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For Japanese deserter from U.S. military in Vietnam, Constitution was a savior

Tetsuo Shimizu talks about Article 9 of the Constitution in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima's Naka Ward. (Mainichi)

HIROSHIMA -- On Aug. 6 last year, the 70th anniversary of the United States' atomic bombing of Hiroshima, 70-year-old Hiroshima resident and survivor of the bombing Tetsuo Shimizu and his wife attended the peace memorial ceremony here. Shimizu brought along his granddaughter, a third-grade elementary student, for the first time, wanting her to start thinking about the meaning of peace.

    As Shimizu closed his eyes and prayed with the around 55,000 others in attendance, he thought about his late mother, who had always worried about him. There were some things that he had never clearly talked about to his wife or grandchild -- about how despite being a citizen of a country with a pacifist Constitution, he had shot a gun in Vietnam as a U.S. soldier, and about how after he returned to Japan he was caught up in a storm over the Japanese Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9.

    Tetsuo Shimizu in his days as a United States soldier. (Photo courtesy of Tetsuo Shimizu, partially damaged)

    Back on Aug. 6, 1945, the day that Hiroshima was hit by the atomic bomb, 5-month-old Shimizu was blown, together with the tatami floor, out of his house located 4 kilometers from the hypocenter of the blast. Shimizu's mother, blood all over her face, carried him to a bomb shelter. Shimizu had lost consciousness, but his mother struck him on the back, and he started breathing again. This is the story that Shimizu heard from his mother time and time again.

    In May 1966, after graduating from high school, Shimizu went to the U.S. with the help of his relatives in order to further his language studies. The next year, when he tried to renew his tourist visa, he was told that it would not be renewed unless he signed up for the U.S. military draft, which also applied to foreign males between 18 and 26 who were living in the U.S.

    It was the time of the Vietnam War. Foreign nationals could apply to be exempted from draft duty, but Shimizu did not know this. He was drafted and trained, using a bayonet to stab a dummy of a Vietnamese soldier. In April 1968, he was stationed at a U.S. military base in the mountains in central Vietnam.

    The base was on the front line and was subjected to rocket attacks day and night. When the base had information on enemy positions, soldiers would scramble there by helicopter. Shimizu was told to shoot if he saw someone. He fired multiple rounds in a direction that he heard gunfire from. He had fired into the jungle and does not know if his shots hit the target. Once, one of his compatriots at the base was blown apart by a rocket attack.

    After five months in Vietnam, Shimizu returned to his home in Hiroshima while on leave. His mother, on learning of what he had been doing, begged him to not go back to the war. He had thought of going back as the natural course of action, but his mother's plea moved him. An anti-war group that an associate introduced to him recommended he desert, and this is what he decided to do.

    If the U.S. military were to demand his return for being a deserter, he might be arrested by the Japanese police under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. As he lived in fear of this, he reread the Japanese Constitution, repeatedly looking over its war-renouncing Article 9 as he told himself that he was not in the wrong for having deserted. He held a press conference in Tokyo together with the anti-war organization, where they announced Shimizu was deserting and read out what they said was the importance of Article 9.

    However, an unexpected backlash was waiting for Shimizu. He was hit by a storm of criticism that he had agreed to join the military, only to suddenly hide behind Article 9 when he got scared. He was abused in newspapers, on television and in magazines. Even his exposure to the atomic bomb was used in the criticism, with people saying he didn't understand the feelings of the other atomic bomb survivors.

    At the same time, groups aimed at protecting Shimizu were formed in Tokyo and Hiroshima. Kazuo Iwatani, 73, professor emeritus at the Prefectural University of Hiroshima's Faculty of Health and Welfare, was active in the group there. "The value of our Constitution, which keeps our citizens from being sent to battle, was being questioned. In two weeks we received 5,000 signatures in support of that cause."

    Shimizu received dozens of letters every day while he was in Tokyo. About half of them were encouragement, and about half were criticism. Shimizu thought of himself as a litmus test that showed people's opinion on Article 9. In December 1968, however, the United States Embassy in Japan released a statement that it would not pursue Shimizu's desertion, and the issue died down.

    After the commotion ended, Shimizu returned to Hiroshima and worked with his parents at a button shop in the middle of the city without even the weekends for breaks. He married and had children and grandchildren. His mother died about 30 years ago, at age 60.

    He was often asked to give speeches, but he always refused. Nor did he participate in peace gatherings or marches. He was silent to the media and to society. He says he felt, "It would be wrong for someone like me, who went to the battleground despite Article 9, to speak."

    However, he has never forgotten Vietnam. As an A-bomb survivor, as a citizen, and for the sake of his family, he has wanted peace more and more as the years have gone by. Every year he observes a moment of silence on Aug. 6, and as much as possible he has volunteered at lantern floating events held for the dead.

    Last fall, controversial bills related to Japan's national security were passed. They bring the Japan Self-Defense Forces closer to involvement in foreign battles, and expand the range of situations where they can use force. The National Diet building was surrounded by students, mothers and others in protest over these bills. By contrast, Shimizu says that the peace marches and parades held in Hiroshima every Aug. 6 have fewer participants year by year, and to him, public interest in peace does not seem to be on the rise throughout Japanese society.

    Near the end of last year, Shimizu spoke to the media about his desertion in detail for the first time -- his still-vivid memories of Vietnam and his thoughts during the controversy over his desertion. He says the reason he spoke now is, "I thought that it was necessary now to think about the Constitution."

    It is because of the presence of Article 9 that Shimizu deserted, and this brought criticism upon him, but he says he thinks that it was also the various discussions in society about Article 9 that in the end brought him peace. "It's not enough to just have Article 9," says Shimizu, implying that it must be present in people's minds, as well.

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