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A Personal Pilgrimage to Japan

by COFEPOW Member John Dixon

Anno Domini 2002 was an oddly appropriate date to make this pilgrimage since it is exactly sixty years since my father died. After he was captured in Java, having initially raised my mother's hopes, His Majesty's Government eventually dashed them with notification of his death as a Prisoner Of War in Japan.


363913 Flight Sergeant John Walter Dixon, Royal Air Force

Boy Service, Cranwell 1923; 39 Sqdn 1924/No 2 Indian Wing 1928; 605 Sqdn 1933; 220(Gr)Sqdn 1938 1 Wing (13MU), Henlow 1938; 49 Sqdn, Swanton Morley 1939; 7 Sqdn 1940; 15 Sqdn 1941

Aboard one of the merchant vessels comprising the so-called 'Canterbury Convoy', he and his colleagues arrived in Java, where they were taken prisoner by the Japanese. After incarceration in Boei Glodok gaol, they left for Japan, via Singapore, in October 1942. On arrival in Japan at Moji (present day Kitakyushu) he was classified as 'too ill to travel to Hakadate' and was transferred to a camp near Kumamoto (evidently 'Fukuoka No.1') in Kyushu, southern Japan. He died there on December 19th 1942 and was buried by the then Chaplain to the Forces, the Reverend William H.Morton, who wrote to my mother in 1945 from Milford Vicarage, near Derby. Like so many others his remains were later transferred to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Hodogaya, Yokohama. My visit to Hodogaya satisfied a long unfulfilled ambition.

There have been various organisations for many years organising pilgrimages to WWII sites both in Europe and the Far East - but there is one which goes specifically to Japan, and which gave me the opportunity to visit my father's grave. AGAPE - a charity which takes its name from a Greek word meaning brotherly love - began from a seed planted in the mind of Keiko Holmes, the Japanese widow of an Englishman, when in 1988 she unexpectedly found a memorial near her home town of Iruka in memory of the 16 United Kingdom POWs who had died working in the local copper mines during WWII.

Western sailors and merchants who landed in the country several centuries ago, in times noted in their own countries for unequivocal punishments, were appalled by the Japanese proclivity for violence and almost gratuitous brutality among their own populace. However by contrast, after WWII the local Kiwa-cho residents, in a country still having this reputation, had created the above memorial at their own expense, and without any thought of publicity. This inspired Keiko, who had converted to Christianity whilst married, to think how mutually satisfying it would be if she could find some of these men and/or their relatives, and take them to Japan to let them see that not all Japanese people deserve their commonly held reputation. The inspiration for organising reconciliation visits came whilst mourning her husband, and Keiko has been supported by her faith for many years.

She had, not unexpectedly, a dreadful reception the first time she tried to gain entry to a big ex-FEPOW meeting in London, but she persisted, and eventually was allowed in. Many of the ex-FEPOWs present were stunned to think that they were sitting there looking at a Japanese woman who had the gall to want to talk to them, but she won a few over and that was the tiny opening she sought. It is now her life's work, since, as she says, God told her this was what to do, and she now travels to many parts of the world where she thinks she needs to try to get her message across.

The Pilgrimage

The first night was spent at a hotel in a tourist town, Hakone, not far from Mt.Fuji (known as Fuji-san, or Mr.Fuji), and surrounded by lakes and lovely wooded, steep-sided hills with villages nestling in the valley bottoms. The following day, we enjoyed a sail under blue skies on one of the pleasure steamers on Lake Ishi.

The faultless organisation of our travels implied many hours of painstaking planning. The 'waving ceremony' was a pleasant new concept to us - as the coach left our hotels many of the front-of-house staff always came out as a group to bid us farewell and luggage was always spirited separately to our next destination.

Travel on the 'bullet train' (shinkansen) is almost a vignette of the country. Our ticket showed a reserved seat number, and also a no.13, which indicated where to stand on the platform to be positioned for the door of coach 13 (of 16). Stepping aboard this streamlined, gleaming white train which had insinuated itself almost noiselessly into the station - the coach floor is exactly level with the platform - and sitting down is all the effort required, and suddenly you are travelling at about 170mph, in smooth, quiet, air-conditioned comfort. The conductor, who bows as he enters and leaves the carriage, wears a well-fitting uniform including a collar and tie and white gloves. Girls are continually passing with drinks and snacks. The stations are spotless and all have colourful and accessible fast-food, including the usual armies of drink-vending machines, which are everywhere in the country, giving an indication of summer temperatures.

