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War testimony groups in Japan say only 5-10 years left to share firsthand memories

Gondai Kuroda is seen speaking about his war experiences at Tegara Elementary School in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, in this March 2022 file photo. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Abe)

Eight of the largest organizations in Japan involving in sharing wartime testimonies say their window for passing down firsthand accounts has narrowed to five to 10 years, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found ahead of the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II on Aug. 15.

    Such groups have found it increasingly difficult to pass on wartime memories due to the aging of individuals who have personally experienced the war. There have accordingly been efforts to hand over the reins to the younger generation, but the outlook remains unclear.

    The Mainichi Shimbun's survey targeted the largest testimony groups in Tokyo, Aichi, Osaka, Hyogo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, which each suffered over 10,000 civilian fatalities during the war in air raids and other attacks, according to the Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage, as well as Okinawa Prefecture, where some 94,000 residents were killed in the WWII ground battle. The eight groups, including two based in Tokyo, which are run by peace memorial museums and other parties, sent back replies in written documents.

    To a question asking how many more years members can continue sharing their firsthand experiences of war, one group in Tokyo and three others in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Okinawa answered, "10 more years." The remaining four groups in Tokyo, Aichi, Osaka, and Hyogo said "five more years."

    The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum said that as of June 10, the average age of the 32 atomic bombing survivors entrusted with activities to pass down war memories is 85, and concluded that 10 years could be considered "the end of a chapter." Meanwhile, the "Group to record the Kobe air raids" responded, "The members of the generation that can share their experiences as children or even what they've heard from their parents are in their 80s and 90s. We are thinking this will last a few more years."

    Six of the eight groups said they have prospects of passing on the reins of their activities to children and grandchildren of those who experienced the war firsthand. However, most of the groups are based on non-governmental efforts -- with the exception of those in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose municipal governments recruit speakers to share war testimonies from among younger generations. Such privately run groups struggle with finding new members to manage them. The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage stated it was "currently in the stage of establishing a plan to pass down war experiences," though the outlook is unclear. Osaka International Peace Center answered that it was uncertain about the future of its activities.

    Efforts to uncover new storytellers have been actively carried out in the seven prefectures that suffered great damage during the war. Nonetheless, if they are left with a period of only five to 10 years, this means small cities with grassroots groups are likely facing an even tougher situation. Hirofumi Sueyoshi, a professor at Tezukayama University in the city of Nara, commented, "Future activities will likely become even more difficult in regional cities that have few people who can share war experiences to begin with. One option is to consider passing down war memories digitally, making it possible, for example, to read entries and watch videos of people sharing their experiences online."

    (Japanese original by Keiko Yamaguchi and Ken Nakazato, Kyushu News Department)

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