Remembering all the War Dead – Award winning article

I served the church all my life since coming to Canada in 1957 at age 25.  But unlike other Canadian born colleagues, I have always had a problem participating in the observance of Remembrance Day.  I always feel sorry for those aging veterans who had to stand, or increasingly in recent years sit in the wheel chairs, outside on the damp, cold days.  It’s always cloudy, cold and damp.  I hate cold damp days.  But that is not the reason why I have apprehension about attending Remembrance Day observances, because I do believe them to be an important part of ministry.  The reason I feel apprehensive is that  I have never been able to honor the war dead in my family except in silence.  I felt inappropriate to honor those in my own family openly, because they died fighting for Japan.   

Histories are always written by victors;  there is no official remembrance day for the vanquished in the triumphant nations.  This is the problem in a country like Canada whose citizenship includes many nationalities.  Even though those three uncles died in wars, their deaths are not honored in Allied nations, where they were “the enemy.”  War is ugly.  There is no way to make it pretty.  We hide images of our dead heroes and expose those of “the enemy.”  We demonize the opposition, taking away their dignity as people with families who mourn them, a faith that sustain them, and a lost future. That has always been my problem with Remembrance Day.   I believe that all the war dead should be remembered including civilians.  And only by remembering all of them on both sides of the conflicts, we can mean what we say that we pray for peace.

My maternal great-grand parents had two sons and a daughter (my mother’s mother).  Both boys died in 1900 during the Russo-Japan War.  Many people in Canada probably don’t know about that war or that Tzarist Russia lost it.  A decisive battle was fought between Japanese Imperial Navy and Tzarist Russian Navy on Japan Sea.  Russia’s Pacific fleet had been sealed in a port and made immobile, and the Baltic fleet which circumnavigated half the globe to face Japanese navy was completely annihilated.  That was in 1900.   Next year, two Armies fought over a hill overlooking the Chinese city of Yingkon, which had previously been conceded to Russia by the Chin Dynasty of Imperial China.  Russia lost that hill also.   Tzar conceded the defeat and proposed armistice.  That war ended Tzarist Russian ambition for China and launched that ambition in Japan.  My Grand-uncle Masao was a Navy Commander died while he was leading a feet of old cargo boats in order to seal the port of Yingkon, where Russian Pacific fleet was based.  He was ordered to sail those old  rusty pieces of metal, that had been in the scrap yards waiting to be salvaged to the mouth of the port and scuttle them.  But while  he was still aboard the sinking boat, the land-based artillery fires blew it up.   He was 28 years old.   The other grand-uncle, Shiro, died of dysentery in a field hospital in the same year at the age of 23.  Because the Mitsui family no longer had a son to continue the family name, when my mother married my father, they together inherited the Mitsui family name.

Uncle Mitsugu was my father’s youngest brother.   As a boy, he lived in Seoul, Korea, where the rest of my father’s family lived.  Before the war, he came to stay with us for a few years, because he wanted to go to a high school in Japan.  As soon as he finished high school, he was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese army and sent to fight in the battle of Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands in 1944.  Some people must remember that the battle for Guadalcanal was where the tide of war in the Pacific turned north and the Allied forces began their way towards Japan, one island at a time.  Many Japanese soldiers starved and rotted in the steaming and stinking bug-infested jungles, never to be found.  The movie “Thin Red Line” produced and directed by Sean Penn was about the battle of Guadalcanal.  We don’t know whether my uncle died at sea before landing or on the island of Guadalcanal.  Uncle Mitsugu still is officially “missing-in-action and presumed dead”, because there was no way to find his remains.  He was only 18 when he died and I was 11 years old.

All three uncles were Christians.  In fact, the Mitsuis have always been a proud Christian family since the end of Tokugawa Shogun dynasty in late 1800”s when Christianity was still illegal in Japan.  For my great-grand parents, it was a Christian duty to be patriotic to the newly reformed state which was based on the western model of constitutional monarchy.  They saw the beginning of the modern, industrialized Japan.  The constitution clearly declared freedom of religion.  So,  as Christians and Japanese,  my grand-uncles Masao and Shiro had no problem choosing a life in the military as their careers.  

