not come. I was nervous. Our last meeting went well: there was an understanding between us. But perhaps I had imagined it. It was hard to see why an old man should travel across Tokyo to meet someone he hardly knew, to talk about things most people would be happy to forget.

Then I saw him. I was surprised at how old and frail he was. He was wearing a light grey suit and was using a bamboo walking stick. We shook hands. The shape of his hand in mine was like an old friend’s.

We had lunch in the Seibu department store. There was a lot of background noise and Harry’s voice wasn’t loud enough for the micro-cassette, so I took notes. Harry asked if I’d heard from Christina. I told him that she sent her love and hoped to see him soon. He smiled and I thought, what a nice grandfather he would be. I knew he was waiting for me to ask questions, but it didn’t feel right to begin, so I said something about the weather and he said it would soon be the rainy season. He told me how important the seasons are to the Japanese.

‘We Japanese are deeply affected by the seasons. Every haiku has its season-word. Scroll paintings in a tea room are changed according to the season, with cherry blossoms in spring and chrysanthemums in autumn.’ He asked if he was talking too fast for me. I thanked him and said no, I understood what he was saying; but wasn’t the Japanese attitude to the passing of time Buddhist? I had thought that the cycles of death and rebirth, the wheel of the law and the wheel of suffering, led finally to Buddha, to the great enlightenment.

Harry said yes, but Japan’s religion is Shinto. The week before he had read in a newspaper a survey of Japan’s religious beliefs: 75 per cent of Japanese described themselves as Buddhists, 95 per cent as Shinto. ‘The survey wasn’t wrong,’ he said. ‘It showed the way we think of ourselves. We’re Shinto when we go to the shrine for a festival, or when someone is born or gets married; we’re Buddhist when someone dies or when we think about the past and the future life.’

I asked him whether he thought of himself as a Buddhist or a Shinto.

‘When I think about it, I’m Buddhist. But I feel Shinto.’ He looked at me through his gold-rimmed spectacles with an expression that was melancholy and comical, and asked if I understood. I said I did. As I listened to him I was thinking that I had intended to ask him about the war, and that instead we were talking about the weather, the seasons, Shinto and how the Japanese love nature. There was something artificial in the conversation but the kimochi – the feeling – was good between us. I felt it was a good moment to begin asking questions. I asked what it was like in Japan just before the Second World War. Was there an atmosphere of idealism and pride? Was the war a great adventure? Harry thought for a moment.

‘I was carried by the current and dragged along. I was still young, you know.’ He cleared his throat. ‘You learn a lot later. That’s what happened to me. I learned a lot later, after the country was defeated. I wasn’t particularly conscious of the military. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to kill anyone.’

Had he ever considered that what was happening was wrong? ‘I couldn’t say it openly, because of my weakness. In those circumstances you have to follow –’ I could see he was having difficulty finding the right word. He clicked his fingers softly, as if to call the word from the air. ‘You have to follow the – you know.’

He told me he was a liaison officer with the local population in the Philippines. ‘I tried to call people from the hiding places, to call them back to their villages. I was happy to help the people. I had to go to the countryside. There were people hiding out there, maybe for a year or so. This work went on for a while, maybe until Christmas 1941. Then we moved to Manila. I was a civilian, but I was doing liaison work there between the Japanese Army and the people. It was a sort of public relations job.’ I interrupted him to ask if he was in the intelligence service and he said yes, he was.

‘MacArthur came back, the situation went the other way and the HQ had to move north. The Japanese Army rounded up so-called guerrillas and the people. They started to kill guerrillas and villagers, and the case of the war crime took place.’ I asked what the charge was at his trial.

‘I was part of, you know, the planning and the execution of the plot. Yes.’ He paused. ‘They rounded up Chinese and Filipinos and executed them. Not only in my town, but other places. There were many kinds of excuses given by garrison commanders. Finally it happened in my town.’ He repeated the phrase ‘the planning and execution of the plot’. I could imagine the same words, the same sentence, repeated during his trial.

‘The planning and execution of the plot’ – he paused – ‘the incineration of the town. In fact it was partly done by the Japanese garrison, and partly by American bombing.’ For a moment I forgot which war we were talking about. The words ‘American bombing’ made me think of Vietnam. I was only half-listening to what Harry was saying. I looked at what I’d written: ‘Massacring… ‘ The sentence was unfinished. I asked if there was anything he could have done to prevent the massacre.

He took a deep breath. ‘I did my best to ensure it wouldn’t take place. I couldn’t do much, you see. I was at one meeting where a plan for the massacre was being discussed, and a senior officer was against the plan and I agreed that it shouldn’t be done. And that was when my opinion was expressed. I wasn’t an officer or a soldier. I was just a civilian attached to the army.’

