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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: In a psychiatric ward with returned soldiers

Rika Kayama

There was recently a documentary on TV about Japanese soldiers who were sent to China and areas south of Japan during World War II and returned home with mental illnesses of various sorts. They were hospitalized in Japanese medical facilities, apparently suffering for a long time from the emotional scars of extreme tension and fear on the battlefield. The number of these people was as high as 8,000 among the known cases alone.

It so happened that when I was a medical student, I chose a psychiatric hospital for my training over the summer holidays, and was dispatched to a ward where such returned soldiers remained hospitalized. I spent about two weeks there.

From the hospital's point of view, they probably thought it was a nuisance for a medical student to be wandering around a ward where there were a lot of patients in the acute stage of their illnesses. Some of the former soldiers in the ward to which I was assigned had already been there for 40 years, and in most cases, their symptoms had become entrenched.

The supervising doctor there told me, "Try talking to the people here in your own way." However, as the medical student that I was, I soon found myself at a loss. When I approached former soldiers saying "hello," or something else, most of them just stayed silent. One person didn't even look in my direction, and simply continued gazing at the wall.

At the point when I was about to give up on having any sort of conversation, wondering if the trauma they had experienced on the battlefield had destroyed their spirits, one nurse called out, "It's karaoke time."

To my surprise, the patients who up until that point had not said a word, filed into a hall in the ward one after other, and vied for turns singing. All of the songs were either military songs or pop songs from the war era. It was if they had slipped back in time to the early Showa period that began in 1926.

It was then that I thought, "They might talk if the topic is something to do with the past," so I asked them to talk about the towns where they were born or the sights before the war. A few memories trickled out from some of them. One patient said to me, "Look here," and showed me a notebook full of daily entries. The notebook listed the weather each day along with a detailed account of the things that had happened in the ward. He had written logs on the battlefield, and had continued the practice for decades afterward.

Many years have passed since my time at that hospital, and so most of the former soldiers who were there have probably passed on from this world. But I still remember their dark eyes and expressions, and their gallant appearance trying to sing military songs, leaving me with sadness and pain. War robs people of their lives and possessions, and messes up the lives of the people who survived. Let's not forget that. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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