The case of Uncle Mitsugu was different.  After two failed military coup d’etat during the 1930”s, Japanese politics turned radically to the right, and a process towards militarization and  absolute monarchy began in earnest.  The fragile democracy, which briefly thrived in the 1920”s and early 30”s when my father was growing up, was snuffed out.  It was a difficult time for Christians in Japan.  And my father, who was educated in the liberal tradition at a seminary founded by American Methodists, had to think very hard about  his faith and his love of  the country.  Believing that being faithful to Christ was the most patriotic option,  he became a pacifist and paid heavily for this conviction during the Second World War.  Uncle Mitsugu was very much influenced by my father.  He taught me in Sunday School briefly at my father’s church in downtown Tokyo.  We met in a dusty little room on the fourth floor of the bell tower covered with creeping ivy vines.  It was a junior class, and had a name   “Nozomi” – Hope.  I remember the first lesson: Uncle Mitsugu spoke about what it meant to hope.  When he was drafted into the army, he went most reluctantly.

My two grand-uncles are buried in the United Church cemetery in St. Louis-de-Gonzague in Quebec in the midst of lovely dairy country between Chateauguy and St. Lawrence rivers surrounded by maple and sumach trees.  Their ashes were brought into Canada from Japan and re-interred there together with those of my great-grand parents, and of my father, because there is no other surviving member of my branch of the “Mitsuis” in Japan.  My favorite uncle is remembered on the covers of some of the Voices United hymn books at Howick United Church in Quebec, which was my very last pastorate.  I was the minister of Howick United Church for five years after the official retirement.  Howick is a close knit dairy farming community of about 3000 people – half Francophone Catholic half Scottish Protestant, where practically everybody is related to each other in some way.  On Remembrance Day, every war dead is remembered and their names read aloud.  Tears are shed as though they died yesterday.  It is the time not only of remembrance of  the war dead in their families but also of affirmation of the tie that binds them together.  On Sunday before Remembrance Day,  all the churches in the community come together and have a joint ecumenical service instead of their own Sunday services with the local branch of Royal Canadian Legion as a co-sponsor.

The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and the second one on Nagasaki a few days later led rapidly to the end of World War II in the Pacific.  Earlier that summer in June, one beautiful day in a fishing port city of Numazu in Japan, to which I had been recently evacuated from Tokyo, I was walking home with my friend from school.  Streets were covered by a canopy of fresh green leaves of the trees.  An “All clear” siren indicated that bombers had left the area and it was safe to walk.  We were happy, kicking stones and just fooling around like typical young boys.  Suddenly there was the sound of a bomb falling from the sky.  So we hit the ground and covered with our hands ears, eyes, and nostrils, as we were all trained to do during those last days of war.  It was close; noise was deafening.  When I got up, my friend was nowhere in sight.  It was a direct hit.  There was only a long piece of intestine hanging from a tree branch.  My friend was blown to bits and blown away completely.

In Western culture, good is beautiful and bad is ugly.  But the problem is: war is; war is by definition the act of destruction, hence its result is always ugly.  This is why as soon as the images of the body bags of “our” soldiers in Viet Nam, or of the naked dead American soldiers in Somalia appear on the television, the public rapidly turn against the war.  In the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, the scenes of D-Day begins by showing body parts of American soldiers who were blown apart by German bombardment sinking to the bottom of the sea.  It shocked the viewers.  But wars are always like that. It happens to both “our boys” and theirs.   No wonder many of veterans who were in combat zones often don’t want to speak about their experiences.  No wonder many of them come back suffering post traumatic stress syndrom.  

On August 6th each year during a commemorative ceremony at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a few dozen names are still added to the list of those who died from the first atomic bomb dropped on humans more than a half a century ago.  People are still dying as the result of sickness caused by nuclear radiation, some of who were mere fetuses in their mothers’ wombs in 1945.  For a long time, Koreans who had been conscripted to work in factories in Hiroshima and who also died were excluded from the list of dead.  Korean residents in Japan erected a separate monument in the Hiroshima Peace Park.  I understand that there was a large prisoner-of-war camp in Hiroshima, mainly from Commonwealth countries.  Many of them died when the bomb was dropped.  I believe that they, too, should be remembered on the same day.  The memorial at the Hiroshima Peace Park simply says, “Rest in Peace.  We will never repeat the same mistake.”  I believe that the pledge should be made to all who lost their lives on that day, regardless of nationality.  I believe that war is evil.  And all those who died in any war are the victims.  They should not suffer the indignity of becoming ugly dead.  I wouldn’t allow indignity to any dead person, but somehow people must be made aware that wars and result of wars are ugly – to both friends and foes alike.  Remembrance Day should be the day to remember all the war dead regardless of their nationality or loyalty, whether they were soldiers or civilians, elderly or children.  Then I will participate in it sincerely and wholeheartedly.  

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Tad Mitsui,
Lethbridge, Alberta
June 5, 2003

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