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Japanese soldier's diary reaches across the decades to touch new generations

Tsutomu Sato, right, walks around an area where his father Tomigoro was working as a bus driver, with Shiori Okawa, in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on July 29, 2018. Sato was born here but he has no memory of it. (Mainichi)
This image taken on July 28, 2018, shows the last entry in Tomigoro Sato's diary that ended with these words: "This is my will, perhaps this is my last entry." A date one day before his death was scribbled on too. (Mainichi)

The characters written in pencil 73 years ago were faint. They were from a diary kept by a Japanese soldier, up until hours before his death, on the Marshall Islands some 4,500 kilometers south from his home.

Shiori Okawa, 30, of Tokyo was entrusted with the soldier's writings by his son. She tried to decipher what was written time and again by enlarging images she captured on her smartphone, feeling like she was touching the man's mind. "You must have wanted to see your family again," Okawa spoke to him in her mind, as she began to do so repeatedly in her contacts with the pictures.

Okawa learned about the Marshall Islands, and their Bikini Atoll where the United States conducted nuclear weapons tests, on the internet when she was in high school. She eventually ventured to visit the Pacific islands and was surprised to hear local songs in Japanese: "Koishii wa anata wa inaito watashi sabishii wa" (I miss you, when you are gone, I am lonely.)

"Why didn't I know this?" she asked herself. The place was under Japanese control before the war, and Imperial Japanese troops fought American forces there.

The Marshalls, made up of five islands and 29 atolls, have a population of some 53,000. Now a republic, it was part of the Empire of Japan for some 30 years until the end of World War II, and education was in Japanese. During the war, American airplanes raided the islands, and U.S. forces occupied the largest Kwajalein Atoll. Japanese soldiers on the atoll fought for a year and a half with no resupply. In the end, some 20,000 Japanese troops died there, many of them from starvation.

Following her graduation from university, Okawa moved to the Marshall Islands because she wanted to find out what the locals were feeling when they sing songs in Japanese. She met people who were entrapped in a Japanese war and lost homes and family members. Japanese words such as "amimono" (knitting) and "obon" (tray) were still spoken, and some former military facilities were still in use. She shot videos for three years while working at the only Japanese company there. When she was back in Japan, she found out it was not easy to convey what she saw to others. It was a struggle.

She came across the diary when its owner, Tsutomu Sato, 77, came to her in 2015 after he learned about what she was doing. The two years of entries were written by Sato's father Tomigoro, who was a bus driver, and the book had been returned by one of the soldier's comrades.

Tomigoro died four months before the end of the war. He was only 39. Sato was a toddler then, and his memory of his father was sketchy. The son then made up his mind to find out what was recorded in the journal, and visit the islands to pray for his father's soul. And so he contacted Okawa seeking help.

The diary grabbed Okawa's attention. An entry on one page said: "I saw the photo last night and because of that I cried remembering my children and wife in my dream." "Tomigoro-san" gradually came to personify the real face of the Japanese soldier Okawa could not uncover during her stay in the Marshall Islands. "It was not only the people of the islands. Tomigoro-san was also sucked into the war," she came to realize.

The day before his death, Tomigoro wrote, "I cannot move at all and am in pain, cannot write the journal, this is my will, perhaps this is my last entry," in broken characters. And that was it. Soldiers, cut off from supplies, had no food; Tomigoro died from hunger.

In 2016, Okawa and Sato visited the island where Tomigoro was, sailing through emerald-green waters. In the Marshalls, the father used to write affectionately about his son in the diary: "How is Tsutomu-kun doing?" As Sato set foot on the shore, he wept like a child. "Father, I'm here. It's Tsutomu. I am here!" he cried. Okawa recorded the scene through her own tears.

With the help of Okawa's colleagues, who were moved by her enthusiasm, all the entries in the diary were deciphered. This output prompted the birth of a documentary film and a book this summer, directed and authored by Okawa and titled "tarinae." In the Marshallese language, it means war. The film depicts the remaining scars of war, including Sato's pursuit of his father's trail and the fear felt by local people at the sounds of aircraft that trigger memories of the war. "The message will reach the Japanese people even though they don't know what the Marshall Islands are like," said Okawa.

After the movie was shown for the first time, some 20 people who were involved in the reading of the diary went to the Kadoya soba noodle restaurant. "I wish I could eat tendon (rice bowl with tempura) at Kadoya," Tomigoro wrote in the diary. They tried to fulfill Tomigoro's unmet wish by eating the dish and talk about him in remembrance.

Sato was more than happy. "I am thankful because my father's story has now been handed down to the next generation," he said. "And more than that, I am so pleased because these young people thought about my father."

The crowd surrounding Sato and Okawa gave me one lesson: If you reach out, you can touch a past war you never knew.

(Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, City News Department, 29 years old)

This is Part 4 of a series.

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