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘My view was not very effective. The commander forced the garrison to carry out the action. Six hundred Chinese were killed in a coconut grove. And sixty Filipinos.’ Harry was silent. I felt I had to say something, so I asked how they had died.

‘I don’t think by shooting. Mostly by bayonet and by beheading with the Japanese sword – the katana.’ He frowned and shook his head. ‘But to kill six hundred people – no officer could use a sword on so many. I guess the soldiers used their bayonets.’ I studied his face. He was telling me about a coconut grove in the Philippines fifty years ago, and we were sitting in a Tokyo restaurant full of men in business suits and waitresses in smart orange and white uniforms. I thought of the blindfolds, if they were used, and the heat, and the sound of insects. I looked at the men in suits at the table next to us who were eating Pacific prawns, and at Harry Sasaki, who was breaking a bread roll. His fingers trembled, and he succeeded in breaking the bread only after repeated efforts. He looked up from his plate.

‘War can make people crazy,’ he said. ‘You can’t tell what’s going to happen. You can’t imagine how it is when your comrades die. I saw several die. They didn’t shout “Banzai!” or “Long Live the Emperor!” They used to say “oka-san, oka-san” – “Mother, mother.”’

‘I had a friend, a special friend,’ he sighed, ‘The Filipino guerrillas knew he was a good man but they had to kill him.’

I asked why. Harry laughed.

‘Because he was Japanese. Everyone hated the Japanese at that time. Nobody picked him up. Nobody tried to help him. He died, and his body was left to rot. I tried to find his grave. Four years ago I went back with his three sons to try to find his grave. There was nothing there. I asked some ex-guerrillas about what happened to him. They showed me the place where he died, and told me how his head was this way and his legs were that way, but there was nothing there. Dogs must have taken all the bones away.’ Harry shook his head. ‘The young people from that time are old now. What we’ve gone through! Now people are repeating the same thing. Nothing’s been learned.

‘I tried to fight against evil.’ Harry laughed an old man’s laugh: dry, resigned to the past. ‘I tried to fight against evil and –’ I waited for him to finish the sentence. He looked at me through his spectacles. ‘Sometimes you can’t win over the evil,’ he said. ‘The evil took place. Despite my intentions, I was involved in evil and sentenced to thirty years’ hard labour.’ The way he presented the crime and punishment, in one sentence, joined together by the word ‘and’, was like an accusation, confession and statement of belief, all in one. I asked if he could have acted otherwise than he had. He considered for a moment and said, ‘Well, I don’t know what I could have done.’

A waitress arrived and placed our orders on the table. Harry drank some water. I waited until the waitress had finished arranging the dishes before asking Harry if he thought he had had a fair trial.

‘My trial – it wasn’t fair at all. But some kind of trial had to be conducted. It was necessary. Being objective was difficult at the trial, and it’s difficult now. The prosecutor and the judge tried to investigate everything but they were human beings.’ I wasn’t sure what he was saying.

‘At the time of the trial no Filipinos could speak in favour of Japan.’ He paused and I thought he had finished. But then he continued, ‘As I told you, I was between the Japanese army and the people. I was like a middleman. On the day of the incident, all the men, the Filipino men, were rounded up and assembled in the church to be taken away. I was there. It was my job to tell each man that he had to stay or could go. I was a liaison officer, so I’d got to know a lot of people, including a lady from a group of young Filipinas doing charity work. This lady used to contact me for rice and other provisions, and that’s how she helped the poor people.’ Harry hesitated. ‘We knew each other. At the time of the incident, when the people were gathered in the church to be taken away, the lady came to me with her girlfriend and asked me to save her brother. That’s what I did. I saved him.

‘She was called as a witness at my trial. The prosecutor asked her if I was guilty of the crime. She said yes, that man should be executed. The prosecutor asked her why and she said, “Because he is Japanese.”’ Harry looked down at the table, as if he was looking over a distant landscape, and I wondered about the relationship between the young Japanese liaison officer and young Filipina lady who did charity work for poor people. Harry cleared his throat.

‘When I was in prison I wrote to her. I asked her why she said such things at the trial. I thought that perhaps she was forced to by the prosecutor. But she never answered. It’s difficult to be objective. It’s the kind of contradiction that’s hard to get out of.’ Suddenly he was an old man talking about things that happened a long time ago. I asked if he was tired but he said he felt fine.

He returned to the trial. ‘The judge read the facts, the story, the written facts, and made his decision and passed sentence on everyone involved. The court was influenced by the politicians; the witnesses were influenced by their fear of being tried as collaborators. It’s normal. Everyone is a victim of circumstances. I was carried by the current. I guess it was the same with the lady. But what made her say, “Because he is Japanese?”’

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