The low-lying Tokyo/Yokohama industrial area passes by the shinkansen windows for square mile after square mile, much of it land reclaimed from the sea. Yokohama Bay is spanned by a spectacular silver-grey spider-web suspension bridge.

The same sense of scale appears while strolling from the Yokohama InterContinental Hotel through the cavernous 'Queens' shopping mall, which was determinedly completed in time for the World Cup football tournament. A multi-storied complex, again totally litter-free, of mainly designer shops in an environment of glistening beige marble, escalators, and plant and flower arrangements, all illuminated by concealed lighting. About twenty minutes walk brought you to the Landmark Tower, which has the fastest lift in the world for 32 floors taking you to a remarkable viewpoint at the top.

Naha airport in Okinawa was shining, of course - sunshine, marble floors, huge amount of glass, and real orchids everywhere!

A beguiling efficiency and attention to detail followed us throughout the country. My daughter is a vegetarian, and asked for only vegetables the first night at dinner in the hotel, and thereafter during our visit was automatically served the appropriate courses. The Manza Beach Hotel in Okinawa, a sub-tropical beach-hotel complex gave us each a personal menu at dinner. Hers was removed and a vegetarian one appeared with 'for Ms.Julie' typed on it.

On our itinerary was a lovely Peace Park in the south of the island, overlooking cliffs out to the Philippine Sea. The total loss of life during the 90 days of fighting in 1945 - military and Japanese civilian - was over 200,000. Far more civilians than military died - the Japanese army at one time were ordering mass civilian suicides, allowing starvation and disease to occur, and then committing atrocities on the local population in retreat. So many names engraved on concentric arcs of stone plinths sweeping down towards the cliffs, in memory of the tens of thousands of, mainly United States, troops who died in the fighting there. We were there for the consecration of a new extension bearing the names of the British servicemen who died, but doesn't it all take such a LONG time to get around to it?

A huge museum /peace-park complex in Hiroshima, where the first of the atomic bombs fell, was a sobering and thought-provoking experience. Looking at the city on a bright spring day it was almost impossible to imagine the entire area being levelled almost instantaneously with such obscene consequences. A most informative and impressive Museum explained everything in great detail, with many explicit exhibits, both from the actual event, and also some reconstructed to illustrate the story.

The church congregation at Hongo-dai, a Christian church in Yokohama, subjected us to overwhelming hospitality in a very prosperous looking community. In recognition of the basis of our visit, a service of reconciliation was conducted by Pastor Ikeda. The climax came when he, with the ex-POWs gathered around him, sank to his knees, forehead touching the ground, and begged these men's forgiveness for war crimes. An unexpected, and quite startling, happening for generally undemonstrative British. And followed by a very emotional few minutes when the whole congregation of a full church hugged us all, many weeping and all begging our forgiveness. We were also all made welcome overnight with individual families, and I know some of us are in still in touch with various people we met over the period.

It was a strange experience for me after all these years to stand in that lovely and so carefully-tended cemetery in Hodogaya surrounded by low hills covered with Japanese beech and cherry blossom, looking at my father's grave. It was a climax to what I thought might prove to be a difficult and obviously emotional afternoon. I know there were those who said their own private prayers for me, and I was presented quite by surprise with a large bunch of flowers by Tomoko-san, one of Keiko's many enthusiastic helpers in Japan, who said she had "brought these for your father". In the event it was a very calm and satisfying experience. Earlier that day we had been received and entertained to lunch at the British Embassy by the Ambassador and his wife and their staff, and the presence that afternoon of some of them was most welcome.

The POWs were cremated for ease of transport when the clearing-up started, and due to the confusion at that time it is possible it was not my father I stood before, but if it was someone else's, he still had my thoughts.

Alfred Carter, an ex-POW, was accompanied by his grand-daughter Joanna. One evening at dinner he apparently let himself be persuaded to eat a spoonful of rice. Joanna later told us that that was the first rice he had eaten in 60 years! He was one of the many who whilst at home spoke only under duress of his and his colleagues' experiences.

