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35-yr-old struggles with how to tell story of great grandfather who died in Pacific War

Jun Fujisaki, left, listens to HKD Incorporated Foundation Director Tsukasa Fujioka tell the story of returnees coming back from overseas after the war at an exhibition of remnants of the war, at the hall of the Hyogo Izokukai, in Kobe's Chuo Ward, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

KOBE -- A photo of the memorial monument for the war dead in the pastoral Ozocho district of this western Japan city's Kita Ward adorns the cover of a book that records the war experiences of a native who died in Papua New Guinea during the Pacific War. The volume was edited by the soldier's great grandson, beginning the conversation of how the great grandchildren of those who experienced World War II will continue to tell the tale.

"Tsutaetai, Ozocho Shussei Heishi kara no Message" (I want to convey the message of an Osocho solider sent to war), tells of the war experiences of 35-year-old Jun Fujisaki's great grandfather. Along with producing the volume, Fujisaki also became the assistant head of the youth division of the Hyogo Izokukai (Hyogo prefectural association of families of war dead) two years ago to continue to pass the message to future generations.

Fujisaki's great grandfather, who was a "tatami" straw mat maker, lost his life on his second tour of duty. Fujisaki had heard the tale many a time from his great grandmother, but was not very interested at first. But then, in April 2011, he was invited by an acquaintance who collected items from those who died in the war to attend Ozocho's memorial ceremony, with a reminder that Fujisaki, too, was a bereaved family member.

However, those who did gather were almost entirely his grandfather and grandmother's generation. He felt then that the record of the war was in danger of vanishing, and wanted to learn more about his great grandfather.

Fujisaki began to trace his great grandfather's footsteps from the documents that his 76-year-old grandmother, who was also at the ceremony, gave him, along with other materials. It was 1943 when his great grandfather arrived in Papua New Guinea. Along with the position of Japan in the war, conditions on the front lines were also deteriorating, with soldiers dying of starvation or infectious diseases. On March 11, 1945, he died at age 30 in a battle that claimed the lives of roughly 13,000 people. But when Fujisaki searched the map for the location of the place where it said his great grandfather died, he could not find it. His great grandmother who knew of the war had died in 2008.

Of the 557 people who were sent from Ozocho to war, 85 never returned. Fujisaki's interest then expanded beyond his great grandfather to the other men that had been born and raised in his hometown. Fujisaki took a year visiting the families of the lost soldiers to hear their stories. He even heard of two Ozocho natives meeting on the front lines in Burma, sharing a pill for malaria. One by one, Fujisaki began to piece together the lives of these people during the war, and began to feel a connection with his great grandfather and the other people from Ozocho whom he never got the chance to meet.

In 2012, Fujisaki summarized the stories he heard into a roughly 100-page book, and in 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, he distributed a new edition of the volume to the 300-some households of the Ozocho district.

During Fujisaki's investigation, 42-year-old Naoto Oie learned that his grandfather had died of illness in what was Manchuria in northeastern China without ever seeing combat. Of the discovery, he said, thankfully, "Knowing that he never killed someone is the ultimate respite."

After collecting the stories for the book, Fujisaki began exhibitions of items that belonged to victims and giving lectures. It is because of these activities that he was invited by the Hyogo Izokukai in October 2016 to become part of their efforts to promote their youth division.

The youth division was born of the advancing age of the members, but being able to talk about a war that happened before one was even born is no easy task. Once, when Fujisaki opened an exhibition of items entrusted to him by a bereaved family in Ozocho, he was suddenly the focus of the anger of a woman, appalled that he was running the exhibition "even though he didn't know a thing." She was the daughter of a victim of the war. Within the association and its youth division, which has come to focus heavily on memorial services, Fujisaki felt that there are differences in opinion in just how war experiences should continue to be passed on to the next generation.

Michiyo Koda, 70, supported the activities of her father Mitsugu, who returned home from the front lines of Burma (present-day Myanmar) to tell his story to others. However, when he died in 2009, she gave up conveying his experiences. "I don't feel right becoming a stand-in for my father when it wasn't something I experienced myself," Koda said. "Stories of the war are distant now."

Fujisaki thought deeply about what Koda said: "I feel like she is questioning the very way in which we carry on records of the war."

At the beginning of August, this reporter accompanied Fujisaki to an exhibition in Kobe of remnants of the war. The Hyogo Kaigai Doyukai (HKD; Hyogo overseas friendship) Incorporated Foundation that organized the event once had a membership numbering around 30,000, but now only 80 members remain. The organization, established by people who came back from overseas locations including former Japanese colonies after the war, will dissolve at the end of the 2018 fiscal year next March. The exhibition was the foundation's last.

"It's with painful reluctance (that we dissolve the group)," revealed 70-year-old Director Tsukasa Fujioka, whose parents were returnees, as Fujisaki listened. The continuation of activities of associations for bereaved families all across the country are in danger.

After the exhibition, Fujisaki began a bereaved family association blog. In the first entry, he introduced not only the memorial service events, but also cafes and tourist spots that can also be found in the Ozocho district. He says that he hopes to continue conveying stories of the war that have taken root throughout Hyogo Prefecture.

What drives him to continue telling these stories, he says, is a strong sense of wondering who exactly he is. In order to find the answer, he is trying to connect the dots between the memories and records left behind by both his family and others in the region.

Being around the same age, I could not help but think that even if our generation never experienced the war, there are still so many things we can do.

This is the Final Part in a series.

(Japanese original by Jun Kaneko, City News Department, 38 years old)

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