Some Japanese Did and Some Didn't Remember

Having taught history for years, I have spent many hours researching, traveling, and asking questions of others about the details of various events. This is especially true about the time of WWII. My father was stationed on Saipan, Iowa Jima, and Okinawa. While in high school, I saw the movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. This is less than a 3-minute clip toward the end of the movie:

Years later while traveling in Thailand, I went to Kanchanaburi where one of two bridges still is there. The emotional and learning experience of standing upon the bridge was quite intense. I had just traveled from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand down to just outside of Bangkok. While I was in Chiang Mai, I went to a hospital with food poisoning. I was very sick with the food poisoning, which I had had for about 6-hours. By the time I decided to go to the hospital, I had gotten all of the food out of my body. The doctor gave me some pills but assured me that there was no more poison left in my system.

Then I wound up at Kanchanabura with the clear memory of the way I spent the day before. There I stood on the bridge and understood what the POWs and locals felt like sending several years building the Death Railway. I experienced for a moment what they all felt much of their time building the bridge. Even though I felt horrible, I did not have some Japanese soldier beating me with the butt of a rifle or just shooting me, because I could not stand up and work due to a dozen of illnesses far worse than food poisoning.

While I would not recommend food poisoning to anyone, I will tell you that it was an immense learning experience. I now knew in a very real sense the history about the bridge on the River Kwai.

Death Railway

Death Railway

I was so moved by that learning lesson, when I returned to South East Asia to observe the development of Myanmar/Burma; I made sure that I went to Mawlamyaing near the terminus of the Railway of Death. Forever, prior to going to Mawlamyaing, the travel itinerary took us to nnnnn to see a Buddhist shrine. The tour guide that I had hired pointed to a large wall with large writing. The guide pointed it out to me and asked what I made of it?

My response was that I could not read Chinese. His response was that it was not Chinese but Japanese. His next question was what was on the other side of the wall. To that inquiry, I was sure that it was a cemetery of Japanese. These graves were of fallen Japanese who had died during battles of WWII.


In fact, a Buddhist shrine was erected in honor of those fallen soldiers.


This both puzzled and rattled me. The wall, the cemetery, and the shrine were in honor of fallen Japanese soldiers of the Imperial Army in their invasion of South East Asia especially those stationed around the Death Railway between Bangkok and Yangon. Had the Japanese not invaded nearly all of Asia during WWII, there would have been no need for a cemetery and shrine to those fallen in the Japanese failed attempt to capture all of Asia.

Prior to the Japanese being defeated by the Allies and locals throughout Asia, 10,000 POWs were captured and killed. Approximately 250,000 Asians and 60,000 Allies were forced to build the 265-mile Death Railway. Approximately 90,000 locals and over 12,000, which was nearly 40% the Asians and 20% of the Allies, died because of torture, beatings, disease, and starvation.

In addition, the Japanese erected a religious shrine in honor their fallen soldiers in Southeaster Asia. Many of fallen Japanese soldiers were the ones that killed over 100,000 POWs who were forced to build the Death Railway. There seems to be an ethical disconnect when they decided to immortalize their fallen soldiers.

Having said that and at the other end of the Death Railway just outside of Bangkok, a Japanese soldier, Takashi Nagase, who worked for the military police as the POWs were forced to build the railroad. After the war, the Japanese POWs had to search for the graves of some of the 100,000 who were killed by their soldiers while they built the railway. That experience of locating and digging up the graves of the local Asians and Allied POWs woke him up to that inhumanity done by his fellow Japanese soldiers during the war.

Takashi Nagase became a Buddhist monk and the founder of the River Kwae Peace Foundation, which provides scholarships to the needy students at Kanchanaburi. Therefore, at least at one end of the Death Railway, there was some redeeming benefit to the war.

 Takashi Nagase

 Takashi Nagase plaque

Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.