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Yuji Miyamaru

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Sharing Memories of the War Across Borders:
Chuo University’s Japan-Netherlands Exchange Conference

Yuji Miyamaru
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: British literature and culture

Read in Japanese

I. Declining Opportunities to Hear First-Hand War Stories

There has been a dramatic drop over the last twenty years in opportunities to come into contact with first-hand stories about people’s experiences during the war. Despite this drop, we are living in an age that affords us a unique advantage when it comes to telling and listening to war stories. In the past, war stories were usually only shared with other people from the same country. Now, however, we have conversations with people from other countries, including former enemies, and talk about the war as an international experience.

II. Chuo University’s Japan-Netherlands Exchange Conference

Professor Emeritus Masaki Orita greets the visitors at the beginning of the conference

The International Center hosted a “Japan-Netherlands Exchange Conference” at Chuo University on November 18, 2013 with the cooperation of the Western Europe Division of the European Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. From 1995 onward, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan has been inviting Dutch war victims to Japan and setting up opportunities for them to gain a better understanding of Japan and interact with Japanese people through the “Japan-Netherlands Peace Exchange Program.” The goal of the program is to provide another way, in addition to political solutions, to help heal lingering sources of problems between people from the two countries. Under the guidance of Masaki Orita, a Professor Emeritus of Law at Chuo University and former diplomat, Chuo University has welcomed participants in this program to the campus and held exchange conferences where they interact directly with students as part of their itinerary since 2007.

A representative of the Dutch group greets the audience

Students actively ask questions

This year, the Dutch war victims’ group selected fourteen people to participate in the program, and all fourteen participants were able to attend the Chuo University exchange conference. Having lived during the war, they were naturally elderly people. However, they were comparatively “younger” survivors of the war who had spent their childhoods in Japanese prison camps in Indonesia (the former Dutch East Indies). They were greeted by around fifty student participants. Professor Megumi Arai chaired the conference, which proceeded in English with occasional interpretation into Japanese. The conference started with a talk by Professor Emeritus Masaki Orita. Then four representatives of the Dutch group spoke about their experiences, followed by a question-and-answer session. The conference concluded with a talk by Professor Stephen Hesse.

It was striking how the Dutch participants spent one half of their presentation on their war experiences, giving a report on the experiences they had during the war, and the other half covering a long time span from the end of the war up to the present day. They discussed the process of ruminating over their wartime memories, their impressions of Japanese people, their fear and ill will toward the Japanese, and the way they had come to terms with it all in their minds since the end of the war. The speakers discussed their wartime experiences with an acute awareness that they had taken place during their childhoods in the distant past, and that their memories were unclear and sometimes contained both fact and fiction. This made their presentation all the more valuable, however, as a “personal narrative” in which they frankly revealed the impressions of the war, their country, and Japan they had formed over time, giving it a very different quality to that of reading a history book.

Participants opening up to each other as they converse at a social gathering

The dialogue between the participants from the Netherlands and the students started with questions like “Have you eaten anything good in Japan?” and eventually progressed to topics like their “impression of Japanese people today” and the “difference in the policies of Dutch and Japanese rule over Indonesia.” The discussion included a very difficult question about “whether dropping atomic bombs on Japan was a justifiable strategy,” in light of the Dutch participants’ visit to one of the atomic bomb museums. They gave an honest answer that, even at the time when the bombs were dropped, the question had both a rational and emotional side to it and could be answered in two different ways. There were also questions about the transmission of memories of the war in the Netherlands, based on decreasing opportunities for young people to listen to these stories in Japan. As the discussion progressed, it became apparent that for Dutch survivors of the war in Indonesia the process of fearing and hating the war and Japanese people, trying to overcome this fear and hatred, making peace with the Japanese, and experiencing recurring doubts and a divergence of rational thoughts and feelings was a delicate one that they had waded through slowly over a very long period of time—a process of going back and forth, full of ambivalence, which sometimes changed direction or went through repetitive cycles. These survivors are still going through this process today, and it seems that putting even a portion of it into words and taking the responsibility to tell people about it brings a resolution of sorts.

III. The Transmission of War Stories as an International Experience

Participants talking about the furoshiki (cloth for wrapping) passed out as souvenirs of Chuo University

There has been an undeniable tendency in Japan to focus on stories of Japanese experiences when people talk about the war. Indeed, many war survivors here think Japan was the country with the most World War II casualties.

From this perspective, conferences like this one add a new dimension to the meaning of international exchange by allowing Japanese people to hear how the war was experienced by people outside of Japan. Although opportunities to hear people speak about their war experiences are declining, young Japanese people are gaining opportunities to hear about the war experiences of people from other countries.

The author proudly demonstrating how to use the furoshiki

While war was the immediate subject of this year’s conference, it is learning how to think outside oneself, one’s family, one’s village, and one’s country from a perspective that considers people in all kinds of situations that turns students into world citizens. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to say that acquiring this kind of perspective is the duty of those fortunate enough to get a good education. This is the determining factor in whether people see wars going on in the world today as something that concerns them or not. The global human resources Chuo University talks about cultivating are, I presume, people with this kind of perspective. I believe these dialogues help students deepen their understanding of how they are viewed by the world and how they can “rewrite” themselves.

A group photo of the participants at this year’s conference

Yuji Miyamaru
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: British literature and culture
Professor Miyamaru was born in 1971. He is from Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. Graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Keio University in 1995. He came to Chuo University in 2005 and taught on the Faculty of Law as a full-time lecturer, assistant professor, and associate professor before assuming his current position. He specializes in British literature and culture. His research is especially focused on 19th century British novels, biographies, and autobiographies.