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As Japan remembers war dead 73 years after end of WWII, relatives stress value of peace

Kimio Suzuki heads to a ceremony to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the war, at the Nippon Budokan venue in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 15, 2018. (Mainichi)
The oldest participant at the memorial ceremony, 102-year-old Harumi Serigano, takes part in the event in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

As Japan remembered the war dead on the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Pacific War in a ceremony on Aug. 15, people both young and old who lost relatives to the fighting expressed their firm belief that the ravages of war must never again be repeated.

Kimio Suzuki, 75, who read out a eulogy to the victims in the ceremony at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan venue on behalf of bereaved family members, took part out of the strong belief that the tragedy of war must never be repeated. Suzuki is from Ishinomaki in the northeastern prefecture of Miyagi which was struck by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Both the disaster and the war claimed the lives of many people in Japan but Suzuki noted a difference:

"War is caused by people. So it should be able to be stopped by them," he said.

Suzuki's father Kiyoji was drafted into the Yokosuka Kaiheidan navy camp in Kanagawa Prefecture on Nov. 1, 1943, the year after Suzuki was born. Kiyoji was dispatched to an aerial defense unit, and died on the island of Tinian in the Mariana Islands, an area that saw intense fighting, on Aug. 2, 1944.

All that was returned to the family was a wooden box with notification of Kiyoji's death. Suzuki faintly remembers being carried on his mother's back holding a spirit tablet for his father.

Several letters that Kiyoji wrote to his family served as a precious reminder of him. They spelled out hopes for Suzuki, the first son of the family who was still young at the time. Suzuki read the letters when he grew older, and after hearing from other family members about his father, of whom he had no memory, his feelings for him grew stronger. Suzuki feels that peace today exists because of sacrifices like those his father made.

The oldest participant at the memorial ceremony on Aug. 12 was Harumi Serigano, 102, from Tokyo's Nerima Ward who was pushed into the venue in a wheelchair by her 75-year-old son Kenichi. She was also the oldest participant in last year's ceremony.

"War is terrible," she said, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Her husband Hiroshi took his own life during the war on Okinawa's main island at the age of 31. Her memories of her husband have faded over the years, but she still presses her hands together for him in front of a Buddhist altar each day. She said she participated in the ceremony thinking, "This year may be my last time for me." Kenichi expressed appreciation for his mother, who brought him up alone after his father died, and voiced his hope for enduring peace.

"I have to keep on saying every day that war must never happen again," he said.

High school student Junichiro Hara takes part in the memorial ceremony at the Nippon Budokan venue in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

A similar message was reiterated by 16-year-old high school student Junichiro Hara, a young participant in the ceremony whose two great-grandfathers on his mother's side perished in the war.

"The mistake of war must never be repeated again," he said. His grandmother's father Shigeru Tanaka and his grandfather's father Kaoru Maeda were both dispatched to the Philippines in 1944 and died in fighting on the island of Luzon. He heard a lot about them from his grandmother, who lives with him, but when he was younger these talks didn't really sink in.

A change came in the summer of Hara's second year of junior high school, when he read out an essay at an event held by the government of Kagawa Prefecture, where he lives, to pay tribute to the war dead. When he went to write the essay and asked his grandmother about the death of her father, her expression turned sad.

"I don't know how he died, but their unit had no weapons or food, and it was apparently a dire situation," she said. Neither his remains nor his belongings returned home. His mother apparently said at the time, "There's nothing as painful as having your children die before you." Hara said, "It was bad for both my great-grandfather and the family he left behind. Why did they start a war that wasn't necessary?" In his essay, Hara wrote, "We have to create a world in which everyone can live a normal, happy life."

During a school trip to Okinawa, Hara visited a "gama," or cave where residents committed mass suicide in the closing days of World War II, and came to think more about peace. He feels a sense of crisis as many in his generation, the great-grandchildren of those who fought in the war, do not have any interest in the war.

"I want to pass down the stories to inform lots of people about the horror of war and about the importance of peace," he says.

Shuichi Tabayashi prepares to take part in the memorial ceremony in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

Another person with peace on his mind as Japan marked the 73rd anniversary of the end of the war is 83-year-old Shuichi Tabayashi, who lost his father Naoichi to the war in the massive Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines.

"I want the age of peace, where humans can live like humans, to continue," he said. He took part in the Aug. 15 ceremony with a feeling of appreciation toward Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.

It was in 1943 that Naoichi was called to fight in the war. At a time when harvested rice plants lay stacked up in a field a government office worker turned up with a "red letter" -- his draft notice. Tabayashi was aged just 8 at the time. His father was dispatched to the navy. In June the following year, he traveled with his grandmother to a base in the Maizuru district of Kyoto Prefecture to see his father before he left on a mission. They were allowed only about 10 minutes together. His father ate some simmered food that his grandmother had brought with her. All his father said to her was, "Make sure Shuichi studies properly."

In the letters that arrived from the battlefield, Naoichi always showed concern for his family.

"There will surely be a day when we can meet again. Please look forward to that day. Please tell Shuichi about that for me, mother," he wrote.

Yet that day never came. On Oct. 25 that year, four months after his meeting with his family, Naoichi went down with the Chikuma cruiser he was on after the vessel came under attack. He was 34 at the time.

When Tabayashi paid tribute to his father at sea, he performed part of a Noh theater song -- an interest of his father's. He remembers the sea was beautiful.

Later in January 2016, when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid a trip to the Philippines, Tabayashi was there to greet them as a relative of those who lost their lives in battle.

"I was really happy that they were there to console the souls of the war dead," he said, remembering how he became full of emotion at that time.

As the Emperor prepares to abdicate the throne in April 2019, this year marks the last time for Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko to attend the Aug. 15 ceremony.

"It is my pleasure to be able to take part in the ceremony. I have no feeling but gratitude," Tabayashi said.

When he was young, Tabayashi had the experience of fleeing from an air raid. As the generations of those with direct knowledge of the war is growing smaller, he is conveying his own experiences to his grandchildren.

"The fact that we can live in a happy age is thanks to the sacrifices of our fathers. We have to receive that and pass on the stories. We cannot let memories of the war fade," he said.

(Japanese original by Kaho Hayakawa, Sendai Bureau; Shunsuke Kamiashi, City News Department, Tatsuya Michinaga, Nagoya News Center; and Hiroyuki Harada, Medical Welfare News Department)

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