He spoke with great dignity when taking a principal part in the unveiling of a new Peace and Friendship memorial at Mukaishima, under the auspices of the Japan-United Kingdom Friendship Monument Society. He had been imprisoned there for three years, working in the local shipyard. The ceremony was accompanied by the town Fire Brigade band, and primary school children waving Union Flags and the Rising Sun and singing enthusiastically what were obviously well rehearsed songs of friendship and peace. He was later an 'honoured guest' again to unveil a new memorial to the 23 Royal Air Force men who died when he was there. The day was recorded by various members of the Japanese media, the results appearing in both the press and television.

Tokyo is high-density housing and also high density people. At first sight Tokyo during the rush hour looks somewhat daunting, especially for instance Shinjuku rail station in Tokyo, which has the air of a colony of ants - each ant knowing his destination. On the streets tidal waves of people wait for the 'green man' before they cross the road - 'jay-walking' is not tolerated. Conformity is reportedly all-pervasive in Japanese life.

Apparently there was/is no housing planning permission required in Tokyo, which inevitably results in severe congestion and limited living space. Hydraulic ramps are often seen outside houses in order to double-deck park two cars because there is insufficient room at road level. Local and suburban roads are also quite small, and are a legacy from the Samurai who constructed them in such a manner in order to confuse enemies.

Personally, for a country hated to such an extent internationally over so many years and in so many places, I found the half-expected juxtaposition. Japan as seen from an organised party is totally friendly and polite, completely litter free, and efficient. Street crime is allegedly almost non-existent. One encounters the ever-present day-to-day politeness, such as the courtesy of shop assistants, the convention of bowing practised by everyone, the colourful and carefully presented consumer goods no matter how small, and even the cotton face masks which are often worn principally to avoid the wearer spreading the cold which he has. Blowing your nose in public or in company is also regarded as impolite, and eating or drinking in the streets is also discouraged, the latter no doubt largely accounting for the absence of litter. Conversely, (fairly discreet) spitting in the street is tolerated, as is a man emerging from a bar who decides to relieve himself discreetly in a convenient flowerbed. Also the frequent allocation of manual work to women, such as the baggage handling at the hotels, was somewhat unusual to our eyes, reinforcing reports that it is still a largely male-dominated society.

A disappointment to me, and others, is the fact that the young generation both in Japan and here have no idea of events at that time. The Japanese have been denied information about WWII, as is well known, although this may be changing slightly today. I think the school authorities are letting the younger generation down so badly in the respect of giving them a historical perspective.

The whole trip was a mixture of laughter and tears, of course, but also very sobering at times, too. Our ex-POWs were the latest few to have gone to Japan with what must have been trepidation of varying degrees. To forgive the Japanese authorities of that time has to be a most subjective and personal decision, but I think they came away having lost a burden from their shoulders and thinking it is a new time and a new generation. Personally I felt very inadequate inasmuch as I find it impossible to really understand how it must feel to be so incandescently angry for sixty years, but I am also angry that these men have had to bear this, almost unrecognised, burden for so much of their lives. However some of the guards have been contacted over the years AGAPE has been travelling to Japan, and a bond has developed between individuals. I think on reflection after our visit the general attitude was to make peace with the present generation at least.

There must have been so many mixed emotions running through the minds of our ex-POWs throughout the whole visit, but in spite of the admitted wariness beforehand, this visit proved to be an exorcism of varying degrees for all of us.

The latest of annual AGAPE reunions held recently in London was a very pleasant opportunity to meet again friends from our trip, both from the UK and Japan, and also to meet others who had travelled on earlier occasions for the same reasons as ourselves.

My daughter Julie and I experienced an amazing two weeks. From lovely Japanese gardens, to Mount Fuji, to receptions everywhere, introducing ourselves to our hosts by means of short speeches from time to time, to down-town Tokyo, to 'bullet' trains, and first class accommodation. And so many well-wishers. The only, unavoidable, personal regrets being a occasional lack of time to absorb places better, and also to meet the man in the street, but a remarkable experience nevertheless, to be digested and savoured over many years.


John R.Dixon, Saltcoats, Ayrshire, June 2002


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